Paradise

Russian director Sergei Dvortsevoy's mesmerizing documentary shorts are rooted in the primitive beginnings of the form, when American explorer Robert Flaherty first turned his camera on the Eskimos in 1922's Nanook Of The North. Like Flaherty, Dvortsevoy is held rapt by barren, forbidding landscapes—in his case, the dusty steppes of remote Kazakhstan—and is primarily an ethnographer, more interested in behavior than psychology. Through long takes and stark, artfully composed tableaux, Highway and Paradise gather impressions of nomadic life without shoehorning them into a conventional narrative framework. Along the 2,000-mile stretch of dirt road leading to Uzbekistan, the lone time marker in Highway is a downed eagle, slowly recovering under the care of the Tadjibajevs, a traveling family circus. Dvortsevoy shows a couple of their routines, performed for a smattering of impoverished villagers: One involves the eldest son holding a 70-pound weight by his teeth while his father whacks it with a sledgehammer, while the other has a 3-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl walking on a pile of broken glass. But the director is more interested in those long stretches when the troupe crams into a stubborn, hand-cranked bus and travels for countless bumpy miles with no other goals than a wealthier audience. Despite the harsh conditions, Dvortsevoy captures a feeling of intimacy and warmth in close quarters, defined at one point by an affecting mother's lullaby that sets the entire family at ease. The 25-minute Paradise is less concerned with people than with documenting behavior in general, drawing basic parallels between wild animals and the humans who shepherd them through the steppe. To cite a typical example, Dvortsevoy juxtaposes a funny scene in which a cow gets its head stuck in a milk jug with the strikingly similar image of a baby boy devouring a bowl of sour cream face first. But Paradise spends much of the time hammering home the irony in its title, amping up the sounds of swirling winds, perpetually buzzing flies, and the agonizing screams of a camel getting its nose pierced with a pocket knife. As with Highway, Dvortsevoy is compelled by natural beauty but not by judgment, and his willingness to let the living world unfold for the camera produces moments of transcendent beauty.

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