There’s this image in Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan that lingers in your mind long after seeing it, perhaps because it sort of sums up the particular blend of utter strangeness and delight that this film invokes so eloquently. Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov) is moving along the vast flatness of some Kazakh steppe with his buddy Boni, who drives this souped-up tractor pasted over with tittie pics, blasting Boney M’s rendition of ‘Rivers of Babylon’ through the stereo on endless repeat. Asa dangles his slight frame off the edge of the vehicle as though he’s a sail catching the wind, doing so with a capacity for joy and optimism that silently defies whatever glum presumptions you might have of the two worlds he’s moving between, one being that of a low ranking officer in the Russian navy, the other that of a nomadic shepherd trying to support a family in this hardscrabble wilderness that might as be the fucking moon to most of us, so wildly desolate is the landscape, so remote from modern comforts.
Though straddling two worlds and probably not fitting in very well with either, Asa’s young and optimistic. He wants to get married and start a family and have some sheep and a settlement of his own, through he dreams not of a traditional yurt like his sister and her husband and their three kids inhabit, but some sort of big, Western-style spread with electricity, running water, and satellite TV. He is above all a dreamer, which doesn’t help much when there’s sheep to be herded and children to be clothed and fed. But the world around him is changing, a lifestyle is vanishing, and maybe some sort of special human fortitude along with it, so maybe a dreamer is just what’s needed to make the transition. He gets a hard time from his gruff brother-in-law Ondas, who doesn’t believe Asa has what it takes to build the sort of life Ondas has so tirelessly forged. And he gets little sympathy from the family of Tulpan, the “neighbour” girl whose hand he comes asking for in marriage. It makes for one of the funniest scenes in the film, Asa trying to impress Tulpan’s parents with his sailor suit and his terrifying and no doubt very tall tales of survival amidst the deep-sea food chain. “God, is she beautiful!” Asa raves at one point about Tulpan. But for all his efforts he’s never even been granted a peek of the girl he so wants to make his. Again, it’s all a dream.
Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Tulpan is some kind of wonder. A bit like Atanarjuat, it offers an unusual combination of elements, a narrative that roughly adheres to a genre convention or two, a startling and rigorous ethnographic study, and a distinctive cinematic approach to characters that for the most part have likely never stepped inside a cinema in their lives. The results no doubt have a lot to do with the depth of Dvortsevoy’s investment into the people and place before his camera. He was born in Kazakhstan, and lived there for 28 years while working for an aviation company and developing his chops as a documentary filmmaker. He spent months casting the nonprofessional actors and then brought them out to live in a yurt for a month before production began. He’s said that only about 20% of the film was fully planned out, while the other 80% was prompted to some degree by the environment and its wildlife, which is found to be bursting with personality. When you see the film, you’ll understand just how attuned to its environment Tulpan really is. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Dvortsevoy’s camera captures miracles. Messy miracles.
Of course, there are miracles and there are miracles. Kuchencherekov’s performance is itself something that verges on the transcendent, not only when he’s under extreme duress, but also when he’s just trying to drum up some good faith. Asa seems endearingly innocent to his lack of conventional handsomeness, and there’s a terrific scene in which he displays a picture of Prince Charles as evidence that guys with jug ears can be glamorous, too. It’s another sparkling moment of dry comedy, but there’s something more to it, something that testifies to the breadth of what movies can do, taking us to the loneliest places on the world, patiently waiting to find some vision to film there that’s pulled straight out of the uniqueness of that place, and still in the end coming up with something that has genuine old fashioned movie charisma.