A folk tale disguised as a documentary, Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan appears something like actual reality, half-planned and half-found. Long handheld takes of dust storms and emerging tornados and lightning storms in the ostensibly uninhabitable Betpak Dala desert region of Kazakhstan find, somewhere in the foreground, a story of a few farmers walking among their sheep and huts, whose goal seems less to cultivate the land than protect themselves from it. Asa (Askat Kuchinchirekov) comes to live with his sister’s Spartan family and to marry the elusive Tulpan, a girl who watches his stuttering marriage proposal from behind a drape and turns him down immediately. Perhaps because he’s been rejected, or perhaps because she’s the only other girl in miles, Asa decides he’s in love. “I’ll never forget how you looked at me behind the curtains,” he tells her later, even though he’s still never seen her, just after he’s chased her into a shed and her mother throws cucumbers at him from behind. Tulpan is full of these scenes: long shots of characters trying to pursue their whims (dancing on tractors, mostly), only for the reality of sand storms and pissed-off parents to come crashing in from beyond the frame (more than once, the tractor and dancing stops as the camera lingers).
Like many a recent New York Film Festival feature (24 City, Bullet in the Head, Che, The Class, Gomorra), Tulpan excuses its ostensible lack of form as off-the-cuff documentary-realism; except that unlike those films, Tulpan not only features a busy soundtrack of off-screen actions and interactions (likely post-dubbed, considering the inescapable wind), but actually is a documentary of the land, in which nature, or the lack of nature and life, dominates. Dvortsevoy is clearly bastard heir to the original ethnographic faux-documentarian, Robert Flaherty, and his own staged recordings of the techniques simple-people-with-simple-hearts adapt, even base their lives on, in reaction to their environment. Flaherty undoubtedly would have cut more efficiently—and duplicitously—than Dvortsevoy, with his meandering camera, too unsteady to be reverential, but the experiential long take lets surprises constantly emerge out of otherwise prevailing monotony.
In what seems the longest take of them all, Asa helps a sheep give birth, from near-start to finish, then gives the newborn mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Besides an example of Tulpan‘s most obvious merit, as something of a guidebook to everyday life in the desert, this endless long take also hints at the scene’s relative importance in a temporarily-abandoned story: It’s about the only time any character expresses any genuine affection for the life they have to live. If Flaherty’s films are about people who have ingeniously learned to adapt, Dvortsevoy’s is about those who never will.