Sergey Dvortsevoy, Tulpan
The image of Kazakhstan and its cinema took a hit recently with the unwanted attention of a certain Borat Sagdiyev, however the rise to prominence of the highly talented writer-director Sergey Dvortsevoy should help redress that national image problem. Dvortsevoy was born in the Kazakh city of Chimkent in 1962 and initially had no particular interest in film. After high school, he attended aviation college in the Ukraine and the Radiotechnical-Institut in Novosibirsk, Russia, in order to become a radio engineer for Aeroflot, the Russian aviation company, a job that required him to travel throughout the former Soviet Union. In the early 90s he decided to study writing and directing at the Moscow Film School, where he was part of the documentary department, and following his graduation he began making a reputation for himself as a gifted shortform documentarian, winning numerous prizes at film festivals around the world. His first film, Paradise (1996), depicted the life of a nomadic Kazakh shepherd, and he followed it up with Bread Day (1998), about poverty in a village outside St. Petersburg. He returned to a Kazakh setting with Highway (1999), which profiled life on the country’s main road, and in 2004 made In the Dark, a poignant portrait of a blind man living alone with his cat.
Dvortsevoy’s first feature length film, Tulpan, is set in Kazakhstan’s Betpak Dala, the “Hunger Steppe,” and centers on everyman Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), who returns from naval service to live with his sister, her husband and their three children in their yurt. Asa plans to become independent, however the only eligible girl for miles, Tulpan, turns down his marriage proposal because of his big ears, thus scuppering his chances of becoming a shepherd with his own flock (for which he must be married), a job he anyway seems ill-suited to. Though with Tulpan Dvortsevoy has moved into fiction filmmaking, here he uses a cinema vérité approach to present an immediate and vivid picture of the unforgiving life of nomadic shepherds on the steppe. The movie portrays an unfamiliar world, but Dvortsevoy taps into the universality of his story by imbuing it with a gentle humor and populating the narrative with distinctive, memorable characters, from Asa’s sidekick who constantly blasts Boney M’s “Rivers of Babylon,” to the steppe vet who is followed everywhere by a camel. And the film’s great set piece – a 10-minute scene of a sheep giving birth – is one of the great filmic moments of recent years, capturing life at its most vital.
Filmmaker spoke to Dvortsevoy about his reasons for giving up documentary filmmaking, the challenges of capturing a live sheep birth, and working with an actor determined to sing on camera.
Filmmaker: Tell me how your background lead you to make Tulpan?
Dvortsevoy: I was born in Kazakhstan and I lived there for 28 years. I worked for Aeroflot, the Russian aviation company, and I lived in the city but I knew the Kazakh countryside very well. Then I joined film school – that was completely by chance, by the way – and after that I decided that I must make a film, a documentary about Kazakhstan [called Paradise], and I used my past experiences. After Aeroflot, I knew all the steppes and the shepherd’s way of living and I knew the Kazakh countryside quite well. For me, it was quite easy to decide what kind of film I had to make. Now in live in Moscow but, for me, Kazakhstan is not an exotic place, it’s just my motherland. Also, I met one man in Kazakhstan with big ears and he had this problem, he could not marry because of his ears.
Filmmaker: Had you wanted to make a fiction feature for a long time?
Dvortsevoy: You know, I joined film school completely by chance. I never dreamed about filmmaking at all, and for me it was a very strange decision to change my life to join film school. It was also a spontaneous decision to make documentary films, and I was quite successful at it. But then after a while I realized that I didn’t want to make documentaries anymore, because it’s very difficult for me morally. Usually I live for a long time with my characters, and I spent much time with them. In a way, I use their private life and I make some kind of art of it. It’s very painful for me because usually you disturb people, you interfere with their life, and you don’t know if they will be happy with this or not, because you’re making the film specially for them. In Russia, all filmmakers consider our films as art, but you deal with reality, and it was painful for me. Once I decided I had to stop this, now I want to make fiction. It was a conscious decision, but a very painful one.
Filmmaker: You make a distinction between documentaries and your non-fiction films which you call “life cinema.” Can you explain the difference?
Dvortsevoy: I like reality, I like to observe everyday life and I would like to find some unique moments in real life, and that’s why I say “life cinema.” I don’t like too complicated stories but, at the same time, I think there is cheap simplicity and very important simplicity. I would like to achieve real simplicity in presenting everyday life, and I want somehow to show that reality and everyday life is beautiful. Usually people think that everyday life is just boring and uninteresting, but I like everyday life and I want to share its beauty with the audience.
Filmmaker: How much of a difference do you see between Tulpan and your previous films? This film seems to bridge fact and fiction.
Dvortsevoy: On the one hand, it’s very close to my documentaries because I use the same method of observing animals and people, for example. But, on the other hand, it’s a fictional story and I have actors – some professional, some amateur – and set up everything. For me, it was very important to combine all this. I want the audience not to feel “This is the fiction part” and “This is the documentary part,” I want people just to see these lives. To me it’s a great compliment if the audience says, “We can’t believe that these are not real people, that these are actors.” People know that I use actors but, at the same time, the life that actors show them is like real life. For me, it was very important to achieve this level of truth that animals give.
Filmmaker: Do you feel your cinematic style or approach has changed significantly by shifting into fiction?
Dvortsevoy: I don’t know. Sometimes I try to analyze but I’m afraid to think much about my style and how I present my stories. I think it’s very important to just save my own voice. I make films by intuition – I never calculate. Always what I show comes from my soul, from me. I think for the future, it’s very important to save the possibility to present life without thinking about my own approach. And, for me, it’s all about the characters. Everything comes from the characters.
Filmmaker: How carefully scripted was the film? Were you very open to improvisation and unexpected deviations during shooting?
Dvortsevoy: Well, initially I wrote a regular script of 100 pages with my co-writer [Gennady Ostrovskiy]. I didn’t know how I would make the film, but when I started I realized that a script is a script, but life is life. For me, it was very clear that I didn’t want to make a standard fiction film. It was not interesting to me to copy the script, to just mechanically transfer this literature to make a picture. I tried to find the film language to tell this story in images, and then I realized I had to find the images for every scene. Then I realized I first had to shoot the very important scene [of the sheep giving birth]. We started the shooting of the film from that key scene. We spent much time preparing these scenes, but after we shot the key scene of the sheep giving birth, it was so strong, so powerful and so unique – and, at the same time, ten minutes long – I didn’t know what to do with it, how to cut this scene. In the script, I had two minutes for this scene and now I had 10 minutes. But it was not possible to cut this scene because when you cut, you lose the power, you lose the uniqueness of this scene. So I realized either I had to cut this scene and make a regular film, or save the scene and redo the script. And I decided to redo the script. After that moment, I changed a lot of the film, and in the end I think I have just 20% of the initial script.
Filmmaker: The 10-minute scene of the sheep giving birth is obviously real, so I imagine you must have had a lot of difficulty capturing it.
Dvortsevoy: [laughs] Sometimes the audience can’t believe it. They say, “Is it real, or did you fake it with computers?,” because people now are used to computer effects. But it’s real, of course, and it’s 10 minutes long without any cuts. But it was an extremely, extremely difficult scene because the sheep in Kazakhstan are very wild and they don’t allow people to follow them or to be close them. And when they give birth, all the more! It was very hard just to go close to them to just see how they give birth, but due to my documentary past I knew that it would be very difficult and I told my camera crew and director of photography that we had to spend much time just to catch this scene. My camera people didn’t think it could be so difficult but, day by day, they understood that it would be very hard and they spent maybe two weeks just following the sheep with little video cameras and then with big cameras. I said, “Listen, we have to get this in one take,” because I wanted to have this scene completely live. No cuts. Because it’s truth, and I wanted the audience to believe this is real. Also, I never tried to rehearse with the actor – that was my condition – because I wanted him to do it just once, and for it to be the first time in his life as well.
Filmmaker: What was the experience like of making the film on the steppe? Were you essentially a part of the community there?
Dvortsevoy: Yeah, sure. This film was a real challenge, not only creatively but also physically. It’s a real steppe and we lived 500 kilometres from the closest city. It’s really a very hard place to live, and for us it was a challenge to live there because every morning when we woke up we had to look in our shoes and be very careful because there are many poisonous spiders and snakes there. It was very hard because of all the insects, because of nature, because of this strong permanent wind and dust. It was very hard just to live there, let alone make a film. To make a film was doubly challenging. But for us it was really like school – life school.
Filmmaker: Almost all the actors in the film played characters with the same name, so did you encourage people not to break character when you weren’t shooting?
Dvortsevoy: My main actors were from another part of Kazakhstan and they didn’t know this place or this way of life because in the north of Kazakhstan they live differently, like a European style of life. For example, they don’t live in yurts, they don’t eat on the floor. First of all, I wanted to help them get used to the steppe life, to feel that this is their life also, to be closer to the children ((who were from one local family from a village 25 kilometres from where we shot), to be closer to the animals. That’s why I asked them to keep their original names, and why I asked Samal Yeslyamova [the lead actress] to live with her [screen] husband and their children for one month just to get used to one another as a family. They spent much time living together and I also asked the camera people to have their cameras with them as much as possible, to help the children to work with this strange approach. We did a lot of things for this, but it was very hard to achieve this family atmosphere.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Dvortsevoy: [laughs] I lived in Kazakhstan [when I was young] and very often I went to see films at local cinemas. I remember very well from my childhood when I saw an old French movie Fantômas. It’s like a thriller and the main character is called Fantômas, a very dangerous bandit. I was just an ordinary guy and saw French comedies and Indian Bollywood movies – it was the time of the Soviet Union and we saw many Indian films and also some Russian comedies and trailers. I saw all these films, all this rubbish, though sometimes some funny or interesting films too. But when I joined film school, then I started to see classical films and historical films.
Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Dvortsevoy: You know, I realize now that I don’t want to have a big budget for my films. First of all, I want to make films that are exactly what I want to be about, I want to feel that I control the process. I want to feel that I can achieve the result that I want, and I realize very well that the more money you have the less freedom you have. I hope I could find more money now because Tulpan was quite successful, but for me it’s very important to save my freedom. It’s very important for me to have the ability to tell my story, to use my approach, to use my own voice, and I will fight for this.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you cried in a film, and which film was it?
Dvortsevoy: [laughs] I must say that I never cry in films. I don’t know why. Sometimes it’s very moving, but I’m a person who never cries. Unfortunately. Not even once. I never cry, in real life as well. Maybe I am Iron Man. You know what, sometimes I feel very moved and I feel like I am about to cry, but maybe there is a physical problem, I don’t know. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s the strangest experience you’ve had during your time in the film industry?
Dvortsevoy: It was very difficult to work with the [actor playing the] oldest shepherd because he was originally an opera singer from Almaty, the [former] capital of Kazakhstan. In the film he doesn’t allow his daughter to sing, but it was very hard during the whole shoot because he tried to convince me, “Give me the possibility to sing somehow.” He’s a singer in real life but his part was completely different and it was really funny because all the time he was trying to convince me to let him sing. [laughs]