Directed by Sergei Parajanov
Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic
Robert J. Flaherty, the director of the first commercially successful feature length documentary film, Nanook of the North (1922), once said, “Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit.” This controversial statement speaks to the heart of his legendary film Nanook of the North, which follows a family of Inuit living in the Canadian arctic. While it is considered to be a milestone in documentary filmmaking, its authenticity has been challenged over the fact that Flaherty staged many of its sequences, such as making the title character hunt with a spear when he had hunted with a gun for years. But those who would defend the film point out that while Nanook was using with the wrong weapon, he was still captured on film hunting real wild animals. While the details were skewed, the most important aspect of the hunting ritual, the interaction between hunter and prey, remained intact.
So this raises a simple question: can filmmakers lie in order to tell the truth? This question can be taken a step further by asking if fiction can be used to capture reality. This conflict between reality and fantasy is at the heart of one of the true triumphs of Soviet filmmaking, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. The first film by the notorious Sergei Parajanov, who spent his entire career at odds with the Soviet government over the content of his work, it is a loving reconstruction and depiction of Ukrainian Hutsul culture. Now, let me establish one thing at the start: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is not a documentary, nor does it intend to be an ethnographic reconstruction. However, just like the title suggests, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a kind of shadow theater of a culture long neglected. Its story is an outgrowth of Hutsul tradition and culture. Through the use of fiction and fantasy, Parajanov creates one of the most authentic realizations of a unique culture in the history of cinema.
The film takes place in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine. Inhabiting these foggy rocks is a small village. In it, we meet two small children, Ivan and Marichka. Though they are young, they fall in love. But as fate would have it, their relationship is forbidden, as Marichka is the daughter of the man who killed Ivan’s father. But as they grow older, there love increases. They decide to marry despite their families’ conflict. But one day when Ivan is out earning money for a household, Marichka accidentally drowns in a river. Ivan is understandably heartbroken. Years later, though, he meets another woman, Palagna, and marries her. Sadly, their relationship becomes strained as it becomes apparent that Ivan still loves Marichka. Palagna eventually asks a local sorcerer to make him fall in love with her and give her a child. But Ivan discovers the relationship between Marichka and the sorcerer and tries to kill him with an axe one night. The sorcerer retaliates, supposedly killing him. We then follow his soul as it travels into the woods to meet with the spirit of Marichka. Finally, the two lovers are together.
If it sounds like I am rushing through the story, it is because I am. But that is because the film itself seems to consider the story as secondary. True, it needs the plot to push the story forward. But where the true majesty of this film lies is in its attention to everyday Hutsul life and culture. For example, Parajanov seems to spend more time detailing the Hutsul marriage ceremony than he does exploring Ivan and Palagna’s courtship. Like a surgeon, he dissects the various wedding traditions and offers them up to the audience. We are confronted by every little detail, from the ceremonial outfits to the processions and to the act of uniting the two in holy matrimony. The scene where Ivan and Palagna are blindfolded and yoked together in front of the altar seems more important than the words being said or their religious significance. Parajanov must have assumed that his audience would have been familiar with Christian religious ritual, so he obsesses over the ceremony’s Hutsul flavor.
It is this flavor that dominates the film. It isn’t enough to show Ivan working in order to save money for Marichka, we must be shown how the work is done. Why have a funeral or a wedding if we cannot watch the festival that takes place afterwards? And at that festival, why just show people dancing? Why don’t we pay close attention to how the villagers dance? It is the how, not necessarily the why that dominates the film. By focusing on these details, this movie’s simple, if not contrived, plot takes on distinctive Hutsul characteristics. It becomes a living witness to the Hutsul people and their culture. It is for this reason that Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is able to tell the truth about a society. Through fiction, it is able to depict the authentic heart of an entire society.
But to assume that Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a slow, boring film is entirely inaccurate. In fact, it gallops with an energy that few filmmakers have been able to match. Parajanov’s camera is as giddy as a little child, swinging and swaying around his characters and their village. In times of rapture, it flies with the energy of a ribbon around a maypole. And when there is tragedy, it suddenly becomes more stoic and contemplative. Also of note is Parajanov’s incredible use of color. Different shades and hues dominate the screen during times of turmoil and conflict. After Marichka’s death, Ivan spends time mourning. During this time the film is in black and white. At other times, the frame composition contains muted colors only to be suddenly splashed by reds and yellows. In one memorable scene, Ivan hallucinates a stampede of red horses which seem to melt into a stream of blood. But these do not conflict with the film’s authenticity. They represent the polarizing emotions and feelings experienced by those within Hutsul society.
Daring, haunting, foreboding, and beautiful, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors creates a new world for the cinema to inhabit. It is a Hutsul world, and it is stunning. But maybe it was a little too stunning. Because of its style and content, it was at odds with the social realism style that the Soviet government supported. They demanded that the film be changed. Parajanov refused and was eventually blacklisted from Soviet cinema. Because of the Soviet ban on his work, the man who could have easily gone down in history as one of the cinema’s greatest auteurs could only make three more films after Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. But thankfully his few works do survive as a testament to his talent and genius. Maybe we can learn from them. After all, not many films have been able to redefine and reinvent the way that we look at society, culture, and our fellow man. It is our duty to preserve them, just as Parajanov immortalized the Hutsul in this forgotten treasure of a film.