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Extreme cinema 

Hypnotic documentaries examine nomadic lifestyles

Filmmaking from the fringe featuring marginal subjects off even the Russian cinematic radar, Kazakhstan director Sergey Dvortsevoy's Highway and Paradise are documentary portraits bristling with life and imagination beneath their apparently flat, dry surface. In the 52-minute Highway, Dvortsevoy chronicles a family of dirt poor Kazakhstan circus performers who travel with their six children from one dismal backwater to another on a desperate strip of highway linking Central Asia and Russia.

Paradise is a 25-minute survey of the not entirely enviable lot of nomadic sheep herders whose opening "scene" of a toddler eating a bowl of gruel either hooks you or sends you running for the exit doors.

With a filmmaking style whose most distinctive feature is the director's camera shots that mimic the blank stare into the middle distance of a fatigued subway commuter, Dvortsevoy's films will be endurance tests for the majority of viewers. But for documentary devotees and fans of contemplative, off-the-beaten-path cinema, these are often hypnotically watchable, visual meditations on a way of life so extreme it seems extraterrestrial.

Highway opens with a definitive moment of poverty's degradation as the Tadjibajev family perform their act, while Dad intones to an audience of anxious kiddies, "Let's see if he'll get crushed and if the glass will rip his back!" "He" is the oldest son, whose bare stomach Dad drops a 70-pound weight onto, in the Third World version of family dysfunction.

The act is one of the more flashy in the family's rather grim repertoire, which consists mostly of some sloppy, half-hearted somersaults and tumbling and the Dickensian "trick" where Dad has two of his toddler-age children walk barefoot across broken glass. These tricks are followed by Dad's command to his audience to "Applaud!" The level of incompetency in this family circus, including a dad who interrupts his emceeing duties to wipe one of his "talent's" snotty nose, would be hilarious if not soon overshadowed by the depressing poverty that makes the laughter go down a little hard.

Crying babies, bickering siblings, a mother at her wit's end threatening to slap every child in sight, a rickety breakdown-prone bus, dirt and parched earth as far as the eye can see, it's a Saturday afternoon at Super Kmart or just another day on the road with the Tadjibajevs.

Returning to life among the forlorn and isolated is Dvortsevoy's Paradise, a succession of vignettes meant to convey something of the end-of-the-Earth peculiarity of life on the bleak steppes of South Kazakhstan. The experiment pays off. The film's only real musical score is the infernal screeching buzz of flies and the maddening bleating of a couple hundred sheep to form the A and B side of Hell's soundtrack. Paradise is a rollickingly sexy adventure story compared to the Highway saga, featuring one scene of a cow getting its head stuck in a milk pail and another of an ornery, moonshine-high nomad youth having an understandable moment of where-in-God's-name-am-I? panic. "Do I have to spend all my life on the steppe with sheep?" the poor boy wails, followed with a threatening, "I'm going to town!" One is unlikely to come across such a level of engulfing despair in many films today. The boy's gaze at the edge of the existential abyss is well illustrated by Dvortsevoy's shots of wilderness so barren and bone-dry it makes America's godforsaken strip malls look like things of beauty.

Highway and Paradise undoubtedly will be too grueling for most, but for fearless cinematic adventurers willing to step outside the four walls of the familiar, these films are truly transporting and eye-opening.

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