Sergei Dvortsevoi: Tulpan (Tiul'pan, 2008)

reviewed by Peter Hames© 2008

Tulpan begins with the sounds of galloping animals and the barking of dogs. From the dust of the steppe, an isolated yurt and a stationary tractor appear. Sergei Dvortsevoi, whose first feature this is, is already an accomplished documentary director and it is this that provides his film with much of its force. Born in Kazakhstan but living in Russia, he has spoken of his love of the steppe, and a deep attachment to the landscape and an isolated and traditional way of life resonates throughout the film.

The plotline is fairly simple. The hero, Asa (Askat Kuchinchirekov), has returned from service in the Russian Pacific Fleet and goes to stay with his sister Samal (Samal Esliamova) and her family, who make a living herding sheep on the Betpak Dala—the “Hunger Steppe” of southern Kazakhstan. He plans to find a bride and adopt a similar way of life. Together with his brother-in-law Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov), he visits another family with an eligible daughter, Tulpan (“Tulip”)—“a rare name,” he comments. They are granted an audience with her impassive parents, who seem immune to their dowry offer of ten sheep and a chandelier. Tulpan remains hidden behind a curtain and no one seems impressed by his tall tales of the sea—of seahorses, sharks, an octopus, and sailfish.

We discover that it is the unseen Tulpan who has rejected him—because he has big ears—and a second visit proves to be equally ineffective. Armed with a picture of Prince Charles and Diana, they point out that even important people like princes (“like our President”) can have big ears. We catch a glimpse of Tulpan's figure as she flees. Her father points out that they cannot force her to marry someone she doesn't like and the mother refuses to pursue the absent Tulpan, rejecting her husband's authority. In a particularly witty scene, the parents change spectacles to read about Charles and Diana, asking if he is an African prince. No, he is American, comes the reply. Asa follows Tulpan to an outside shed, where he tries to persuade her that life in the city is also hard, and shows her the dream that he has drawn on the inside of the collar of his sailor's uniform. Here, we see images of the steppe, of a yurt and camel— but Tulpan's head is turned away (we never see her face) and we never know if she also sees it.

Alongside Asa's courting of Tulpan, there is a more “documentary” theme, as increasing numbers of lambs are found to be born dead. Eventually a vet diagnoses the problem—the sheep are not ill, it is a shortage of adequate pasture and the family must move on. This hard reality seems to be far from Asa's dream. We learn that there are only three families on the steppe, and the “boss” demands that Asa have a wife before he can be given his own flock, since the practicalities of life will make it impossible survive without.

Eventually, in time-honored fashion, Asa proves himself worthy of his own flock and of Tulpan. He discovers a sheep in labour, single-handedly delivering the lamb and giving it the kiss of life. However, reality is not so simple. On his third visit to Tulpan, he pays her compliments through a closed door only to discover that she has left for the city.

The film's characters are nicely observed—the naïve and hopeful Asa, the attractive and sympathetic Samal, and the apparently phlegmatic Ondas. A key figure is that of Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov), the itinerant tractor driver, whose petrol-driven contraption provides an essential delivery service to the isolated families, bringing food and goods from the town, and even on occasion, transporting animals. He continually plays Boney M's Rivers of Babylon and pastes new images of large-breasted women to the inside of his cab. Eventually, he reveals that he has found the girl of his dreams. An essential comic ingredient, one feels that he may not be an entirely fanciful invention.

Life within the family is understated but nicely observed. Ondas wants Asa to leave and constantly orders him around while the little boy, Nuka, rides his wooden horse, dreaming of going to Almaty. The older boy regularly listens to Kazakh radio so that he can provide verbatim reconstructions for his absent father. The daughter's evocative and attractive (if loud) singing is banished from the yurt. Squeezing father's “blackheads” is a competitive honor for brother and sister, while table etiquette is strictly enforced.

Dvortsevoi's remarkable documentaries—which include Paradise (Schast'e, 1996), Khlebnyi den' (Bread Day, 1998), Highway (Trassa, 1999), and In the Dark (V temnote, 2004)—have already won him a significant reputation. Paradise and Highway were both shot in Kazakhstan; the first is the story of a nomad shepherd, the second of a family circus, and both are clearly antecedents of Tulpan. Unrepeatable images of the steppe dominate Tulpan—the lightning flashes with a dog sitting in the foreground, the sunset accompanied by the daughter's song, the dust devils that twice pass by the yurt. They echo the image on Asa's collar, which is again repeated at the end of the film when he leaves and looks back from the departing tractor. He returns.

In this landscape, humans suffer along with their animals—sheep, camels, chickens, a dog, a donkey, a tortoise—and there is rarely an image that doesn't also include animals. Indeed, Asa's first scene of courtship is accompanied by the ironic barks of a camel from outside the yurt. The film uses no music other than the girl's song, the mother's lullaby, the occasional theme from Kazakh radio, and Boni's recording of Boney M, preferring the sounds of everyday life, of animals, and of the steppe. The film only lightly touches the subject of steppe vs. city but Boni's magazines—with their house and car advertisements, Charles and Diana, and naked women provide contrasting images of consumer delight. In one scene, the pages are lowered to reveal the steppe behind them.

A German/Swiss/Russian/Kazakh/Polish co-production, the screenplay was the result of a collaboration between Dvortsevoi and Russian screenwriter, Gennadii Ostrovskii, whose previous credits include Pawel Pawlikowski's The Stringer (1998), and Valerii Todorovskii's The Lover (Liubovnik, 2002) and My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Moi svodnyi brat Frankenshtein, 2004). Yet the story could have been directed to produce emphases more conventionally exotic, comic, and dramatic.

Polish cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska is also an experienced documentarist (as photographer and director) and this year also directed the remarkable Po-Lin, based on a compilation of amateur footage of Polish shtetls in the 1930s. In Tulpan, she and Dvortsevoi use extended takes, often combining landscape, multiple dramatic exchanges, close-ups, and establishing images in a single take. Amongst these the delivery of the lamb, at around ten minutes, is the most notable.

Dvortsevoi comments that the team constantly modified the script to take account of the unexpected—the dust swirls, the birth of the lamb, the injured baby camel on the vet's sidecar and its attendant mother. The three-year shoot (2004-2007) on such a simple story may have taken its producers by surprise, but the whole is a triumphant testament to Dvortsevoi's credo “observe and everything will happen.”

Peter Hames
Staffordshire University

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Tulpan, Germany/Switzerland/Russia/Kazakhstan/Poland, 2008
Color, 100 mins.
Director: Sergei Dvortsevoi
Screenplay: Sergei Dvortsevoi, Gennadii Ostrovskii
Cinematography: Jolanta Dylewska
Cast: Askat Kuchinchirekov, Tulepbergen Baisakalov, Samal Esliamova, Ondasyn Besikbasov.
Producers: Karl Baumgartner, Valerie Fischer, Gulnara Sarsenova, Bulat Galimgerov, Sergei Melkumov, Elena Yatsura, Sergei Selianov, Henryk Romanovski, Karassis Karathanos, Raimond Goebel.
Production: Pandora Film, Cobra Film, Eurasia Film, KazExport Cinema, Film Company Slovo, CTB Film Company, Film Contract, Pallas Film.

Sergei Dvortsevoi: Tulpan (Tiul'pan, 2008)

reviewed by Peter Hames© 2008

Updated: 15 Oct 08