Ukrainian director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk said in an interview with cultural publication Sirp that for Ukraine, it is very important now that the voices of Ukrainians are being heard now on the international stage, and it does not matter whose voice it is: That of a director, a writer or a medical worker.
This week at the Cannes Film Festival's "Authors' Fortnight", "Pamfir" a fresh and vibrant Ukrainian film, premiered. This is a folklore-rich crime thriller that is set in rural Ukraine on the border with Romania and stars a man who has returned home after many years of working abroad. Circumstances force him to return to his old haunts and he starts smuggling again to pay off some of his debts and settle accounts.
On the occasion of the premiere, the director, Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk, talked about the background of his film.
You have used boldly folklore themes and elements in 'Pamfir' and that makes the atmosphere of the movie very original. Could you tell us about your decisions for creating this world?
First of all, I should say that I have used folklore more as a background. It's important for identification of characters, and it is even important for my self-identification, but I certainly didn't intend for it to be the main theme of the film. The most important for me are the character traits of the main protagonists and their fate.
The events are taking place in a very special location, Bukovina, where I come from. It is located on the border between Ukraine and Romania, and even the border with Moldova is nearby, so it is a very multicultural place and that has a deep impact on people's lives.
Even after leaving Bukovina, you feel you belong there. During the actual filming and preparations for it, I understood that we should show how deep-rooted the local customs are: It accompanies the locals in everything they do, how they live their lives and what they love.
Folk tradition has a very big influence on everyday life there. For example, the Malanka (a holiday that is celebrated in Ukraine and Belarus on January 13, which is the New Year in the Julian calendar – ed.), which we also see in "Pamfir", is the most important event of the year in many Bukovina villages. It is even safe to say it represents the character of the region where I am from.
The protagonist of 'Pamfir', Leonid, is a man facing a very difficult choice. What made you interested in his character, where did he come from?
When you are crossing paths with someone and want to know more about the person, you probably would start a conversation. At some point you might hear them talk about personal moments in their lives that were pivotal, that have changed everything for them. Leonid's turning points were partly left behind, but life has made them all too real again.
It was important for me to show a character whose choices have made him strong: If faced with a difficult choice, he would make the necessary hard decision. It's what connects us all as human beings on some existential level. We all have had such points of no return. In this story, I tried to depict in the key scenes, in the most emotional moments, how this existential flow goes through a strong personality, who had resolved the situation but then had to live on. He makes decisions that are neither good nor bad, but they simply had to be made for the sake of his family. In such a situation, a serious person is able to make a choice and to take a responsibility. For more than two years, I was looking for someone to play the role of Leonid, and finally I found Oleksandr Yatsenyuk. He is a professional actor and "Pamphir" is his debut feature-length film. Previously he made a few shorts and TV series. There is something very deep and personal about him. He comes across as a human being who takes care of others when it is necessary, but also of himself. I was lucky to find him.
Leonid's nickname 'Pamfir' is referred to only once in the film, in passing
Everybody asks what the name means, but I wanted it to appear in the movie just once, for a few seconds. I wanted to point out that the actual person is much more important than his or her name suggests or what this name means.
Is Pamfir and his situation a reference to the war in Ukraine, i.e., is Pamfir's dilemma an allegory of war?
Yes, definitely. Looking at Pamfir, one can perhaps understand why our soldiers, volunteers and warriors, are so strong, brave and unbreakable. And the same goes for all those who have stood on the Maidan square (in 2014 - ed.) or survived the current Russian aggression. I could say that the Ukrainian way of thinking is characterized by the need to defend what is one's own: One's own land, people, community and family. There is a scene in the film where Pamfir and his son offer to sell their bikes to pay off their debts. In the background we are seeing scenes from Maidan square on TV. While the film takes place before the current war in Ukraine, it refers to it as part of the protagonists' lives. Moreover, there is a link between Pamfir and the twin brothers who appear in the film that refers to the conflict, because the twins' father was Pamfir's friend, but the Russians killed him in Donbas. This is a reference to the war, but again only in the background.
Making a movie can be unpredictable. Did you shoot according to the plan, or made unexpected choices?
We had a very long rehearsal period, almost three months, so we were very thorough and detailed in our preparation. We also practiced the camera movements in all the scenes. We planned all the single-shot scenes very carefully. There were changes and surprises during the shoot, but we relied on our preparations and had a pretty good idea of how the characters might react in one situation or another. And one more thing: We shot the entire film first with an iPhone and only then did we actually film it. That way, we knew in advance what the scenes were going to look like. It was a kind of a choreography exercise – with actors, cinematographer, crew.
The long shots in the film are absolutely stunning and there were quite a lot of them. Was it your intention to tell the story in long, moving camera shots and without much editing?
This has been the plan from the start. It was very important for me to tell the story in images, in moving paintings. If I have to explain this: We've tried to achieve the effect of Hieronymus Bosch's paintings. So we placed the character in the situation that represents best a slice of his everyday activities. Each episode captures some bit of actuality – as Brueghel's painting also do. The story of the film supports the episode so that the viewer can identify with the character. When a viewer is connected in such a way to the story then you should not cut the scene shorter, or you risk cutting out just the right bit of information for some individual viewers – and in that case he or she might loose the attention all together. Our primary goal was the following: "We just film all the scenes and then choose only those that make sense in full, i.e., without any editing. The rhythm of long shots is interrupted only in one church choir scene. The choral composition, which lasts four-and-a-half minutes, has images that travel from parents to their child singing, and back again. The viewer, however, stays in the moment together with the music, which keeps the scene together. So the soundtrack and the song in this long shot keep the scene together.
What are your expectations for Cannes?
Normality almost does not exist for me any more, so Cannes and the life around here, is like a memory lane to a peaceful life with my family in my former surroundings.
We feel as though our older life is back for a moment and we can show in Cannes how unique Ukraine is and introduce our extraordinary people. Sharing this knowledge is a joy and an honor. I want to talk about who we are, and maybe then the audience will understand why we are resisting so tenaciously.
Would you use the Cannes Forum to get your message across?
Absolutely. For me, this platform is the possibility to talk about my country and the situation the Ukrainians are in right now. It is very important for Ukraine that our voices are heard on the international stage, and it doesn't matter whose voice it is, whether it is of a director, a writer or a medical worker. If we have the opportunity to address an international audience, we will use this opportunity to talk about what is happening in our country, what we have to live through, and what should be done to stop Russian aggression.
You are currently filming a new documentary project. What is it about?
I'm shooting a documentary about sculptors in Ukraine who are turning abandoned battle tanks into artworks. It's for the New Yorker, I'm collaborating with them now.
Editor: Kristina Kersa