Tulpan (Zeitgeist Films, NR)

film_tulpan_sm.jpgTulpan is an episodic film, the opposite of the traditional Hollywood product.

 

 

 

If the only connection you can draw between Kazakhstan and film involves Sacha Baron Cohen, it’s time to get out and see some of the real thing. If you somehow missed Mongol (a finalist for the foreign language Oscar in 2008) and Khadak (nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007), you have another chance with Tulpan, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2008.

Tulpan is a throwback to the fictionalized documentary popularized by Robert Flaherty in the 1920s and 1930s; the film is basically a series of largely improvised scenes structured very loosely around a story. The actors are non-professionals, all sound is diegetic, everything is filmed with a handheld camera, and the landscape is as much a character in the film as any of the human beings.

The story involves the attempts of Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), newly returned from a stint in the Russian navy, to set himself up as a sheepherder in his old neighborhood, in this case the aptly named Hungry Steppes. But first he must acquire a wife, and there seems to be only one marriageable woman for miles around: Tulpan, whom we see only briefly and from the back. Unfortunately, she’s unimpressed with Asa. She says his ears are too big, but in truth she wants to move to the big city and becoming a herder’s wife doesn’t mesh with those plans.

Meanwhile, Asa lives with his sister’s family in their yurt; three adults and three kids in so confined a space makes for lots of domestic tension. It doesn’t help that an epidemic is killing the family’s sheep, nor that Asa seems completely hopeless when it comes to managing a flock. Meanwhile, Asa is encouraged in his courtship by his best friend (Tylepbergen Baisakalov), who also harbors dreams of moving to the city and in the meantime papers his truck with pinup photos and endlessly blasts a tape of "Rivers of Babylon."

Tulpan is an episodic film, the opposite of the traditional Hollywood product which features a simple tale centering around familiar and well-defined characters. Instead, director Sergey Dvortsevoy (a noted documentarian and native of Kazakhstan) gradually builds up a picture of the lives of the herders (and, like Flaherty, also documents customs which are fast disappearing). Ultimately the questions of whether Asa will ever get his bride or his herd are subsumed, like all human desires, into the seemingly limitless landscape of the Kazakh plains.

In case you were wondering, the current spate of films from Kazakhstan is not unprecedented. The Kazakh film industry has roots reaching back to the 1920s, and received a huge boost during World War II when the two main Soviet studios, Mosfilm and Lenfilm, were evacuated to Almaty for safekeeping. You may have heard of a little film called Ivan the Terrible by Sergei Eisenstein; it was shot in Kazakhstan. Given the current boom in films set on the broad and dusty Asian plains (Tuya’s Marriage and Absurdistan come immediately to mind), we can hope to see more Kazakh films in broad release in the future. | Sarah Boslaugh

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