Sunday, October 24, 2010


Four, very patient years in the making, Tulpan is Kazakh documentary filmmaker Sergei Dvortsevoy's first fiction feature. The in-the-moment stylistic approach of his previous work here presents an astoundingly singular view of rural life in Kazakhstan. Tulpan is a unique experience, dropping us into a thoroughly envisioned small world which is balanced between the impossible scope of the harsh, barren setting and the remarkable intimacy that the camera and narrative allow us to have with the film's fascinating characters, human and animal alike. Dvortsevoy patiently portrays this environment and sensitively mines its protagonists' inner lives, commanding our attention and sympathy. By film’s end, we feel that we have lived with these characters for a long time, and that the demands and aspirations of their lives are not so very far from our own.

Tulpan tells the story of Asa, a young sailor returning from a stint with the Russian Navy, whose only wish is to find a wife and live the simple life of a herdsman on the desolate (in the most extreme sense of the word) Betpak Dala desert steppe. Asa is being set up by his brother-in-law, Ondas, with the only other family within miles. Asa continually attempts to impress the family in order to gain their daughter Tulpan’s affection; he boastfully spins tales of courage in the face of exotic sea creatures and offers the family a laughable dowry and a tacky plastic chandelier. Asa’s efforts are stymied by her parents, who find him unsuitable, and by Tulpan, who is turned off by his big ears. Asa is also not an experienced herdsman, which causes conflict between him and Ondas, who treats him little better than his children. What follows sees Asa furthering his quest for love and balancing the harsh demands of the steppe with those of his dreams, while routinely contemplating moving to the city.

Unlike most ethnographic cinema, Tulpan devises a formal strategy that makes the film about aesthetic concerns in addition to its sociological ones. Dvortsevoy's tendency to let the camera roll with the hopes of capturing some unexpected sliver of reality pays off on many occasions. His cinema vérité approach frequently yields un-choreographed scenes that unfold as uninterrupted takes; a quality that only adds to the impression that we’re  getting an unfiltered glimpse at a foreign culture and an immediate and vivid picture of the unforgiving life of nomadic shepherds on the steppe. Dvortsevoy’s camera captures the human comedy intrinsic in the characters' defiance of their fates, finding quotidian grace in the simple act of survival and natural community.

Although Tulpan portrays an unfamiliar world, Dvortsevoy taps into the universality of his story by imbuing it with gentle humor and populating the narrative with distinctive, memorable characters, from Asa’s breast-obssessed best friend, to the steppe veterinarian who hauls a bandaged baby camel in a motorcycle ambulance while being followed everywhere by the camel’s mother. A fantastic 10-minute set piece in which a baby lamb is born, nearly dies, and is revived-is one of the great cinematic moments of recent years, capturing life at its most vital.  Despite a seeming lack of artifice, Dvortsevoy skillfully shapes this material and as Tulpan unfolds, it reveals itself to be both more controlled and more structured than it does at first glance.

Tulpan’s incredible sights and sounds could not have been created by conventional fiction filmmaking means. Cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska's camera encompasses most scenes in full, with minimal interference by cutting. This is not an attempt at static stylistic minimalism-the camera instead moves freely through each scene, darting back and forth and moving inward and outward to give focus to or detract focus from certain details. This choice allows for full immersion into Tulpan's authentic yet singular world, forcing the camera to move about as if we were observing everything in the moment with these characters.

Tulpan has plenty of spectacular sequences—either the product of masterful blocking and animal-wrangling or of miraculous serendipity—but mostly it's a small story about family and of bending your dreams to fit with what you actually have. We admire these characters for living a life most of us are not strong enough to bear, and for supporting their family and community no matter the hardships, confronting their daily tribulations without complaint. {Tulpan} shows us an area seldom seen on movie screens, and because it manages to remain entertaining and, in many instances, thrilling, it stands as a noteworthy achievement and a unique cinematic experience that has no equivalent in any other film.

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