A squiggly black wet lamb squirms out of its mother's body, slimy with mucus. The camera captures this riveting moment of birth in the middle of the wide sandy landscape of the Kazakh steppe. Asa, the protagonist of Sergey Dvortsevoy's new film Tulpan, hugs the struggling lamb to his face and presses his mouth to it, the creature still attached by a umbilical chord. He does not want another lamb to die, as two tiny black things have already perished at birth. The freshly minted lamb squirms to life with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Publicist Richard Lormand had already alerted me two months before, over coffee in Philadelphia, that this would be the most magical long take in recent film history: "Imagine: twenty minutes of watching a lamb being born!" Indeed, the packed audience at the film's debut hollered applause and the film won top prize of Cannes' Certain Regard category.
The film is extraordinary not only for this shot (which came serendipitously during the shoot; the director said: 'keep the camera rolling!' and made the scene the climax of the story), but because of its depiction of nomadic life in Kazakhstan. No sociological clichés in this film: what we have is a celebration of a people, who laugh as they handle sheep, clown about under a wide blue sky, smoke cigars over magazines and desire.
The main character, Asa, desires love: the love of Tulpan, a girl who hides behind a curtain. He also desires a life in the city. Yet by the end, he realizes, as we do with him, that the intensity and beauty of the Steppe is happiness enough.
Dvortsevoy, a tall dark haired man dressed in black, calmly sat in the elegant lawn chair of the Grand Hotel terrace, not betraying the excitement of this special day for him. His film had traveled from the Steppe to Cannes -- and he had been in the audience when they thunderously applauded. "It was a miracle," he said. "That the film is here. But I believe in miracles. Asa learns that too, that he will have what he wants at the end. As Chekhov said, 'everything will happen.' With patience."
He continued: "I wanted in my scenes of animals giving birth to show the miracle of life. I only like movies that have a miracle in them. If they don't, why bother?"
He also wanted to create a meditation on happiness. He was born in the city, in Kazakhstan, five hundred kilometers from the steppes, and worked as a radio engineer for Aeroflat, for nine years. Then he serendipitously saw an ad in the paper, to write an essay to go to film school, and he applied and won. No, he had had no particular interest to become a film director. He just knew he needed to change his life to be happy.
And with this new film, his first fiction film (his previous four were documentaries), he continued his philosophical quest: "I was interested in how the Kazaks can be happy."
The conclusion: "I think everyone is the same. All people think that happiness is somewhere else, but it is everywhere, even if conditions are tough. My main character Asa evolves and understands you can be happy without a satellite dish, if you know real love and have real connection with people around you."
Yet "connection" is a quality that today people tend to lose, Dvortsevoy noted. Especially connection with nature. "When you go to the steppes, the first feeling is that is simply space. But then you realize everything is there. Birds, nature. In cities, we lose the connection to nature. The Kazaks know about the moon for example, the faces of the moon. For us, it is a lamp. Maybe the Kazaks don't have so comfortable a life, but they have a very good balance in their soul."
The director believes in the "soul", and in art as the expression of the soul. "I wanted to show in my film my own breathing. To connect my breathing with the breathing of the landscape. What I like about making movies is that I create a parallel universe that now exists."
"Without miracles," Dvortsevoy concluded. "Life is not that interesting."