Reviewed by John Stakes

The scene: in cold, windswept, inhospitable surroundings, far removed from the farmyard pens and the comfort of the flock, a frightened pregnant sheep lies on rough thin pasture trying to give birth assisted by a novice herdsman. Are we somewhere above Grains Gill perhaps?

No we are deep inside Asia having been transported thousands of miles to the flat almost barren, featureless landscape of the Steppe region of Kazakhstan around 500 kilometres from the nearest town or city. How anyone or anything other than scrub can survive here is a miracle. But Asa’s family can and do. And one of the many surprises in Sergey Dvortsevoy’s fine film was the ability of these people to identify with their harsh surroundings. This wasteland was delineated only by the distant horizon but the family lived and worked around their makeshift homestead (yurt) and seemed to have an inner balance with nature matched with a sense of happiness which transcended the perils of their existence.

Returning home after being discharged from the Russian Navy and longing to become a herdsman with his own ranch Asa finds himself immediately at odds with his much older brother-in-law Ondas who is married to his younger sister Samal. They have three children. The boss who owns their land tells Asa he cannot survive the conditions without the support of a wife so he cannot become a herdsman until he marries.

Unfortunately there is but one woman living within wooing distance, Tulpan, whom we never meet and merely catch glimpses of. She is not interested despite Asa’s best efforts. Ondas is not supportive because he feels Asa does not have what it takes to become a herdsman. And Asa’s western culture loving friend Boni is forever trying to persuade him to return to the city.

Asa grows increasingly distanced from his dreams until one fateful day he finds the pregnant missing sheep and manages to learn animal midwifery literally on the hoof and the lamb is born and, against the odds, survives. Asa renews his advances to Tulpan but his overtures fail as she has been secreted away by her mother. Asa resolves to return to the city but as he tries to leave he realises the truth of Samal’s good counsel that the only people who value him are his family so he turns back to them as they set off for pastures new but probably no more fertile.

For his cast Dvortsevoy, a native of Kazakhstan, used only one professional actor, the 19 years old Samal Yeslyamova (playing Asa’s sister) and insisted everyone lived on the Steppe for a month prior to filming to achieve the wholly authentic feel of the film. Most of the scenes were scripted and shot on an improvised basis for the same reason. There was much gentle humour to reflect the family’s oneness with their surroundings. The scene in which Asa speaks to an empty stall in which he believes Tulpan to be hiding only to be comforted by the sole occupant, a goat, was delightful.

When the film was first released it was frowned upon by government officials who felt it was no less degrading than Borat’s depiction of Kazakhstan’s people, but its release to an international audience brought instant success for its infectious simplicity and charm, and it was the winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It was warmly received by the largest Keswick audience of the Club’s spring season.