Tulpan (Zeitgeist), the first narrative film from Russian documentary director Sergei Dvortsevoy is fiction steeped in the landscape and nomadic lives of the shepherds of unending plains of Kazakhstan. Asa (the optimistic and upbeat Askhat Kuchinchirekov) is a young Kazakh man who returns home from service in the Russian navy to join his sister’s family as a shepherd scraping out a living on the barren Hunger Steppes. He must have a wife if he wants his own flock and (dressed to impress in his naval uniform) he woos the shy Tulpan, unseen but for eyes only glimpsed behind a chador, but this is no romantic fable. The sheep are starving, the potential bride is unwilling and Asa’s buddy, a rowdy young man whose truck in the only link these folks have to rest of the world, wants Asa to leave it all behind and go with him to the city.
The film has a distinctive, deliberate rhythm that suggests the different pace of life here and Dvortsevoy shoots each scene as a single, unbroken handheld shot, which gives adds unexpected drama to the scenes, notably a live sheep birth that Asa must midwife without an assist from his gruff but experienced brother-in-law. There is plenty of life and humor to the film, thanks to the little kids scrambling around the yurt and singing their hearts out, and to a determined camel relentlessly following a calf wrapped in gauze and tucked into the motorcycle sidecar of the area vet. While it is no documentary, this lovingly made film captures a culture and a rural way of life with a mix of realism and poetry. In Kazakh with English subtitles.