13 March, 2009

Tulpan (2008)

Fond of life

As I write this, Alexander Borodin's In The Steppes of Central Asia is playing in the background. This is not quite the soundtrack of Tulpan, Sergei Dvortsevoy's latest film from his native Kazakhstan (though he now lives in Moscow). He is an ethnic Russian, a minority that represents 30% of the Kazakh population and whose language is still the most widely spoken. No, Borodin's majestic orchestral portrait might be a touch out of place in this film where the most memorable tunes are some Kazakh pastoral folk songs and Boney M.'s By The Rivers of Babylon. I defy you to leave the cinema without that great reggae beat reverberating in your brain. When you see Tulpan, you'll appreciate just how incongruous and yet strangely appropriate that track is in the trackless Steppes.

Maybe that's the best frame of mind in which to approach this film: there is understated humor, little dialogue, and vistas that are more desolate than majestic. Other recent films that portray nomadic life (Tuya's Marriage (2006) and Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005) come to mind) show a rather more romantic and richly pastoral view of the Steppes. Here, it's mainly dust, and the sheep need to get to greener pastures - or else.

But the main preoccupation is getting the lead character Asa hooked up with Tulpan, the mysterious maid in the neighboring yurt. 'Cherchez la femme,' as they might say in Kazakhstan - and they do (I have that on highest authority from the family Kazakh expert, my son, who spent several months there and was intrigued to hear a stream of Russian or Kazakh interspersed with French expressions such as 'cherchez la femme').

The original sense of 'chercher femme' is to get married, and Asa's Kazakh dream - wife, yurt, camel, sheep - is sketched out on the collar flap of his Russian naval uniform. Though we're ostensibly in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, the ties between the new republic and Mother Russia obviously go beyond use of the lingua franca. Asa has just been demobbed, and try as he might, his stories of maritime adventure don't seem to impress Tulpan and her parents.

Director Sergei Dvortsevoy has a solid record of achievement in the world of documentary film making, though this is his first feature film. His documentarian experience shows in the detail of nomadic life, and there are little inside jokes on his past as a radio/aviation engineer - the nomad kid who is always glued to his transistor radio, and relays the news that he has memorized to his family.

Dvortsevoy was interviewed in a Russian journal a few years ago on his philosophy of film making, before his breakout from documentary films, here translated for the Institute of Documentary Film (IDF): "I always try to find some poetry in everyday life, something metaphysical. When I observe some social phenomenon and contemplate it, I find a deeper thought, an image... All you have to do is find a way of rendering it. You need to observe it carefully. I like to watch, to observe life. And that is the essential root. If you love life, you will see a lot, you just need to care for it. The trouble is that most people simply don’t like reality. They find it sordid, uninteresting, and so they run away from it. They’re afraid of it. On the contrary, I like reality, I love it. I’m just fond of life."

If you too are fond of life, check out Tulpan. And be ready for Boney M. in the Steppes of Central Asia.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus
100 mins. In Kazakh and Russian.

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