By David D'Arcy
What's a discharged sailor to do, if he wants to return to the dry steppes of his native Kazakhstan and raise sheep? The first thing that Asa must do in Sergey Dvortsevoy's Tulpan, an earthily bare-boned folkloric tribute to a special kind of rural life, is to find a wife. But Asa's ears stick out from his head in a funny way that annoys Tulpan, the object of his affections, and he doesn't get very far on the remote settlement where sheep outnumber humans by what looks like a thousand to one.
As Asa (Ashkat Kuchincherikov) searches, the austere place reveals itself. Sheep are born on the range, shy locals show their quirky personalities, and he learns enough about life out there to know what's he's facing if he stays.
The image shifts between blazing light and swarms of dust, to say nothing of pregnant sheep at the closest possible range. Much of what we see reflects Dvortsevoy's past as a maker of documentaries (Bread Day, Highway, In the Dark), a patient observer who took four years to make the film that was one of the crowd-pleasers at this year's New York Film Festival. Word is that Tulpan now has a US distributor, which was a long time coming, given the film's warm reception at Cannes (where it won the young jury prize, and the prize from the Ministry of Education) and other festivals.
Sergei Dvortsevoy, along with producer Karl Baumgartner, talked to me in July at the ArtFilm festival in Teplice, Slovakia, about the four-year process of making Tulpan, and about the director's reasons for abandoning documentaries, for now.
Why did you make a fiction film?
Sergey Dvortsevoy: I like documentaries, but I want to go deeper into relationships between people. And I feel a very strong ethical barrier, because the deeper you want to go, you're using someone's life, and this is a private life. You make a choice - to go there, which means you can destroy somebody's life, and for me the problem is that I destroy myself also, because I feel that I can do everything, I feel that I can do anything I want with people.
Documentary for me is like some kind of absurdity. The worse for people it is, the better for the director. At the same time, the most interesting films you see are on the borderlines. Documentary is only on the borderlines for me. This is why I've decided to stop making them for now, because maybe I'll continue. The most important problem for me is the ethical problem.
Also, there is the problem that more and more television people are running foundations that give money to documentaries. So it is more and more difficult to convince them to give money. When I asked for money for my previous film, In the Dark, there was a young woman directing a foundation, and she asked me, "Why do you need so much time to make this film?" I told her, "When you see my films, you'll understand. It's very difficult to shoot like this. You need time for this. It's not possible to shoot it during one week." She said, "Our commission says you don't need this time."
You have to prove all the time that you are not a camel. The problem is that people funding films are more and more people who do not understand this. They deal with video mostly, and they think that everything is possible, very quickly.
They want documentaries to fit into a commercial business model.
I understand that, but at the same time, I don't want to make films only for TV. It's different for a director. It's a different dramaturgical composition, a different picture, different sound. Of course, I do make films for television as well. But these are the two main problems for me - the ethical problem and technology. In Moscow, now there are more and more television programs. I can't call them films. They are more and more reportage. I was on the jury at a festival in St. Petersburg, and saw many films, different international films, all of them one half hour. And they are the same. You understand that people don't care about dramaturgical composition. You don't feel energy. You don't feel what you feel on film. They make them like bricks, and you don't feel who made this brick - no author, nothing - information, that's all. It must be interesting for some audience, but this is not for me. I don't want to make simple TV programs.
[To Karl Baumgartner, known to everyone in the business as Baumi] Why did you make a commitment to this film?
Karl Baumgartner: First it was the script, but I believe that a very good film is like rediscovering cinema, understanding it from the beginning again. This was like rediscovering the language. In the beginning we shot scenes with the animals. They were so strong that Sergey said that "my actors have to be as good as the animals."
Actors are more expensive to feed.
Dvortsevoy: We had children, and children are always better than the adults. So the children become the stars. But in our case, we had not only the children, but also the animals. They are even more natural, so more difficult to handle.
You have sheep giving birth in this film. How many pregnant sheep did you have to choose from?
We had a herd of a thousand sheep - and I knew we could not shoot this scene without having our own herd, and having our own shepherd. When sheep are about to give birth, they run away from people. It's very hard to follow them, and especially if you want to shoot this kind of scene, when they give birth.
We spent the first two weeks with the crew, because the camera people were ready to shoot immediately. Sometimes it's very important not to shoot, and to stop people, just because they want to shoot immediately. This was a Polish crew and they said, "Come on, Sergey - you see this donkey, you see this sheep, you see how it's good. Let's shoot this sheep giving birth immediately."
I have a lot of experience in documentaries with animals. I know that if you will wait, if you analyze a situation, if you try to understand how to shoot, and you plan how to shoot this, you'll shoot it much better. We spent the first two weeks just following sheep with a small camera, with a video camera, and then with a big camera, because I told them that. I told them that it must be one shot, one take, no cuts inside. And also because of language in telling the story. That was very hard.
We had a special system. Our shepherd had a radio. He was all the time with the sheep, with this herd, and the whole time I also had a radio and was listening to him. He'd say, "Sergey, there is a sheep and she is ready to give birth." We had a car, an old-fashioned car outfitted for emergencies. If the shepherd said, "Okay," we would move - we would put the springs behind the actor's [Ashkat Kuchincherikov's] ears, because unfortunately he had very small ears. It was very hard to do this, because it took one and a half hours to place these springs.
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