Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tulpan: spring in the steppe

What does a young Kazakh man like Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov) do when he leaves the Russian navy? He looks for a bride and plans to settle down to a life of herding sheep on the Hungersteppe (Betpak Dala) of Kazakhstan. The only available bride is Tulpan who he sets out to woo. He resists his friend Boni’s attempts to get him to head for the cities.

Kazakh documentary maker Sergey Dvortsevoy has brought us the acclaimed feature film Tulpan. Its flat, dusty, dry plains are reminiscent of parts of outback Australia but are even more remote. The movie was shot 500 km from the nearest city Chimkent. It is harsh and unforgiving with powerful dust storms dominating the environment.

Most of the interior scenes take place in traditional tent houses called jurtes. The family is close in every sense of the word. Asa's sister Samal (Samal Esljamova) and Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov) and their three children share their home with him. Some of the most touching scenes involve singing within the intimacy of the family group.

The tiny domestic space is not the only cause of tension. Ondas is particularly tough on his brother-in-law Asa, perhaps because of the incredibly strong bonds between brother and sister.

Like the lives of the local people, the making of the film revolved around and evolved with the lives of the sheep. Dvortsevoy explains on the official website:
The crew spent two weeks just following sheep. In the third week, we tried several times on video to understand what camera movements should be used when the sheep is giving birth. Once the camera crew was technically ready, we waited for one of the thousands of sheep to give birth. The shepherd had a radio station and would call us as soon as one was ready.

When the scenes were shot, I understood that they are so unique and powerful that I had to adjust the rest of the film to those scenes rather than adjusting them to the script. From that on we opened the film to the experiences we made in everyday life and let them influence the story-building. In the end the film grew like a tree and many things were unpredictable.
The karakul sheep from Central Asia have been controversial:
[astrakhan] could refer to the fur of newborn Persian or karakul lambs or it could refer to broadtail fur taken from fetal lambs (or generally refer to both)—but whatever its exact definition, astrakhan boils down to one thing: early death for lambs, often even death for fetal lambs and their mothers.
Astrakhan: Hot "New" Fashion is the Same Old Cruelty
The birth scene is the most gripping moment of the story. The website has a full explanation.

One small criticism: the shaky hand-held camera work was sometimes unnecessarily distracting.

It's easy to see why Tulpan has been hot at the film festivals. Superlatives are hard to avoid: original, raw, authentic, genuine, funny, joyous, honest.

Dvortsevoy has restored respectability to the term reality. In fact it is hard not to think that this is a documentary at times. These people couldn't really be actors. It’s great to see the potential of the movie medium stretched in such powerful ways.


There is an Interview with Sergei Dvortsevoy, writer/director of Tulpan with Cinetology. He is visiting Australia.

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