Our World
Caroline McKenzie on Tulpan

When Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan arrived on the international festival circuit in 2008, the dominant image of Kazakhstan for most cinemagoers was that in the 2006 Sacha Baron Cohen comedy Borat. Marked by gentle comedy, beautifully contemplative compositions, and a documentary-like approach that prioritizes long takes and slow reveals, Tulpan stood in direct contrast to Borat’s parade of grotesqueries, even though both depict a Kazakh culture (whether fabricated or not) at odds with Western standards of living. Borat exploited the Western world’s risible misconceptions of Central Asia in order to show how those misconceptions mirror our own worst traits. Tulpan, on the other hand, is generously inclusive: it shows us an utterly unfamiliar culture in which we can nevertheless locate ourselves. This is Dvortsevoy’s own great trick, that in making a film about a marginalized culture he has made an entirely universal work of cinema.

To watch the film from a Western perspective is to have expectations overturned. Dvortsevoy gives us a form that we deign to understand and a culture we feign to know nothing about, and then he proceeds to undermine both of those assumptions. At first glance, the film has the hallmarks of a stereotypical ethnographic film: panoramic cinematography and a vérité aesthetic provided by scenes captured in unbroken single takes, a focus on cultural rituals, and an excess of folk singing on the soundtrack. But unlike the outsider perspective inherent to ethnographic films and travelogues, Dvortsevoy’s camera always seems acclimated to the extreme living situations it captures, living among its subjects instead of observing them from on high. He does not linger on cultural eccentricities, or stop to explain regional specificities, nor does he sidestep vulgarities or ignoble behavior: his portraits are gentle, living, humorous, and, most spectacularly, relatable.

Tulpan follows a small family of herders living in Betpak Dala, a relatively desolate stretch of Kazakhstan. Asa (Askhat Kuchinichirekov) is the figurative black sheep of the flock: recently out of Russian naval service, he is crashing with his sister, her husband, and their three small children in a one-room yurt. He longs to be a shepherd, but Comrade Boss (Zhappas Zhailaubaev) won’t give him his own flock until he’s married, and unfortunately the only eligible young woman in the area (the titular Tulpan, who is never seen) rejects him because his ears are too big.

In the second scene of Tulpan, Asa yells out, "What beauty!" as the camera pans around to the dusty, empty steppe in seeming counterpoint to his exclamation. There is no immediate beauty here—to deny that the land is harsh and unwelcoming would be to undermine the shepherds’ hardships, and Dvortsevoy refuses to give such a simplified portrayal. Similarly, the children who roam in and out of the frame are not merely cutesy additions to the mise-en-scène (unlike the rosy depiction of early childhood in rural Central Asia provided a year later in Thomas Balmès’s Babies). As much as they are a joy (and an economic necessity), they are a burden: their games and shouting make the yurt seem suffocatingly small, their childish worries trivial compared to the literal life and death matters at hand. To this end, Asa’s niece, Maha (Mahabbat Turganbayeva), just wants to sing one Kazakh song on continuous repeat—Dvortsevoy allows her singing to cover enough of the soundtrack so that the viewer might understand the aggravation it causes her brother, Beke (Bereke Turganbayev), and the outright condemnation it earns from her father, Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov). As Maha cries and shouts out the song over and over, it becomes less and less some beautiful evocation of an enduring folk culture, and more and more a struggle for individual expression.

Along with Maha and her folk song, all the younger characters in Tulpan are defined by media they either consume or create—each character’s repetition of a certain story or song shapes their relation to others. Beke is always listening to his radio, memorizing the news for recitation to his father: a particularly memorable scene has Beke squeezing blackheads off his father’s broad back while relaying the state media’s report on the efficacy of President Nazarbaev’s plan to make Kazakhstan “a developed country with clean air and water.” Toddler Nuka (Nurzhigit Zhapabayev) runs around with his “horse” (a particularly long stick), threatening to ride the steed to Almaty. Asa himself has drawn his dreams on the back of his sailor collar—his illustration of a tulip (the meaning of the Kazakh word “tulpan”) growing on the steppe is a literal evocation of his desire to marry and settle down. And Asa’s friend Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov), who is determined to ditch the steppe for the city, is obsessed with Western culture, spending his time flipping through outdated European magazines, pasting pornographic images of busty white women in the back of his tractor cab, and constantly blaring Boney M.’s “Rivers of Babylon” on the tractor’s scratchy sound system.

It is Boni who seems most at odds with the landscape, as does his playing of that song: “Rivers of Babylon” is a reggae track rooted in the history of the slave trade and the Rastafarian belief system, whose lyrics (taken from the Biblical Psalm 137) speak specifically about the rejection of Western culture (“Babylon”) and a desire to return to the spiritual homeland (“Zion,” the paradise that Jah promised):

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah we wept, when we remembered Zion.
When the wicked carried us away in captivity,
Required from us a song.
Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

It is clearly problematic that this is the touchstone for Boni’s love of Western culture and his desire to leave the steppe, but at the same time we can assume that Boni has as little understanding of the lyrics as he has comprehension of the world outside the steppe that he so longs for. Musically, the song irritates Ondas and Comrade Boss, neither of whom find joy in its poppy exuberance.

For Western audiences, Boni is an easy character to laugh at. When Boni presents Tulpan’s father with a picture of Prince Charles as proof that big ears are not a bad thing, the father asks if Charles is an African prince, and Boni replies definitively, “No, American.” His misidentification of a European celebrity and his strange fascination with a Caribbean-European singing group make him humorous to the Western viewer, but the joke is as much on us. Maha’s folk song, which Dvortsevoy pointedly leaves untranslated throughout its many appearances in the film, is as impenetrable to most Western viewers as Boney M. is on the steppe; the living practices of this family of shepherds are as foreign to Western culture as the vagaries of the British royalty are to a young Kazakh.

What is ironic then is that Boni and Maha are singing similar songs, which Dvortsevoy often employs in consecutive scenes. While Boni is singing about a return to Zion in “Rivers of Babylon,” the folk song that Maha repeats ad nauseam is “On the riverside of Arys”: the Arys River in Kazakhstan is a tributary of the Syr Darya, one of the four rivers of Paradise in ancient Islamic beliefs. At the same time, neither has much of a way of interpreting their songs (Boni knows little of Rastafarian culture, and we can suppose that Maha knows little about rivers or the emotional content of the song), but both instinctively identify with them. They stand in direct contrast to Comrade Boss and Ondas (and indeed to any viewer who finds the repetitious nature of the soundtrack irksome rather than liberating), who find these youthful flights of fancy exhausting.

In many ways, the dreams of all the young characters in Tulpan are representations of things they cannot see or understand: Beke is so enamored of his radio that he repeats facts about Kazakhstan’s economic progress without weighing this against his personal reality. Nuka talks constantly of going to Almaty, though Almaty, being several hundred miles away geographically and worlds away in terms of living standards, is likely a place he’s never been. And Asa imagines a tulip growing in the harsh terrain of the steppe where not even enough grass can grow to keep Ondas’s sheep alive. Nonetheless, through the stories they tell, the characters define themselves and understand the isolating world around them.

But it is also through these shared cultural moments that we immediately understand these characters, with Boni as the kind of entry point for Western identification. We comprehend the liberation to be found in pop songs blasted on a car stereo, the comfort in singing folk songs with a parent, or the feelings of authority derived from news radio, even when the words or meanings of these transmissions are indecipherable. Moreover, we understand the youthful urge to know or seek what is beyond our purview, as a feeling that is utterly universal.

What’s wonderful about Tulpan then is that it works in the same way for the viewer that these songs and stories work for the characters: it presents a world we have not seen and likely cannot comprehend, and yet makes that world identifiable and utterly entrancing. What appears at the beginning of the film as desolate and abstract comes off as beautiful and familiar by the end, simply because Dvortsevoy holds on moments of reality that transcend cultural divisions. These range from the scenes in the yurt, where the camera finds children hidden behind furniture and sneaking mischievously in and out of a hole in the side of the structure, to an eight-minute long take in which Asa pulls a struggling lamb from its mother’s birth canal and resuscitates it on screen. These scenes are not recognizable in their setting, but are inherently familiar in their content: just as the characters locate themselves in songs and stories and news reports, so can we locate ourselves in the film. For this writer, Tulpan is the clearest evocation in the last decade of how film as a medium allows us to better understand ourselves as we comprehend the world around us.

When the film was first released in the U.S., the press notes issued by the film’s distributor referred to Tulpan as portraying “a rapidly vanishing way of life.” But there is nothing really in the film to suggest the practice of shepherding on the steppe is endangered—Asa wants to be a shepherd, and Dvortsevoy’s repetitious use of Boney M. pounds home the idea that life beyond the steppe might not be all it seems. Nonetheless, Asa incorporates the perks of modernity into his dream: for him, the ultimate life might not just include having a flock and winning Tulpan as his wife but also having both “the steppe and 900 channels” of satellite television at the same time. For Asa as well as for us, worlds are bridged and our lives are given context through shared culture and the moving image.