Russian filmmaker Sergei Dvortsevoy’s acclaimed drama Tulpan was shot on location in the Betpak Dala in southern Kazakhstan. The film (read my review) follows the plight of Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov), a young man who dreams of finding a wife and one day owning his own herd. Shortly after Tulpan was completed it premiered in Cannes in 2008 where it won the Un Certain Regard Prize, paving the way for a slew of gongs and accolades from film festivals and film critics across the world. In Australia for a few days to promote Tulpan, Dvortsevoy sat down for a chat with Cinetology.
What sort of response has Tulpan received from Australian journalists?
Oh, good. I had good reviews. I read some good reviews in Sydney and also had a very good response from audiences at Q and A’s. They went very well. Very good questions. Very warm reactions.
I believe you’re staying at the Como Hotel in Melbourne. That’s a pretty swish hotel – it’s quite a lot different to the locations you filmed in Tulpan, isn’t it?
(Laughing). Yes. A lot.
I knew before I watched Tulpan that you came from a background in documentary, so I wasn’t surprised to find that the film felt very realistic. You obviously value really authentic films. When you watch a Hollywood movie do you get frustrated by how contrived and fake they are? Can you imagine ever making an unrealistic movie yourself?
I have got a new proposal to work in the U.S. to make a film, a backing from independent producer in Los Angeles. But no I cannot imagine, because it is very hard to. I don’t like to control the movie completely, you know? To follow the script and just to illustrate the script. I am happy if I add some surprising moments and I like very much to change the script. I don’t like it to be like a factory, you know.
What were the reasons you decided to move from documentary filmmaking to fictional filmmaking?
In documentary it is not possible to go deeper because you have things like private relationships. I understand that I can make 10 different films about one person. You can make 10 different pictures about me, and you can show me however you want. I can look clever or silly or kind or evil. The thing with documentary is I can make whatever I want with people. I don’t like this and I don’t like that responsibility. It’s, you know, private life. So I prefer to make fiction over non-fiction films because it is imagination, but sometimes real life also. You create every second of this reality and you create it with actors and dialogue.
So basically you’re saying that documentary is just like fiction, in that you create characters by manufacturing a representation of real people. So do you find that with fiction, you are a lot freer to make your own characters?
For sure, because it is not private life. All directors, we are manipulators. We manipulate a situation, people, a story, everything. But in fiction you create this life. You propose this life to actors for them to act. All this is not private conflict. That’s why it is different.
I think my films are different compared with for example Hollywood films because I propose for the audience to live with people, not to follow every second of the story but also sometimes to breathe with them and feel like you live with them in real time. That’s why I have these long takes. It gives the possibility for people to be inside the picture. Not only to be a spectator watching something entertaining but also to live this life, to feel the dust, to feel the wind and all the physical reality.
The locations in Tulpan are barren, dusty and rugged. In some shots it looks like there’s a tornado just metres away from the camera. Is that right?
First of all I would like to say that we didn’t use any computer effects in this film. What you see, all these things are real. All the scenes with animals, we didn’t use any special trainers. We just observed life and of course sometimes we were lucky enough that things happened – for instance tornadoes. Those shots, we caught them. This is real observation, you know, waiting for something and also creating some life situations with animals. A strong mix of real life and nature into fictional situations.
So how much of the film was observational and how much was written in a script?
Well I wrote a regular script. It was a 100 page script but then I changed about 80% of it. So it has about 20% of the original script. We improvised it a lot and we changed many scenes and we added some scenes, completely new scenes, because I saw some situations in shooting time and decided to change the script.
I assume one of these situations is the most talked about scene in the film, which is of course the lamb birth scene. I think is quite a stunning scene, largely because it’s so natural. Can you tell me how you prepared for this scene? How did it come to be?
I planned to make this scene of the lamb birth, but I felt it was going to be different. Easier. I didn’t know at the time that the sheep were going to be sick. Well not sick, just…weak. We trained with the camera crew and we just waited for this. I had cattle – 1000 sheep – and our shepherd controlled the situation. We had a connection by radio station and when he felt there was going to be a birth he told me it was coming. We had a special car, like emergency, and we went in to help the sheep. At the same time we didn’t know how they would give birth. I didn’t rehearse with the actor. I rehearsed with the camera crew, with sound people but not with actor because I wanted him to do this for the first time. In the script he is a newcomer and I wanted him to do it for the first time. That’s why you see it was organic. He was really scared. The actor was scared because it was a real situation, a real giving of birth and we didn’t know what would happen. He really wanted to help and it was a challenge for him.
When most audiences in the western world think about Kazakhstan and the cinema they probably think of the Borat movie. Do people often link your film to Borat? If so, are you sick of these comparisons?
Yeah, everywhere they do this. Not in every country but in Australia, almost all people saw Borat, but you know our film is based in rural Kazakhstan and is about real Kazakh situations and about life, people and relationships. I think Borat – I saw Borat, by the way – I think this film has nothing to do with Kazakhstan. They say he is a Kazakh journalist but in my view the film is about America. It is about American people and their perception of Kazakhstan and Asia. There are no Kazakh people (in Borat). I see on the screen only gypsy people. He shot gypsies, maybe in Romania or somewhere. There was no Kazakh people, no landscape, no nothing.
In Western cinema when filming animals, filmmakers need to be very careful about treating animals in accordance with lots of different regulations. Your film feels so organic and natural – did you have regulations and things you could and couldn’t do with animals or did you find you had a lot of freedom to simply capture what was there?
In Kazakhstan everywhere is different. The shepherds raise sheep and some of them live in harsh places – difficult places with tough nature. Many things can happen there with animals. I understand that in the West sometimes people think maybe it is too tough, too rude maybe, the relationship between people and animals but it is their reality. We just have to respect them, respect the Kazakh people because their life is very very difficult. For instance one time people there they cut ears, they cut off dog ears. Many people from the crew, they ask ‘why did they cut ears off dogs?’ They cut the ears because dogs fight with wolves. They cut the ears so not to allow wolves to bite their ears, and this is just one example that they have their own life and life is really tough there. It’s real wild nature and (while) making this film we tried to respect their rules.
The two main young characters in the film – Asa and his best friend –really idolise western culture. They dream about it and western culture lingers as a big thing in the back of their minds. According to your experiences is that true of a lot of Kazakh people?
Oh yes, because they watch TVs. Even in villages they can have TVs. Many of them idealise western life, they think it’s better, more interesting and comfortable and so on and so on…But I don’t want to make like a special competition between west culture and east culture. This is just life – I know many people like this. For me this film is about a need to be happy, even in this tough place.
You’ve done remarkably well with the film. Critically it’s been well received all over the world. It’s played in lots and lots of festivals and won many prizes including the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes. Are you surprised by Tulpan’s success and how well people have connected with it?
Yes, of course I was surprised. You know it was so difficult to make this film. It was a real challenge to survive there. It was very far. It was 500 kilometres from the city and a really wild place with tough nature. It was a challenge to survive and we were happy we survived it. We didn’t expect or plan any success. We just wanted to make our best to make the film. We finished just a few days before this premiere in Cannes. After this premiere it was a great success. We got the Un Certain Regard prize and two more prizes. We were happy because the reaction was so warm. Incredible for us. Incredible. We didn’t expect it, you know, we just wanted to be alive after making this film.
I think the title of the film is interesting, as you don’t show Tulpan. I think there is a very interesting relationship in cinema between what you reveal in images and what you don’t reveal. Sometimes I think it’s important to not show things. But usually with a character like Tulpan, who takes the title of the story and is the object of desire for the character, you would usually show her – don’t you think?
Exactly what you say. Sometimes it is very important what you don’t show, because you can somehow start to allow an audience to imagine something and imagination on film is very important. It adds a new dimension for the audience. Not only to be passive and be spectators but also to switch on to imagination. Sometimes this imagination is more important than direct information.