The Great Outdoors
An interview with Sergei Dvortsevoy
by Jeff Reichert
Currently playing at New York’s Film Forum before what one hopes will be a successful national release, Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Cannes award-winner Tulpan is a cinematic rarity, and truly a wonder to behold. A story of nomadic shepherds living on the brutal, gloriously beautiful steppes of Kazakhstan, Tulpan’s as unforced and graceful as a Renaissance oil, and it deftly avoids all the potential traps of exoticization a narrative like this opens up. If you fear yet another international co-production exercise in dusty impoverished tedium, or a twee ethnography filled with mooning children and extraneous animal cameos, think again—Tulpan, for all its kids and camels, is also a mystical love story, a complex family drama, a veterinary medical mystery capped by a miracle and a sideways portrait of a new nation undergoing birthing pains. From poor places comes one of the richest films of the year.
Reverse Shot: So, how does it break down in the film between the professional actors and the nonprofessionals? And has everyone in the film seen it?
Sergei Dvortsevoy: The main actor, who played Asa [Ashkat Kuchinchirekov], was a student at the Kazakh film academy when we made the film. He’s a future director. Samal Yesylamova, who plays his sister Samal is a professional theater actress. And Ondasyn Mesikbasvo, who plays the oldest shepherd, Ondas, is a professional opera singer from Kazakhstan. Aside from the tractor driver, all the rest are locals. The professionals have all seen the film—they were with me in Cannes. The local people have not seen the film yet.
RS: How did your professional actors and crew adjust to the conditions of the shooting?
SD: It was very hard for them, of course. These are very, very difficult conditions, but we spent a lot of time during preparation getting used to life on the steppes. The crew came and lived in yurts for about two weeks before building our camp, which was a kind of temporary hotel made of bricks for the crew. I asked my actors to live in yurts during this preparation and through production. I had Samal and Ondas live together with the children as a family starting about a month before we began shooting. I wanted them to be very close to each other. This was very important for the children as well. To get used to each other and capture the family atmosphere on there screen. For the preparation for the sheep birth scene, we spent a few weeks just following the sheep.
RS: Obviously that scene is one of the most talked about in the film. I read somewhere that you went to the steppes with an idea of what the film might be, and then adjusted the script retroactively based on what happened in that sequence.
SD: I knew this particular scene would be the most difficult scene to shoot and also for the actor to perform. It was very hard to keep the camera crew following animals for weeks, to train them to move with the animals and then to prepare them for the birth. I didn’t want to rehearse with Asa because I wanted him to be a newcomer and to have this love scene, this completely true scene. As soon as we shot it, I realized it was something very unique, something different compared with the initial script. I was shocked in a way because it was so powerful and so long at the same time that I didn’t know what to do with it, how to edit it; it was just one piece with no cut. I decided that if I cut it, I’d lose its power, its beauty. And then I was forced to review the script and the story for the sake of the beauty of this scene. I redid a lot. In the end I think I used about twenty percent of the initial script, so I changed about eighty percent after shooting the birth.
RS: It sounds like the film developed fairly organically from the process of shooting, then. Given that, I have a bit of a speculative question: what do you think the movie might have been like had you just gone to the steppes and made it quickly without all of the preparation, or on the flip side, gone into a more artificial situation and staged a lot of it? The way Tulpan is results directly from the procedural choices you made, but I can imagine quite a different film emerging from just a few different decisions.
SD: When I started Tulpan, my cowriter and I wrote a regular script of around one hundred pages. But as a director, I don’t like a film when I can explain and predict everything that I’m seeing. I understand that some directors are like mathematicians who just calculate everything. For me, this is not interesting. If I’d changed the method of making Tulpan and used some, let’s say, “standard,” approaches to making a fiction film, I am sure I would not have achieved what we end up with. It would have been some mediocre film with animals, with children, without any mystery, without any surprises. However, I didn’t try to think up a special approach, I just followed the material, followed the characters. Maybe I’ll use this approach again, we’ll see, I don’t know. It doesn’t come from calculation, from mathematics. It comes from my soul.
RS: It seems like it’s a method that could well be applied to other scenarios—in a city, in some different landscape, on the sea.
SD: Yeah, sure. It could be anywhere. It’s a matter of how you want to present your material. For example if you don’t use a great deal of cutting, that means you allow the audience to choose how to see the story. You just allow things to develop. The spectator is free to see what they want. You’re not just using cuts to stress something.
RS: You’re right—in more traditional modes, the cut is used to direct your attention to something. But in Tulpan you feel like you never know what you’re going to see, and even within images it seems like you have a choice—to look at the sheep in the background or the child playing with his turtle in the foreground, or at the dust storm itself or the people and animals scrambling away from the dust storm. It’s panoramic cinema.
SD: I think so, and that’s why I make fiction now, because I want to see some surprises. I don’t want to see predictable things made from mathematical scripts.
RS: I imagine you had to have shot a ton of things that didn’t make it into the final version. What kind of material didn’t make it into the film?
SD: Many, many scenes didn’t make it into the final film. I think the ratio we shot was something like 20 to 1. When you shoot animals and children, which are the most unpredictable, you’re going to use much more material, also much more time.
RS: It’s amazing that you’re able to shoot that ratio on film at this point in time. I think today most people would just go straight for some kind of video format. It’s kind of extraordinary.
SD: [laughs] And stupid. But, film is film, and it’s just a different image. Using film is also a psychological issue. For the director, and the actors, it creates a different kind of concentration. You understand you have just one attempt to make this. Each shot is like a little painting. You understand that when you make a mistake, you’ve made a mistake. Of course you can correct it, do another take, but you can’t just rewind and use the same tape. You understand that you must be concentrating. It gives a certain kind of power, a certain kind of energy to actors and to all the crew.
RS: I was first introduced to the cinema of Kazakhstan via the films of Darezhan Omirbaev. Where does a film like Tulpan fit into the nation’s cinema? Is there an audience for this kind of thing? Are there theaters?
SD: On the one hand, the Kazakh Film Studio is a huge enterprise and all the money from the state for production goes there. There are some independent studios, but only the state studio gets the government money. Kazakh Film Studio makes around eight to ten films a year, but the quality of these films is generally quite poor. This is a problem with many former Soviet Union countries because they feel like they have to be different, and they don’t consider themselves a part of world filmmaking. That’s why they make many stupid mistakes. There are very smart, interesting people working in Kazakhstan, but the studios just cannot write interesting scripts. It’s a big problem. It’s also a problem of film education. Still there is some film tradition here, and Kazakh Film Studio shoots about five of their films on 35mm each year. It’s not bad. But the quality . . . the first problem is the scripts. They want to make just Hollywood films.
RS:I feel like that’s a problem you see all over the place. What’s exhibition like? Are there big multiplex chains that span the country? How many people go to the cinemas?
SD: Well, the population of the Kazakhstan on the whole is only about 15 million. The problem is that only half of this population speaks Kazakh. Half of them speak Russian, which is still very popular in the education system. Kazakh is mostly spoken in the countryside. Tickets for the cinema are quite expensive, something like eight or ten dollars sometimes. They have good quality cinemas, and people now go to see films. First they watch Hollywood films. They like some Bollywood films, and they also want very much to see Kazakh films. But the studio can’t make very many, and the quality is very poor. The audience doesn’t really understand film—they watch TV and expect films to be like serials. For art-house films, it is very difficult. For example, Tulpan will be distributed there on only about five prints for the whole country.
RS: It’s funny—there are plenty of films that are released across the whole of the United States on only five prints.
SD: Really? [laughs]
RS: As an American with only basic knowledge of the steppes, I felt as though Tulpan was something akin to seeing a film about the American West. Is there a similar sensibility, a similar mythology that might propel Kazakhs to see Tulpan? Or are people turning more towards the cities, towards Moscow, towards Europe?
SD: The steppe is very important for Kazakh people. It’s like motherland of Kazakhstan because Kazakh people used to be nomads. They love the steppe. They love it very much, but at the same time they are shy of presenting this place to the whole world. They think the steppe is a poor place. Very often I’ve be asked why I wanted to present this place to the world audience. They say, “It’s not good. Please show them our cities, our industry. Show them our big cars, our big houses.” Today, most of young population wants to live in cities. They link its more comfortable, easier to make a living. But in fact it is not. Sometimes it’s easier to live on steppe. The steppe is a legendary place, but Kazakhs are shy of the legend.
RS: It’s sounds as though, even though the steppes are part of the national fabric, as Kazakhstan emerges out of the shadow of the Soviet Union, onto the world stage, they’re trying to put what they think is their best foot forward.
SD: Exactly. Most of those in power, the politicians, think of how to present the country. Kazakhstan is a very new country, just eighteen years old. Before the Soviet Union it was Russia, before that it was just wild steppe. Now, the leaders want to present the country in a certain way, but their heart is still the steppe. In the future, I’m sure they will understand this is their advantage, their heart. They must not be shy.
RS: It’s very unique. And don’t we go to movies to see things we haven’t seen before?
SD: At the same time as I wanted to present this extraordinary place, I wanted to make a universal story. I’m very happy that people everywhere—in the U.S., or in India, in Australia—understand the characters. They don’t think Asa’s a guy from another planet. They understand his maturation, his love. I’m very happy that people feel that way everywhere.