Interlude In a Sand Wind By Eero Tammi

in 18th Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Eero Tammi

The 18th Film Festival Cottbus screened three very interesting films with a beautiful, cinematic way of breathing through the environment they were shot in, using very few locations and creating a strong atmosphere while concentrating on the essential. There was the stylish Hungarian film Delta, a piece, gloomy to a point of almost becoming somewhat amusing. A tragedy set in the country side, it felt like a trailer of a Béla Tarr film shot in color, with a zip of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and the mood of a sad song by Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave. More uplifting was Wild Field (Dikoe Pole), Mikheil Kalatozisvhili’s quietly humoristic film about the steppe and poor, tragicomic Russian people. Through its scenery and situations, it contrived some mental flashbacks to the archaic Westerns of Monte Hellman and Budd Boetticher, being at the same time a work with strong national flavour. And finally, one of the bravest films at the festival was the Kazakh film Tulpan. Partly a documentary about a young nomadic sheep-herder, it was a ride from deep melancholia to uplifting optimism, and accordingly won the festival’s prize for best director.

Personally, I had to watch Tulpan with simultaneous translation via headphones. This luckily did not matter much, since the film — its good dialogue sequences notwithstanding — is more about sand, wind and expressions on people’s faces. Successfully, Tulpan is about space and time. Which is to say it is a real film. Sergei Dvortsevoy — a director with solid documentary background — is a name we will probably talk much more about if he manages to make more features this good.

In his documentaries — In the Dark (V temnote, 2004), for example, a portrayal of an old blind man netting string bags — Dvortsevoy follows lonely people living on the margins of society — or far away from it. With an exceptionally sensitive cognition of the poetic dimensions of mundane, nothing-much-happening situations, Dvortsevoy shot Tulpan in the austere Kazakh steppe, with amateur actors making the most of natural performances. Because of this, the film at first reminded me of the Finnish anthropologic filmmaker Markku Lehmuskallio’s visually astounding, partly fiction film Seven Songs From the Tundra (Seitsemän laulua tundralta, 2000). What Dvortsevoy has working for him however is something much better than just majestic images and a feeling of authenticity. He is not humble in the wrong way, which has often made Lehmuskallio’s films quite boring. Dvortsevoy has explored, personally internalised and cinematically engaged the landscape. The characters come to life, but the most important thing is the position of the filmmaker. He is not just following the action, he is in there, and wants us to feel into his own way of seeing the world. Tulpan might seem in many ways a poignant film about poor people without much opportunities, but it is really a jagged and funny piece by a director believing in the magnetism of life in all its forms. Yet its sadness stems from its story about a disappearing culture.

Tulpan is about yearning and longing, loneliness and unrequited love, and finally about discovering new meanings in life. Through its main character, it offers a meditation on the bittersweet pain of growing up. But when all is said and done, the film is, above all, about strength and character. Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov) is a young sheep herder, a former sailor now used to sand winds. He runs a flock with his sister Samal (Samal Yeslyamova), her husband Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov), and their three children. They all live in a removable home. Asa does not get along with Ondas and dreams of having a flock of his own. Pushed to get married, he tries to ask for the hand of Tulpan, the only girl nearby. Tulpan, a girl we never really see, is Asa’s only way to realize his dream. After her parents send her away to the city, Asa — tired of his family and the recurrent sight of still born baby lambs — decides to leave too. He never gets anywhere, but something seems to be happening inside of him, changing his way of looking at the world.

In many ways Asa is living in a state of in-between. His nomadic way of life first seems to go hand in hand with his emotional wandering and insecurity. But when in the end Samal and Ondas are preparing to take their home to the next point, Asa also appears ready to move on. The city might not be the best destination if you realise that the trips we make inside our heads are usually more crucial.

Tulpan will be remembered for the long scene where Asa helps a healthy baby lamb to be born. Dvortsevoy does not insist on the difference between “authentic” and “staged”. Everything works seamlessly, and in the end we have an important documentary of a vanishing way of life, and a poetically constructed coming of age story, both sad and funny. All in all, Tulpan is a beautiful demonstration of craft and emotion by a Kazakh director to be followed closely.