PRINT April 2009



Sergey Dvortsevoy, Tulpan, 2008, color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Production still. Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov).

SET IN THE UNFORGIVING region of Kazakhstan known as the Hunger Steppe, Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan (which opens April 1 at Film Forum in New York) has just about everything anyone could want in a movie: wild swings of mood and weather, generational and cultural clashes, epic vistas of land and sky, fragile connections among humans and animals, the struggle for survival in a harsh environment, and the yearning of a young man for autonomy and a piece of the land of his birth. In a film packed with emotion, there is not a trace of sentimentality, perhaps because Dvortsevoy is a superb dialectician with a sense of humor that is both absurdist and tender.

Witness the scene in which a veterinarian pays a visit to a worried sheep farmer, whose first lambs of the season have been stillborn. Arriving on a motorbike with an ailing baby camel stashed in the sidecar, the vet enlists his client’s help in fending off the mother camel, who has galloped for miles alongside her offspring, seizing every opportunity to bite its kidnapper on vulnerable parts of his anatomy. While there is something inherently funny about a camel riding on a motorcycle, its neck bandaged in white gauze, Dvortsevoy amplifies the humor of the situation by staging part of the sequence with the vet in the extreme foreground, casting paranoid glances over his shoulder toward the intractable mom, who, bleating and bellowing her displeasure, paces back and forth, waiting to make her move.

Punctuated by stunning tableaux of the windswept plains and primal images of domestic animals (a thundering herd of sheep enveloped by a dust storm; a white puppy, alone on a vast stretch of flat, empty scrubland, savoring the remains of a dead lamb), Dvortsevoy’s episodic narrative focuses on Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), a gentle, sweet-faced former sailor who lives with his sister’s family while he tries to convince the “boss” of the region to give him a herd of his own. No wife, no herd, mandates the boss, so Asa pays a visit to the family of the only available woman in the sparsely populated area. Her name is Tulpan, which means “tulip” in Russian, and although Asa gets no more than a glimpse of the back of her head, he falls madly in love. What’s in a name? In this case, everything. Asa dedicates himself to the sign of his beloved as a medieval knight to the token of his lady. He draws a tulip on the underside of the collar of his sailor’s uniform and, after the elusive Tulpan refuses his marriage proposal for a second time, traces the distinctive outline of the flower in the sand, then quickly obliterates it with his foot. Among the many glories of Tulpan is the way metaphors seem to emerge from the rough-hewn materiality of the characters’ daily lives rather than being imposed by the filmmaker on the narrative in general. I suspect, however, that Dvortsevoy must have been aware that Tulpan is also the name of a Russian 240-mm mortar, the world’s heaviest.

In this unlikely crowd-pleaser (Tulpan won the grand prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section last year), the most riveting sequence is also the most elemental. Tired of being browbeaten by his crude, ill-tempered brother-in-law, Asa sets off on his own across the unending steppe, where he encounters a sheep about to give birth. The camera moves in close as Asa wrestles and massages the laboring ewe, slowly tugging the lamb from its mother’s womb. He quickly cleans the dust from the mucus-covered newborn’s nostrils, breathes life into its mouth, and places the lamb at the ewe’s teat. Depicted in a single, unedited, nearly eight-minute handheld take, the birth is a thrilling fusion of documentary and fiction. The elation one feels has as much to do with Asa—the fictional character—proving himself as a shepherd as with the real-life birth we’ve witnessed.

Internationally renowned for three “observational” documentaries, Bread Day (1998), Highway (1999), and In the Dark (2004), Dvortsevoy turned to fiction filmmaking with Tulpan, he has explained, for ethical reasons. Increasingly troubled by the conundrum that has plagued documentarians ever since Nanook of the North—simply put, the crises that afflict the documentary’s human subjects are good for the filmmaker because crisis is drama—he chose instead to employ professional actors to play characters in a fictional story. Nevertheless, his approach to making Tulpan differs very little from his method for shooting documentaries. The film is shot handheld on 35 mm. The takes are long and involve mind-boggling alignments of landscape, weather conditions, animals, and humans. Tulpan took forty weeks to shoot and four years to complete. The editing—particularly the sound editing—is as expressive and rich with meaning as the unbroken moving images. The image and sound of a child pissing in a pot inches away from two men who are locked in an unspoken power struggle has unexpected resonance; so, too, do the strains of the reggae song “Rivers of Babylon” as they blare from the speakers of an old tractor converted into a peddler’s truck, mixing with the sounds of the motor and the wind while Asa and a friend drive across the steppe. Boni, sex-obsessed, desperately wants to move to the city. Asa, looking out at the immense, nearly barren plain, shouts to be heard over the din of the engine: “Look around, Boni. What beauty!”

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.