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April 03, 2009

Philadelphia Film Festival 2009: Tulpan


Sergei Dvortsevoy - 2008
Zeitgeist Films 35mm film

I go through moments where I wonder about the value of what I'm writing as well as the value of the films I'm writing about. Without over-intellectualizing, I think that it's a given that for most people, film is primarily a way of reinforcing the familiar. Even for someone like myself who doesn't frequently write about current mainstream films, there is resistance to some films, filmmakers or films from certain parts of the world. I can count the number of films I've seen from Africa with one hand, and they were all made by Ousmane Sembene. More positively, seeing a film, any kind of film, from an unfamiliar country or culture can serve as a gateway to further exploration. The connections do not have to be direct, but a film might serve as an introduction to another language or culture, as well as generating further interest in a particular filmmaker or other filmmakers. At the very least, using a criteria favored by Roger Ebert, a film can sometimes show a place or kind of life that otherwise might remain unknown to the viewer.

After seeing Tulpan, Kazakhstan is now a little less of an abstraction, one of the countries vaguely known as a part of that large mass remembered as part of the Soviet Union. Disregarding any merits Tulpan has as a film, the images may serve as a splash of cold water on the faces of an audience that lives in western or westernized urban areas. Without being an anthropological study, Tulpan depicts lives and an environment that many might find difficult to imagine.

Asa, a former sailor, dreams of being a sheep herder in the Betpak-Dala area of Kazakhstan. An area substantially of desert and scrub plants, there are very few people, primarily families living in yurts miles apart from each other. Asa seeks out Tulpan, the only available young woman in the area, as his wife, in part as a means to enable him to maintain his own flock. The film follows Asa as he lives with his sister, brother-in-law and their family.

Tulpan casually observes Asa, the family he lives with, and the other people with whom he comes in contact. There are the nephews and niece, a small boy who rides his stick "horse", an older boy who recites the radio news to his father, and a girl who constantly loves to sing. Asa's friend acts as a courier, delivering food to the remotely located yurts from an unseen larger village, a comic presence who insists that the foldout portraits of large breasted models that decorate his truck are art. Asa's sister remains good-natured and optimistic, while her husband is more stern and pragmatic. The film is scripted although the performers are non-professionals. While Tulpan has incorrectly been described as a comedy, the humor is to be found in the situations, such as a mother camel insistently following a veterinarian, traveling on a dilapidated motorcycle, carting a bandaged camel, or a scene with a frustrated, despondent Asa, knocked down in a small barn, his face licked by a friendly, long horned goat.

tulpan 2.jpg

Tulpan is, for me, not an easy film to write about, perhaps because it exists outside of my usual frames of reference. I feel like whatever I might right will just be facile, when the film deserves a discussion of greater substance. What I can say is that Tulpan can be accessible and rewarding, far more than the description of its narrative might suggest.

Dvortsevoy discussed the making of Tulpan in GreenCine.

Tulpan will screen April 3 and 5.

Posted by peter at April 3, 2009 12:15 AM



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Posted by: Alex Jones at April 6, 2009 05:16 PM

I have never watched a movie like that. Great stuff. I encourage others to watch it.

Posted by: Kevin Robinson at April 9, 2009 02:54 PM