Tulpan (2009, Kazakhstan, Dvortesoy)
I remember you mentioning some time ago that you had seen a film and it featured a Boney M tune that you couldn't get out of your head. When I asked you if it was Rasputin - the only Boney M title I can ever recall - you confirmed that it was not, but were unable to identify the song that was playing in your brain. Now I know, of course, that the track was Rivers of Babylon, which the credits to Tulpan indicate was indeed performed by Boney M. But I want to mention that theirs is a cover version. The original was by one of the pioneer reggae bands (name?) and was the theme song for the early 70s film The Harder They Come. It stars Jimmy Cliff sort of playing himself in a parable about exploitation in the music business. I've never seen it but I've been led to understand that it's a worthwhile critique of neo-colonialism with considerable aesthetic merit as well. I believe The Clash reference it in one of their tunes. Of course, Boney M belt it out for nothing but disco dance-floor fun.
Which makes their version entirely appropriate for the water truck-driving character in Tulpan. His chief desire is a wealthy consumer lifestyle, motivated by the ear candy that is Boney M and candy literally, the man's own teeth are capped with metal. Naive and perfectly likable, this fellow is nevertheless representative of the most incorrect cultural option, everything misguided about abondoning your enthnic heritage in order to emulate Western values and styles. The latter Tulpan equates with pornography, which some Western viewers may take as offensively reductionist but which I consider pretty accurate these days. But even without assessing the character at this contemporary international level, he is the classic hick who dreams of the big city where he may partake in what Hobbes called commodious living. And Jesus, can you blame him? Talk about a simple existence!
This simple existence is portrayed in Tulpan with a respect that borders on reverence. The film comes quite close to nostalgia in its depiction of a nomadic way of life that is very near extinction. I can't recall the last time I saw a film that was so emersed in a wholesome rural ethos, complete with traditional family values and a deep connection with nature by way of a pastoral livelihood. It's Little House on the Prairie in Kazakhstan. The film's near Romantic presentation of these indigenous people in that nation shows that - contra Borat - the county is not some totally underdeveloped, anti-modern, Islamo-barbaric Soviet leftover. It's ironic that the progressive tendencies of the place have to be acknowledged in this manner. Hey folks, Kazakhstan is advanced enough to notice what it is losing in the process of advancing. I suppose it is relevant that the film is a co-production with Germany, Russia, Poland and Switzerland. One thing is for certain, we have the Krauts to blame for the Boney M.
This brings me to my favourite aspect of the film. As if the contra-Borat quality was not enough - hey, the hero says wistfully that he wants to improve his standard of living through the use of solar panals, how hip is that? Beyond this, I believe the goodness of womanhood in Tulpan is essential to the film and it really touched me. Front and centre, there is the dignified nurturing of the main female. Then there is the obvious matriarchal authority of Tulpan's mother. And even without being seen, there is the wisdom of Tulpan herself who realizes all too well that her suitor does not suit her because he is not yet able to fend for himself, never mind be the head of a household and a herd. Yet for me the deepest issue in the film is that the skilled substance of animal husbandry ultimately comes down to midwifery. I use these terms with their full etymological implications to make the feminist point. The "husband" holds the house, owns the property, including the chattle that is his cattle and his woman and his kids. The "wife" wears the veil. These are the definitions. But in Tulpan, the wannabe husband only begins to become one when he becomes a wife. Yes, it's a dialectic. But forget about theory. The practical reality is that he must literally pull a baby from a womb and breath life into it before he can even think about bagging pussy and butchering steaks.
Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world. Although it does touch the Caspian and Aral "seas," these are themselves landlocked; i.e., lakes. Mind you, if a sea is a body of water that is designated "salty", the salinity of the Caspain is ancient whereas that of the Aral is increasing due to anthropogenic causes and reflectes ecological degredation. Ya gotta love progress. But I digress down a Wikipedia research session. I am curious to know on what waters the sailor sailed in Tulpan. Perhaps more properly inquired - does Kazakhstan even have a navy? Forgive me but this does sound like something Sacha Baron Cohen should make fun of.
But of course,it doesn't really matter. The presumable point is that our man has returned home after running away to join the circus, the three rings of which he found to be proverbially chaotic. In short (speaking of proverbs) the lad is a prodigal son, (no wait, I've confused the old and the new Testaments, oh well). On how to interpret the parable of The Prodigal Son, the following may be brought to bear on what I regard as feminist in Tulpan. It explicitly addresses the difference between a reactionary reading of the parable and a moral of unconditional love, supposedly a difference between the West and the East:
In The Prodigal Son parable, it is often said that the turning point is when the younger son “comes to his senses,” confesses his sin, and returns home a repentant sinner—BUT THIS IS NOT WHAT JESUS IS SAYING. And the difference between this popular interpretation and what Jesus is saying is the difference between a God who is "just" and a God whose love is as far as the East is from the West... The son is starving and mostly naked. He knows when he reaches his village, he must walk through the narrow village street where he will be mocked and taunted by the villagers. He must make it to his father. Yet even when the son is at a far distance and before the son says a word, the father sees the son and runs to him. He kisses and hugs him. It is at this point—AND ONLY AT THIS POINT—that the son sees his father's love for him. Now the son sees how he had broken his father's heart. He sees how his father ran to him which in the Middle East is a shameful act. He sees how undeservedly he is being restored in love. NOW PLEASE DO NOT MISS THIS POINT: Had the father not been willing to show a costly demonstration of unexpected love, the son would not know the father's heart. And there would be no right-relationship. Interestingly, the early church didn’t use the symbol of the cross for Christianity but instead used, among other things, the image of a joyful shepherd carrying the sheep back to its fold... [because] Jesus talked about the heart of God in the picture of a joyful shepherd carrying his lost and terrified sheep back to the fold. (From: http://www.eprodigals.com/?gclid=CNWvsJfEoZ0CFSNQagodc0YzAA)
According to this website: "Without a Middle Eastern perspective, Jesus' message is missed." About this I know nothing. I only observe that the son's-repentance interpretation of the parable rejected by the website and the father's-benevolence interpretation advanced by the site are both equally patriarchal, as indeed befits the parable however you read it. This does not befit the prodigality in Tulpan, however. Certainly the brother-in-law is a surrogate father figure who is punishing the protagonist for his prior prodigality. Or is he? This minor mistreatment is actually not punishing rejection at all. It is merely impatient frustration with the agricultural inexperience and matrimonial immaturity of his household-invading relative. Even more telling, the protagonist has already forgiven himself and self-forgivenes is the only sure sign that everyone else has long ago fogiven and forgotton our sins. We know our hero has forgiven himself because, shucks, he symbolically wears his heartfelt reattachment to his home almost literally on his sleeve; that is, literally on the collar of his sailor suit. All of this is backstory that he once wore on the back of his neck when dressed in the uniform of a seaman far away from home. That's water under a bridge now. Tulpan is all about his homecoming. And I do insist that his retreat from the navy and return to the fold is a kind of feminist reconsolidation. He tried his hand in an industry geared for murder on water but figured out fast that he's meant to be in the business of giving birth on firm and familiar ground.
And could it be significant that these lines are written in Rivers of Babylon: "For the wicked carry us away. How can we sing King Alpha's song in a strange land?"
As I have reported to you more than once, I adore this film.
As for the Boney M tune, that also could have been in reference to Touching the Void, when the mountaineer is on death's door and all he can hear is an annoying Boney M song rattling around his head. But, yeah, I'm sure i was also referring to Tulpan, where the song's annoyance factor is more than countered by the endearing qualities of the characters who populate this landscape.
And what a landscape this is. For such a quiet and intimate drama, Tulpan features some of the most impressively oppressive landscape this side of Laurence of Arabia. You would think that such epic imagery would be employed to emphasize the minuteness of the characters, a la David Lean. And you'd think that the temptation would be for the filmmaker, first time director Sergei Dvortsevoy (a documentarian by trade) to lean heavily on the naturalistic imagery to drive home his point out the disinctly Hobbesian nature of the lives of these herders. But while the bleak setting does elicit awe and wonder, as it is hard to comprehend exactly how these folks can carve out a living in such a formidable setting, seldom does it elicit despair. The characters are simply too full of affection, fortitude and determination to allow such a response to do much more than flit by. Further, Dvortsevoy allows scenes to linger long after the human drama has played out; this is a world where humans are simply a part of the surroundings, not masters of it. As one scene played, the director keeps the camera rolling for several seconds, which allowed the cameraman to pick up the story of the frisky livestock in the background, whose act of consummation is captured in a deliciously Herzog-ian moment of magical serendipity.
Apparently Dvortsevoy had the actors live as nomadic shephards over the course of shooting, a sort of method directing that always struck me as rather gimmicky when deployed by American directors, but which appears to have produced such a uniformity of thoroughly natural and seamless performances that it is hard to fault the man for his approach.
I love your feminist take on the film, Ben. The wife/sister fights to keep the family together, and to promote the empathetic values that will allow them to endure a life that most of us couldn't imagine in our worst nightmare. And the two birthing scenes seal it, as the men rally behind life-giving over death-pursuit. Not only has he left his naval service, but the hero knows that opportunities await in the city, and even threatens to pursue them from time to time, but his heart isn't in that game. He wants a wife, a flock, a life of his own in the land that he knows. In fact, the birth scene is representative of the film as a whole. The apparently routine tranformed into something extraordinary.
And I hear you when you say that the film veers near nostalgia, because the summary of the protagonists' choices and actions mentioned above could certainly read that way, but the harsh cruelties of this life and the warm honesty of these performances is matched by the calm naturalism of the director's approach to ensure that it does not ever settle there. While not exactly a slice of Italian neo-realism--it dips into sentimentality a bit too easily--but it is nontheless a film of great heart and real soul.
Wow. I think this is my first: "I love your... take on the film, Ben." Thank you.
You are most welcome. Well deserved.
I don't care what else happens in your movie. I don't care whether it's a documentary or staged. I might care whether it's actual photography or CGI, but I doubt it. When you show live birth - human, lamb, tree frog, you name it - it's fucking profound. It's just so... well, life-affirming in Tulpan when he is the midwife to that lamb. You know those disclaimers that appear in the closing credits of films (that aren't by Tarkovsky or Herzog) stating that no animals were hurt in the filming of this film? Well, Tulpan deserves to have a byline in the credits which points out that some animals were helped in the filming of this film. That alone makes it a special picture.
The scene when the family is retiring for the day is just so sweet. Especially, the way the father caresses his youngest sleeping child. This is the motherload in the heart of gold of the father. Truly beautiful. The REAL Waltons.