Hmmmm, so I was super excited about watching this film based on the trailer and I guess given my ridiculously high expectations, I am a little bit disappointed.
There’s a lot to like about the film. For one thing, it feels like the best documentary you ever saw of life in the Kazakh Steppes. It’s a really tough, nearly uninhabitable region full of dust storms and miles and miles of arid landscape with no sign of any vegetation. These shepherds seem to lead rather nomadic lives moving to a different location whenever they can’t find enough grass for the cattle to feed on. It feels like a place frozen in the past. On the plus side, photographing and chronicling this lifestyle seems to be the main intent of the filmmaker. So he really focuses on that and doesn’t really force-fit too much drama or plot into the narrative. Despite this, the film is engaging and fun to watch. I think the main reason for this is the landscape itself. Dvortsevoy films a large part of the film in these long takes and because of that, we get to see so much motion and dynamism in this otherwise still landscape. There are animals moving about, children running around, sandstorms stirring up in the background and all of this is observed really beautifully. There’s tons to look at on screen whether the scene is shot indoors or outdoors and that really kept me engaged throughout. Secondly, the cast is just all-around fantastic. Everyone feels like they are just playing themselves in the film. The kids are especially great and hey, so are the animals!
The film reminded me of the Varda films I watched a few months ago in that they seem to be a mixture of deliberate plotting / blocking and just letting the camera find stuff. There is something about that approach that fundamentally appeals to me. For instance, there is a scene involving a vet and a camel that I think had to have just happened. Secondly, there are some really awesome funny scenes in the film that feel so natural and perfect. A couple of them are already in the trailer but there are several others involving the kids and their father. There are two really dramatic scenes in the film work well also. Both are a little hard to watch (or they were for me since they involving animals giving birth).
What didn’t work so well for me was the contrast between how beautifully detailed and rich the film is when it’s just relying on nature / circumstance to do it’s job. Everything is vivid and fun and engaging. On the other hand, some of the scripted stuff fell flat for me in contrast. For instance, as much as I love the idea of Boney M playing in a tractor in the middle of the desert, the friend who can’t seem to talk about anything but women’s breasts comes off a little caricaturish. Likewise the exact manner in which the main character reveals his dreams to this girl just feels overly cute. Actually, I felt that way about most of the scenes where Asa is trying to talk to Tulpan didn’t really do much for me.
I think ultimately, I just didn’t feel sufficiently emotionally connected to the main character. On the other hand, I really felt for Ondas and his wife. I loved the no-nonsense characterization of Ondas and I think the actor just did such a splendid job of making him seem so fully-realized and likable.
I definitely give the filmmaker a lot of kudos for making this film. It’s evident that it’s a labor of love and that these are some horribly difficult circumstances to shoot in. Yeah, I really wish I loved this one without any reservations .