The vast expanse of land and sky appear endless, opening out beyond the screen, a force larger than the human lives depicted within the frame. In the distance, the border between land and sky is indistinct, the colors merge; a dirt road leads into the sky. Tulpan, Sergey Dvortsevoy’s first narrative feature, exists on the border between fiction and documentary. Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, the film is currently showing at the Tel Aviv Museum and the Jerusalem Theatre, taking the viewer into the lives and dreams of nomadic shepherds on the Kazakh steppe, with humor, compassion and fierce beauty.

The plot is as deceptively simple as the flat lands of the steppe: Asa, newly discharged from the Russian navy, would like to join his sister and her shepherd husband. But he cannot survive in this environment and set up a flock of his own until he finds a wife, and there is only one unmarried girl for miles around: Tulpan. Despite his charming smile and tales of marine adventures, Tulpan’s parents remain silent and impassive, seemingly unmoved by anything beyond their limited daily existence. Tulpan, hidden behind a curtain in another part of the yurt, ostensibly rejects him for his big ears. Yet, like the impossibly big breasts of the women in the photos collected by Boni, Asa’s cheerful side-kick, things in this movie are not always what they seem, or what we expect them to be.

The movie challenges us to look more closely, to be attentive to all that can be seen and experienced; let events unfold in the rhythms of daily life. The acting is so natural, it feels as if a hidden camera followed the lives of these people for a few days or weeks, and let the viewer share in their experience. Yet it would have been impossible to create such a documentary, it would have been so intrusive as to impair the integrity of the observation. That is the slightly surreal space occupied by Tulpan: creating a carefully crafted fiction that conveys aspects of reality inaccessible to the documentary: the truths that can only be touched by art.

Tulpan director Sergei Dvortsevoy shared his experience of making this exceptionally beautiful and powerful film in an interview with Scott Foundas at the 46th New York Film Festival, October 9, 2008.