Having seen “The Story of the Weeping Camel” and “The Cave of the Yellow Dog”, Byambasuren Davaa’s engrossing and eye-opening docudramas about life as a Mongolian nomad, I was intrigued to hear that “Tulpen”, a movie about a family of Kazakh nomads, directed by Sergei Dvortsevoy, was screening at our local cinema. This 2008 film won many international awards including one at Cannes, but my main reason for going was my fascination with nomadic life, particularly in Asia.
Boni, Asa’s suitably-named, bone-headed friend zooms across the steppe in an old jeep papered with pin-ups from girly magazines, and dreams of the big city. But Asa, home from a stint in the Russian Navy, wants nothing more than to find a wife and become shepherd of his own flock. He comes to live with his sister, married to a shepherd and with three children, living in a yurt in a near-perpetual sandstorm, many miles from the nearest village. The main plot line of the film centers around Asa’s attempts to win the hand of Tulpan, the only girl of marriageable age in the area.
The Kazakh steppes are the most inhospitable landscape I’ve seen on film– endless parched plains covered with a few inches of scrub here and there, where tornadoes of sand whip up from one moment to the next, and there is no sign of water. Yet families of nomads with flocks of sheep, camels and donkeys live here, eking out a living, creating home in the middle of nowhere.
Although the film never leaves the steppes, whispers of the Western world drift through– magazine pictures of state-of-the-art solar-paneled Japanese houses, a poster of the wedding portrait of Prince Charles and Lady Diana (he’s American, according to Boni), and the Kazakh State Radio broadcasts that his sister’s oldest boy memorizes compulsively. For a while, the only music we hear comes from the one single Boni appears to own, Boney M’s “By the Rivers of Babylon”, which he turns to full volume as he races across the steppe. A more incongruous song is hard to imagine.
Who can blame any of them for desiring a life in the city, as they wrestle camels and donkeys in the blinding storm, and try to save lambs born in some of the worst conditions imaginable? The nomadic life that is documented here is swiftly dying out, as young people stream into the cities, drawn by seductive images and fantasies of an easier life.
Yet, strangely, I came to envy them. The mother cradling her baby between her knees and singing him a lamp-lit lullaby moved me more than any recorded music, because I realized that what she has is so precious. How many of us sing at work or play any more? How many of us are even comfortable with the sound of our own voices?
Her nine-year-old daughter sings constantly also, sings to be seen and heard in a male-dominated world, leans her back against the yurt and sings her defiance into the wind.
Towards the end of the movie, the family dismantle their yurt and stack all their belongings in a cart. When they move on, nothing is left by a swiftly disappearing circle in the sand.