A small mob of camels stampede by a nomad’s tent. Inside, a young guy in a sailor suit sits on the rug, cheerfully recounting his death struggle with an octopus to the impassive middle-aged couple he’s hoping will be his in-laws. Miscellaneous brays punctuate Asa’s story, which is interrupted by a cutaway to a local funkster piloting his jalopy across the steppe, rocking out to “Rivers of Babylon.” Tulpan, the first feature by Russian ethno-documentarian Sergei Dvortsevoy, winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes, is a fiction founded on a powerful sense of place—and that place, namely the vast nowhere void of southern Kazakhstan, could easily be another planet. Dvortsevoy has populated the inhospitable terrain of the so-called Hunger Steppe with actors who lived as nomadic sheepherders during the course of the shoot. Thus, the performers settled into a yurt with a bunch of rambunctious kids and a gaggle of domestic animals. As fluid as Tulpan seems, it’s painstakingly constructed out of a series of observed moments, staged interactions, and precisely dubbed sounds. Everything makes noise—camels snort, sheep bleat, people declaim, machines sputter—without any particular hierarchy. Life’s defining attribute, as portrayed in Tulpan, is what American Westerners might call cussedness. And if there’s anyone more stubborn than Dvortsevoy’s characters it’s the filmmaker himself—camping out on the steppe, waiting months for the precise weather conditions to shoot a particular scene. In every respect, this unclassifiable movie is an amazing accomplishment.
May 8-14, 2009

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