Sunday, May 3, 2009

Every Little Steppe

Homophones, you say?  I'll have you know that some of my best friends are homophones! Consider the following:


Curiously, one particular homophone has a lopsided history of usage in the English langauge: step/steppe.  That's because, while the first word (step) is common to the English language, the second word (steppe) is not. For many culture vultures, their first exposure to the concept of a steppe occurred while listening to a symphonic poem by Alexander Borodin. Take a moment to relax and enjoy this performance of Bordodin's In The Steppes of Central Asia by the Philharmonic Orchestra of Urals (who knew?).

* * * * * * * *

In recent years, more and more films are starting to focus on Central Asia. From documentaries like The Story of the Weeping Camel to comedies like Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America To Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and warrior/costume epics like Mongol, previously ignored parts of Central Asia (such as Mongolia and Kazakhstan) are filling cinema screens. Featuring plenty of dust, dirt, and an occasional yurt, these movies take us to a part of the world we might not normally choose to visit.  There is great natural beauty to be found on the steppes of Russia. Two films recently screened at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival provided armchair adventures in this rarely seen part of the world.

Swiss film director Gael Metroz was so captivated by the travel writings of Nicolas Bouvier that, in the fall of 2005,  he decided to follow Bouvier's 1952 route from Geneva to Istanbul, across Central Asia, down through India to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and eventually to Japan. Whereas Bouvier documented his travel during the 1950s in his book, L'Usage du Monde, Metroz is working alone with a camera as he wends his way eastward.

To his chagrin, some of the places Bouvier visited (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka) are now saddled with bitter political conflicts. Terrified by the Taliban, he changes course and starts to travel with the nomads who populate the steppes of Asia. As a visitor, he is honored by them and welcomed without question. He soon learns that their life, while simple and at times physically demanding, is filled with a different kind of emotional satisfaction. His camera catches many moments of beauty, from natural vistas to tribal costumes, from eerie shots of a huge moon to lonely journeys atop a camel.

Nomad's Land often feels like a National Geographic travelogue in which a solo traveler is rescued from loneliness by an itinerant population of nomadic tribesmen. By opting for the open steppe (as opposed to cities like Tabriz) Metroz hooks up with traveling colonies of Iran's Qashaq'is, Pakistan's Kalashs, Pamir's Kyrgyz, and India's gypsies. Whether traveling by bus, jeep, yak, camel, or on foot, he gives his camera free rein to capture the faces, clothing, and lifestyles of these itinerant people who open up their lives to a stranger from Europe. As he continues to travel toward Sri Lanka (and away from Western culture), Metroz finds himself feeling freer, happier, and more at peace with himself than ever before -- often not even wanting to return to Switzerland.  

Filmmaker Gael Metroz

In the end, Metroz discovers (as Bouvier did) that the rewards of travel are not always about accumulating the preapproved destinations known to civilized culture as trophies on a check list but, instead, discovering the joys of the unknown. In his director's notes, Metroz states:
"During these 13 months of filming, I spent the first days in each new tribe sharing its activity -- learning to understand a little, to love, milking goats, grinding grain.Then I could start using equipment as unobtrusively as light (DvCam camera) and lend it to the more curious, letting them shoot and look at their shots later in the day.  Thanks to this "only luxury of time" said Bouvier, it was possible to shoot without offending the conscientiousness, nor breaking the natural charm of a genuine scene where "the foreigner" and his camera are now part of the landscape.  More secretly, the film chooses beliefs, images, and music which are most representative of the place and not the most expected.  Thus, this film in which poetry and travel [go] hand in hand is not a documentary aimed at tracing "pieces of land" passed by Nicolas Bouvier, but a praise to the slowness, privacy, and random encounters on the road where everyone still keeps a bit of dust in the soul -- a story that makes us go from the dust of the books to the dust of the roads."

* * * * * * * *
By contrast, Sergey Dvortsevoy's first feature film, Tulpan, has a very clear story line. Having finished his stint in the Russian navy, Asa (the handsome and expressive Ashkat Kuchinchirekov) has returned home to the barren steppes where his family lives in an isolated yurt, intent on marrying a young woman and settling down to raise sheep. Although his friend Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov), who has decorated his truck with pin-ups and porn, would love to strike out for the fast life in the big city, Asa passionately  -- and stubbornly -- wants to become a herdsman. He's even painted his dream version of what his life should be on the back of the collar of his sailor's uniform.

Unfortunately, Asa cannot get a herd of his own sheep until he is married. The only possible match is a young woman named Tulpan, who rejects his advances because she thinks his ears are too big (in truth. Tulpan's mother wants her daughter to get a university education so that she can escape their hard life on the steppes). 

Meanwhile, Asa's presence in the yurt he shares with his sister Samal (Samal Yeslyamova), his brother-in-law Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov), and their children, is becoming less and less desirable. Many of Ondas's sheep are dying from a lack of grass and nutrients in their diet. Too many pregnant sheep are delivering stillborn lambs. 

As far as Ondas is concerned, Asa is an unnecessary burden (as well as an extra mouth to feed). But when Asa manages to deliver a lamb that has presented in breech position by reaching into the sheep's womb, manually extracting the lamb, and performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to keep it alive, he shows his brother-in-law that he is capable of becoming a true herdsman.

The real-life delivery is a powerful piece of filmmaking that will haunt viewers long after the film has ended.  In his director's notes, Dvortsevoy states that: 
"I knew from experience that it would  be very difficult to catch a sheep that's giving birth and that she would allow us to shoot this (usually, they run away).  So I told the camera department to be ready for hard work.  First, they had to follow sheep without the camera to understand how they move, then with a small video camera, and only after these tests. could they actually use the film camera. The crew spent two weeks just following sheep.  In the third week, we tried several times on video to understand what camera movements should be used when the  sheep is giving birth. Once the camera crew was technically ready, we waited for one of the thousands of sheep to give birth. The method of shooting was very unusual.  We started shooting the two key scenes of the script first, which were the two lamb birth scenes.  We had to shoot them immediately and under time pressure --  a sheep giving birth won't wait for preparation.

I didn't rehearse with the actor before the actual birth scene. I told him what to do according to how the scene developed.  He didn't know he would actually have to help the lamb to exit the womb. Only when I saw the lamb could die, I decided he had to help. He ended up very shocked, as he's not from the countryside. It was the first time he did something like this. But this is why the scene is so organic. In the end, the most difficult thing for the actors was to be as strong as the animals."

There is much to admire in the natural beauty of Tulpan's setting, whether it be the resident sheep, goats, dogs, and camels or the fierce sandstorms that can suddenly dominate the landscape. Performed in Russian and Kazakh with English subtitles, the story of Asa's matrimonial predicament is much less compelling than witnessing the day-to-day trials of herdsmen on the steppes of Asia as they struggle to keep their animals alive. Here's the trailer:

No comments: