A small mob of camels stampedes by a nomad's tent, with something that might once have been a tractor eating the kicked-up dust. Inside, a young guy in a sailor suit sits on the rug, cheerfully recounting his death struggle with an octopus to the impassive middle-aged couple he's hoping will be his in-laws. Miscellaneous brays punctuate Asa's story, which is interrupted by a cutaway to a local funkster piloting his jalopy across the steppe, rocking out to "Rivers of Babylon."
Tulpan, the first feature by Russian ethno-documentarian Sergei Dvortsevoy, winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes, is a fiction founded on a powerful sense of place — and that place, namely the vast nowhere void of southern Kazakhstan, could easily be another planet. The movie is not so much a documentary as it is a dramatic account of a documentary situation. Absence is the operating principle. The movie takes its name from the never-seen object of Asa's affections — evidently the only marriageable maiden in the territory.
Dvortsevoy has otherwise populated the inhospitable terrain of the so-called Hunger Steppe with actors who lived as nomadic sheepherders during the course of the shoot. Thus, the performers (Askhat Kuchencherekov as the luckless Asa, Samal Esljamova as his beautiful sister, Samal, and Ondas Besikbasov as her gruff, brooding husband, Ondas) settled into a yurt with a bunch of rambunctious kids — one monitoring the radio to recite the evening news, another shrilling traditional songs with a voice that could shatter glass, the third swatting everyone with a stick — as well as a gaggle of domestic animals, including the pet turtle that serves as a toy car.
"The most difficult thing for the actors was to be as strong as the animals," Dvortsevoy told an interviewer, "because all the animals in the film are fantastic, and the actors should not be worse." Indeed. In one unforgettable scene, the local veterinarian shows up, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and an extravagantly neck-bandaged baby camel in his motorcycle sidecar. In the movie's set piece, Asa — who has no facility for life on the steppe — stumbles across a very pregnant sheep and, in the absence of the more experienced Ondas, is compelled to midwife a live birth. His amazed sense of accomplishment is no act; Dvortsevoy required an improvisation in which the performer became identical with his character.
The 46-year-old maker of several previous movies set in the Central Asian outback (Highway, Paradise), Dvortsevoy could be the most artistically driven documentary filmmaker since Werner Herzog — living with his subjects for months (and sometimes years) and doing as much of the film work he can himself ("I take my own car, I record the sound, I am the assistant to the cameraman"). He compares his preparation to painting a fresco and insists on shooting film rather than video ("Video means that you don't have to concentrate").
This rigorous method ensures a movie that causes the viewer to constantly wonder how the filmmaker contrived to make it. As fluid as Tulpan seems, it's painstakingly constructed out of a series of observed moments, staged interactions and precisely dubbed sounds. Call it cacophonous minimalism. Everything makes noise — camels snort, sheep bleat, people declaim, machines sputter — without any particular hierarchy. This funkball pantheism suffuses the narrative. Tulpan has a very simple story, but it's a continuously mysterious experience — at once direct and oblique and very much a show. The penultimate scene of Ondas and Samal pulling down their yurt suggests the striking of a set. The comedy is beyond absurd. When Asa finally does confront Tulpan, she's a she-goat.
Life's defining attribute, as portrayed in Tulpan, is what American Westerners might call cussedness. And if there's anyone more stubborn than Dvortsevoy's characters, it's the filmmaker himself — camping out on the steppe, waiting months for the precise weather conditions to shoot a particular scene. In every respect, this unclassifiable movie is an amazing accomplishment.