by Mark Haslam
Camel hooves, a cloud of dust, and a modest yurt on Kazakhstan's vast, desolate Hunger Steppe. Inside the yurt, Asa is describing the terrible sea creatures he probably didn't see during a spell in the Russian Army. To one side of him is his goofy, fidgety friend, nodding along to every word, laughing with his gold teeth; to the other side and rather stern is his brother-in-law, a sheep herder in whose home Asa's crashing. He is speaking to the parents of a young girl, Tulpan, that he desperately wants to marry. The listeners either aren't impressed, or don't have much time for emotion. Tulpan, whose eye flashes briefly from behind a curtain (this is about as much as we and Asa will see of her), is also unimpressed. To Asa, the rejection means more than lost love: his dream of a yurt and a herd and a family of his own, a dream drawn on the underside of his collar, depends on his having a wife. This is the only way he'll be given a herd. This is the only way to pursue his aspirations.
Tulpan is the document of Asa's pursuit. It seems fitting to call it a document, because director Sergey Dvortsevoy focuses just as readily on the land and space around as on character and drama. (Dvortsevoy has made several documentaries, all of which I now want to see.) It is, after all, the land that houses Asa's dreams and frustrations. Dirt kicked up clouds the camera, and we see nothing beyond, are forced into the foreground and into the present. Or, gazing off into the distance, we see everything, which, here, is nothing. And yet, through Asa's eyes, the vastness, the emptiness of the steppe becomes exceedingly beautiful. I couldn't help but dream, while watching the film and even a little now, about a perfect life on the Hunger Steppe....
So much of what makes this life appealing is the animals. Not only are they charming as hell, snorting and snarling and rambling about, but they introduce a level of spontaneity that allows Dvortsevoy's style to flourish, enhancing the sense of documentation that powers the film. In my books, the long sequence of a ewe giving birth on its own makes Tulpan worth seeing.
I saw it last night at the Kabuki. It plays there again on Thursday. Tomorrow, watch out for Heddy Honigmann's Oblivion, which is playing for the last time. I will be there, and I think I might camp out to see Wild Field and Rembrandt's J'accuse later in the day. It's gonna be a long one!
[A note: In case you miss it at SFIFF52, Tulpan will begin playing in the Bay Area May 8th as you can see here at the Zeitgeist Films website.]