13 October, 2008
by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
Despite its simple story and subtle cinematic form, I cannot get the images of the film Tulpan out of my head. Perhaps because the film takes one to a truly exotic location (the vast emptiness of the Hunger Steppe plain in southern Kazakhstan) and brings you up-close-and-personal with the toughened people who inhabit that truly forlorn environment, that it has made an impression that is light years away from a National Geographic special (although its visuals are comparably beautiful). The film made its U.S. Premiere at the New York Film Festival this past week.
Celebrated Kazakh documentarian Sergey Dvortsevoy won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival for this, his first dramatic feature — an astonishing ethnographic drama-cum-wildlife movie. The story circles around a young nomad named Asa who, upon completion of his military service, returns home to his brother-in-law’s yurt with hopes of becoming a shepherd. He also wants to find a wife, any wife, but the pickings are slim on the steppe. So, he must find a way to win the affection of his beautiful neighbor Tulpan, a young woman he has never even seen.
The film brings its natural environment to vivid life. There are long scenes of dust storms, tornados and lighting storms….a natural parallel to the longings and emotional upheaval of its protagonists. In this sense, Dvortsevoy is an heir to that pioneering faux-documentarian Robert Flaherty, who also mixed strict documentary stylings with staged scenes to increase the dramatic effect.
In the film’s most remarkable scene, Asa helps a sheep give birth, then gives the newborn mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. This comes after his beloved Tulpan has left the scene, with either a different marriage prospect or the possibility of a new life in a different part of the world. That Asa finds his own place in his unkind universe by understanding that his future is linked to his past and that being a shepherd with a regard for all life is about the highest aspiration he can imagine. That, in the end, may be the most exotic element of this beautiful and touching film.
The film is a co-production of Pandora Films (France) and Pallas Films (Germany), with international sales activity by the Match Factory (Germany).