Cross-over director Sergey Dvortsevoy has made a name for himself over the last ten to fifteen years through a handful of noteworthy documentaries.
All his films have a focus on some of society’s neglected existences, and are all characterised by a personal tone and an almost unique film language, where the camera is held fixed on barely discernable motifs, until life itself sprouts from the cracks.
Thus his probably best-known film Bread Day (1998) – about the life of fifteen to twenty elderly people who are the only remaining inhabitants in a village near St. Petersburg – begins with an eight-minute long, continuous recording of six to seven pensioners struggling to push a whole freight-train wagon with their weekly supply of bread through the snowwhite winter landscape from the main railway line down a siding which ends at the village. During the entire 52-minute film, there are only sixteen cuts.
When I first met Dvortsevoy in 1999 at the television conference Input in Fort Worth, Texas, he explained:
– The problem with many documentaries is that they have a journalistic approach. Their sole aim is to illustrate the director’s innermost thoughts and opinions. It is largely irrelevant what the pictures show, because these filmmakers just want to tell the audience what they, the filmmakers themselves, think. I don’t think that is interesting. I would much rather people looked at the screen with an awareness that it is life itself that they are observing. It is the audience who must react to what is shown by the images, not me.
– That is why I avoid cutting into my film takes whenever possible. If I cut, the images become reduced to being illustrations of an idea. And then they are only watched in order to
interpret the meaning. I want people to feel how reality really is at this specific place. If I began to cut, it would be a lie. When you cut during a shooting, you kill real life, and you must have a very good reason to do that.
Dvortsevoy has directed two other documentaries since 1999. One, Highway (1999), depicts the lives of a small traveling circus troupe in Kazakhstan, while the other In the Dark (2004) is a portrait of an elderly blind man in one of Moscow’s bleak concrete suburbs.
In his first feature film Tulpan (2008) he uses ninety well-chosen minutes to give a cinematic presentation of life on the endless Kazakh Steppe – the dream landscape of his childhood.
Tulpan tells the story of a young man, Asa, who as a sailor has experienced the most incredible adventures on the great oceans, but upon returning to Kazakhstan has had difficulty finding a girlfriend among the few available nomadic women. He and his friend Boni fantasize about trying their luck in the city, but the film takes place entirely on the flat and dusty steppes, where – apart from the sheep – not a living creature is to be found as far as the eye can see. The film is shot in the vicinity of Ust-Kamenogorsk, the provincial capital of the eastern and very desolate part of Kazakhstan. And in order to even film there, and get a team of thirty people to function in these surroundings, a kind of primitive hotel had to be built on the steppe:
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