Four years in the making, Tulpan is Kazakh documentary filmmaker Sergei Dvortsevoy’s first fiction feature. The in-the-moment stylistic approach of his nonfiction work remains intact in this film, which gives an astoundingly singular view of rural life in Kazakhstan (especially surprising considering the extent of other nations involved with its production). Tulpan is a unique filmgoing experience, dropping the spectator into a thoroughly envisioned small world which is balanced between the impossible scope of the barren setting and the remarkable intimacy that the camera and narrative allow the audience to have with the film’s fascinating characters, human and animal alike.
Tulpan is the story of Asa (Askat Kuchinchirekov), returned from the Navy to work with his brother-in-law and help his family take care of a herd of sheep in the desolate Betpak Dala desert steppe. And when I say “desolate,” it is in the most extreme sense of the word, as even water must be brought by truck to the family from a distant village. Asa is being set up by his brother-and-law with what may be the only other family within dozens of miles, a family Asa continually attempts to impress in order to gain the affection of their daughter Tulpan (Kazakh for “tulip”). His efforts, however, rarely make headway as Tulpan is turned off by Asa’s big ears. Asa is also not a gifted rancher, which causes many-an-argument between him and his brother-in-law, and he routinely contemplates a switch to city life.
Dvortsevoy keeps the narrative isolated within the dearth of the Betpak Dala, never allowing us to see the outside world of Asa’s dreams. But with this restraint, Dvortsevoy gives us a cinematic experience that likely has no equivalent in any other film. The very patient, years-long shooting that Tulpan required allowed for some incredible sights and sounds that could not created by conventional fiction filmmaking means, such as the meditative noise of an impending desert cyclone or the sight of the family’s dog relaxing while an electric storm, adorned with purple clouds, approaches in the background.
The film’s most astounding and most talked-about moments are the two scenes in which we witness live sheep being born. Both scenes (especially the second) are simultaneously disturbing and staggeringly beautiful. They epitomize the experience of seeing Tulpan in full: initially discomfiting and strikingly unusual, but ultimately extraordinary and unpretentiously real.
Dvortsevoy’s use of animals is remarkable, enabling their interaction with human life to give them a personality all their own. The writer-director allows Polish cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska’s camera to encompass most scenes in full, with minimal interference by cutting. Yet this comes off not as an attempt at static stylistic minimalism—the camera instead moves freely through each scene, darting back and forth and moving (not zooming) inward and outward to give focus to or detract focus from certain details. This choice allows for full immersion into Dvortsevoy’s authentic yet singular world, forcing the camera to move about as if we were observing everything in the moment with these characters. The close-up on the first sheep giving birth is a particularly shocking moment (as opposed to closing in on the human character assisting in the birth), as it gives humanity and empathy to a filmic character that would in any other movie be treated as a generic non-human entity within the frame. You may find yourself, as I was, surprised to hear car horns and see cell phones when you leave the theater.
Dvortsevoy said during the press conference following my screening that Kazakh government leaders hated Tulpan, saying it was “worse than Borat” because it painted Kazakhs as an agrarian people still living decades behind modern Western culture. And while there are certain moments that may play to the impressions made from Sacha Baron Cohen’s deliberately misleading stereotyping (Asa at one point tries to impress Tulpan by telling her his dream of one day owning a television), Dvortsevoy never treats his characters as inferior in any way to other choices of lifestyle. We admire the characters of this film for living a life many of us are not strong enough to bear, and for supporting their family and community no matter the hardships, confronting the trails of every day without complaint.
Dvortsevoy’s Kazakh critics would probably have preferred their nation to be represented to the West by Chouga, the other Kazakh co-production at this year’s New York Film Festival, for it takes place solely in metropolitan Kazakstan. Indeed, Tulpan and Chouga could possibly be read as two sides of the same coin, or two equally applicable takes on the many characteristics of a large country. But Tulpan is undeniably the superior film, one of the best films at NYFF, and, overall, a unique cinematic experience unapproached and unparalleled by any other.
© 2008 Landon Palmer. All rights reserved.
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