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:: Tulpan

In the opening scene of Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan, Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov), recently returned from a stint in the Russian Navy, describes the wonders of the seas to his potential in-laws. He is particularly enthusiastic about seahorses and squids. Unfortunately, as the camera pans out to reveal the setting, we learn that the wizened old couple is profoundly and resolutely unimpressed. We also see that the yurt in which the characters sit is about as far removed from the oceans blue as you could get!

This opening scene serves to deftly introduce us to the outsider status of poor Asa who wants nothing more than to be able to shepherd his own flock of sheep on the unforgiving Kazakh steppes. In order to do this, he must secure a wife. The only eligible bachelorette, the Tulpan of the title, lives many kilometres from the yurt he shares with his loving sister, surly brother-in-law and lively nephews and niece. Unfortunately, Tulpan refuses to communicate directly with Asa, and is apparently disinterested in him because of his big ears!

Reminiscent of Byambasuren Davaas’ The Story of the Weeping Camel, which also depicted domestic life in a yurt, Tulpan has the feeling of an ethnographic documentary. However, it is in fact a scripted narrative, albeit one that grew rather organically from the circumstances of filming in such a vast, desolate and unpredictable environment. Apparently, the cast members were all city folk who had to adjust to the austere lifestyle of nomadic herdsmen. This is particularly evident in the ten minute, unbroken scene where the hapless Asa delivers a real life lamb in real time. The shock and wonderment on the actor’s face is completely genuine!

The family interactions within the yurt are especially fascinating, and give a foreign audience a real insight into these people’s lives. The hand held camera work within the yurt can be frustrating, as we can’t always tell if the entire family is in the scene, but it is ultimately satisfying, as watching Asa’s niece and nephews gives us the voyeuristic feeling that it’s someone’s home video. The smallest boy cavorts around on his wooden horse; his big brother listens to the radio studiously every day in order to report the daily news to his father when he gets home, and their sister sings her little heart out as she goes about her chores. This is all too much for Dad, who just wants some peace and quiet after a hard day’s herding.

Although the laughs are few and far between in this film, where the mysterious death of newborn lambs has dire implications for the family’s livelihood, there are still quite a few very humorous scenes; like when Asa’s brother-in-law tries to convince Tulpan’s parents that “the American Prince Charles” has big ears too, and that didn’t stop him getting married or when a mother camel chases her baby for kilometres after a ciggie chewing vet puts it on the back of his tiny truck.

It may not be a masterpiece, but Tulpan’s gentle affirmation of the importance of family and its insight into life in a remote and rarely filmed land makes for a worthwhile cinematic experience.