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If you feel what you do, it's seen in your eyes, no need to act it out: The secret of silent film 'The Bra'


'The Bra', a silent film made waves in IFFI 2018. Veit Helmer, a German director, was in town to watch the response from Indian spectators. It's a simple tory of a train driver in Ajerbaijan. One day as this train driver is passing through a small town, a woman's bra gets caught in his train and he goes off to find the owner of the bra.

Rucha Prabhudesai spoke to Veit Helmer on his experimentation of a silent film. Excerpts:

How challenging was it to write a film without any dialogue?

The first film which I made 20 years ago called Tuvalu had no dialogues and I thought that was something close to what I want to do in filmmaking. After that I’ve made four films with dialogues and I was looking for a story that could be told without words.

When I saw that neighbourhood in Baku I immediately knew that I had found another story that could be told without words. You cannot tell every story without words. You need to find that story which can be told with images.

But still the screenwriting process is a very difficult one and sometimes it is hard to convey information without the actors saying the dialogue. And you don’t want the actors to make any gestures that are too strong like nodding Yes or No. I don’t want the audience to miss any of the dialogue, you can’t make just any movie without dialogue, but the problem is to make the story clear and make sure that the audience does not miss any of the dialogue. I think that is the hard part.

This movie has no dialogues so naturally expressions and actions are important, yet the actions and expressions were very subtle. How did you go about this?

I think the best actors in my movie didn't have to do anything. I myself realised that with every screening the movie is very new. Recently the film had its world premiere in Tokyo and I was very nervous. But now I can sit back and watch the movie from a distance. I understand that actors can talk with their eyes and the more they act, the worse it gets.

To give you an example of my movie, the widow does nothing. She has a plain dead face and it is amazing; because you understand her emotions, you understand that she is under great trauma, her husband died, she is lonely, she is looking for someone. She doesn’t need to make a lonely face expression. Everything is understood by the audience.

When actors start to make strange expressions it’s theatre and it’s not good. I like to tell my actors during shooting, “do less, do less.” and if they feel what they do, you see it in their eyes. I think if you have to give it a title, you can say this film is a poetic comedy but I wanted to make the comedy part as subtle as possible so the characters should still be credible, believable and vulnerable, not ridiculous.

What sparked the idea of using a bra?

Maybe for a man that piece of clothing is open for dreams, desires, it can act as an object of dreams. Even if it’s just a piece of clothing there is something forbidden about it, a man carrying a bra and asking women to put it on is somehow crossing a border, which is interesting for the movie. If it were to be a jacket or a shoe, it wouldn’t be interesting. For movies and drama it is great to have sensitive issues and the bra is somehow, even if it’s just a piece of clothing, in that constellation it is a very sensitive object. [sic.]

The characters you developed are really unique, especially that of the child. What inspired these characters? Are any of these characters inspired by people you came across?

Everything I do reflects my experiences, I can not say that certain characters are inspired by my friends or relatives. I create characters according to the story structure, I think of characters that can tell the story in the best way.

Over here we have a lonely train driver who I wanted to show is a very dutiful man, even after his work hours he would go back and return the stuff to the people that his train had picked up on the way. The interesting thing, I just noticed that there is something he has in common with the young boy who also just works as a waiter in the tea house. But whenever the signal light would change to green, he would run down the tracks for free just to warn the people that they are in danger, so I needed a vulnerable boy.

For the female characters it was interesting to have a wide variety of different characters, to make them each unique and special. There were some female financers who when I pitched the idea to, said: “Oh, a man goes and asks women to put on a bra. That’s a very conservative female role.” I told them that it was the opposite, these women are very strong and he is the one that is the victim. They all use him and every woman had a reason to wanting to wear the bra.

I don’t want to say that to write a screenplay is mathematic, but it’s also mathematic. You really have to create contrast. Contrast provokes conflict and conflict provokes drama, tension. And that’s how you can hopefully grab the audience, especially when you have no dialogue.

Which is the first character that developed in your mind?

The main character, the train driver and I needed to make sure that this character is a decent guy, not creepy. That was really a challenge, because how can a man knock at a woman’s door holding a bra and not be creepy. Because the summary of his action is super creepy. It all depended on what actor I would find.

At the bottom line I don’t believe that an actor plays a role, I believe that a good actor uses the variations of his own personality and I have known Mickey for 15 years, we already worked on one movie and I thought he’s the guy that can persuade women in a region such as Azerbaijan to open the door which is a no go.

One relationship you have really developed well is that of a retired man and a little kid, what made you highlight this particular relationship towards the end?

I needed a big surprise for end and I didn’t want the train driver to meet the owner. At the end I want the audience to understand why the train driver thinks that the owner of this bra can bring him happiness, that was a big challenge. That was still a problem during the editing so my editor had the idea of continuously showing the image of the women in the bra when he saw her through the window when passing by. But then I wanted him to find his happiness somewhere else. I don’t want to give away the end. But maybe he is not looking for a girlfriend or a wife, maybe he is looking for a family. And a family can be a father, a son, a mother and a child. It doesn’t always have to be a man and a woman.

Was the casting for this movie challenging?

Yes! Every casting is challenging. If it’s not challenging it would be boring. There was no easy step in this movie and that’s the interesting thing about me. If there were a films that were easy to make, I wouldn't be interested in making it. So it was hard to find actors that could play a role without dialogues because actors sometimes don’t feel comfortable with that, they want dialogues.

You don’t know before an audition whether an actor can fulfill this duty or not, some actors feel free, inspired and some actors have a block and there is nothing you can do about it. That is why you hold a casting, so you can see who fits in your project and who doesn’t.

The good thing about using no words is that you can cross the language boundaries, usually you are limited. In India you even have films with different languages which makes it hard for films to travel. This is a horrible reality for filmmakers like me who want their films to be shown everywhere. Besides being artistically challenged, not using dialogue it is also rewarding on a sales point of view, your movie can be shown anywhere without being dubbed or having to use subtitles.

How were the locations selected for this film?

Location was actually the main reason I made this movie. I had shot a movie 10 years ago in Azerbaijan called ‘Absurdistan’ and it was a really interesting experience to shoot in Azerbaijan. Because if you shoot a film in Germany where I am from, you have film crews erecting tripods on every second corner.

There are no visuals you can create which have not been shown in movies multiple times so that doesn’t interest me. I want to discover.. I like to be Christopher Columbus, going to new continents. Azerbaijan does not have a strong film industry but they have amazing locations like this neighbourhood.

When I saw this neighbourhood, I thought I have to make this movie and today that location is gone, there is no Shanghai anymore. The government demolished that location, 350 houses don’t exist anymore. So this movie could not have been shot there anymore.

I am a fiction filmmaker. But at the same there is a lot of documenting when you pick a location. Because locations are changing all the time. As my teacher said, you have to shoot fast because this stuff is disappearing. During the shoot we had to continuously check if our location was still there because they were supposed to demolish it when we started shooting.

Was your story inspired by Cinderella?

No, I don’t like my films to be called fairy tales. But now when I look back at the movie myself I realise this movie is Cinderella without shoes. Yes, this is the shortest pitch I could give to explain the movie, no shoes but a bra!

What is your opinion of IFFI and Goa?

I think this is a great festival but I was very disappointed when I came to know that most films don’t have a discussion after the screening which for me was shocking. Because that’s the reason why I was coming and why I go to festivals.

This is not a short trip, I had to change two flights and the whole journey was a long one. I had to apply for a visa as well. I am not here to go to the beach, I am here to understand what people think about the movie.

So before the screening of my movie I went on stage and asked if they would want a Q & A and yes, the people wanted a Q & A. I really emphasise that the festival should hold a Q & A after every screening where the director or filmmaker is present. This is also what a festival is about, the interaction between the audience and the filmmaker.

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Total Comments :1

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Very nice. Great piece of dialogue. The attempt to throw issues with silence is challenging.

Prabhakar Timble , Goa