A well for the thirsty: folklore and decolonisation on the Ukrainian screen

Ivan Mykolaichuk and Larisa Kadochnikova in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (dir. Sergei Parajanov, 1965)

What does it take to be heard? What does it take to wake up from the nightmare of centuries of political and cultural imperialism, to pull yourself out of the liminal swamp of post-Soviet uncertainty? Russia’s war in Ukraine merely catalysed the process of moving from a post-colonial to a decolonial state, but it was a decisive factor in the fight against epistemic injustice – however difficult it might be to admit. Almost overnight, interest in Ukrainian culture has become a must for every Western intellectual. You have heard us, eventually. But where is the gateway you can enter through? What can we show you that will not scare you off?

In March 2022, Sergei Parajavov’s groundbreaking, hypnotising masterpiece Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) had already begun its triumphant parade around solidarity screenings all over Europe: an incontestable choice in the given context. An adaptation of a Hutsul Carpathian story made by an Armenian artist, a delicate outsider with an almost unearthly (yet deeply political) poetic lens, the film is thus already a translation: just loyal enough for Ukrainians to connect, just colourful and eccentric enough to flirt with Western dreams of the exotic Other. Maybe it is the helplessness, grief, and anger of watching from the cold safety of diaspora as the country that was (and, for sure, will be again), my ultimate place of happiness and peace, is brutally destroyed, that prevents me from writing about this without bitterness. So let me turn instead to the role of Shadows and the movement of Ukrainian poetic cinema that followed and developed the direction mapped out by Parajanov.

Folklore, an unpredictable, chaotic form that can change quickly and instantly reflect critically on socio-political processes, is potentially dangerous for any oppressive system

The short period between the death of Stalin in 1953 and Brezhnev coming to power in 1964, known as the Thaw, was a time of relative artistic freedom and cultural renaissance all around the Soviet Union. In Ukraine, with surviving intellectuals coming back from the gulag, Moscow’s grip on local thought slightly loosening, and ethnic Ukrainians attaining high political positions, questions of identity and culture returned to the agenda. However, by 1964, arrests, censorship, and the war on the Ukrainian language had resumed; if not with the cruelty of Stalinism, then with the exhausting, swampy greyness of the era of stagnation, possibly even more culturally depressing.

It was the Kyiv premiere of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors that marked the new epoch of Ukrainian artistic resistance. After the 1965 screening at the “Ukraine” theatre, the literary critic and future minister of culture for independent Ukraine, Ivan Dziuba, spoke up about the new wave of arrests. While KGB representatives tried to convince the audience not to give in to the “provocation”, journalist and activist Viacheslav Chornovil addressed the crowd, calling “those who are against tyranny to stand up”. This symbolic moment is regarded as a beginning of the peak activity of the Ukrainian “Sixtiers” (shestidesyatniki), a dissident movement focused on national cultural liberation and freedom of artistic expression.

A Well for the Thirsty (dir. Yuri Ilyenko, 1965)

If it was the relative outsider Parajanov who created the initial momentum, then Yuri Ilyenko – the cinematographer the Armenian master worked with (and fought with, as is evident in Shadows’ occasional radical switches in visual style) made Well for the Thirsty, the first Ukrainian poetic film, as early as 1965. The script was written by Ivan Drach, also a member of Parajanov’s crew. Eventually these two, alongside lead actor Ivan Mykolaichuk (Ivanko in Shadows), would become pillars of the movement. Well for the Thirsty crystallised some of the features that would define the cinematic language of the movement: metaphoric, allegoric storytelling; minimal dialogue; ethnographic precision. The latter is particularly interesting given the political context.

Turning to so-called ethnic or “national” arts – or, to use more familiar, albeit problematic term, folklore – as part of the process of decolonising the imagination is a common practice in many contexts. Folklore itself, an unpredictable, chaotic form that can quickly change and instantly reflect critically on socio-political processes, is potentially dangerous for any oppressive system. Soviet institutions tried to eliminate the danger of folklore as both critical instrument and as potential source for local national identity by turning it into a polished, regulated, and essentially dead canon of “representative” songs and crafts; Ukrainian filmmakers responded by trying to unravel and display as many gems outside of these strictures as they possibly could. This same practice continues to be one of the powerful decolonial weapons right now – but that is a point for another time.

Coming back to poetic cinema, many of its most important films (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Leonid Osyka’s The Stone Cross, Ilyenko’s The White Bird Marked with Black) unfold in the Carpathian region of western Ukraine and tell stories of the Hutsuls, even though almost none of the artists, with a notable exception of Mykolaichuk, directly belong to that world. Parajanov himself admitted that his attraction to the region could be explained by the romanticised idea of an “ultimate freedom” that was carefully preserved and nurtured there, less influenced by the unifying, modernising Soviet project than the rest of the country – a freedom manifested in its deeper connection to nature, its freer sexuality and more open religiosity.

Ukrainian poetic cinema lives on in the modern artistic resistance: not only as a dream space, but as a direct frame of reference

Of course, Parajanov didn’t find exactly what he imagined. But his dream, one which could at least be conceived within this liminal and remote land and its old stories, was enough not only for him, but for his Ukrainian colleagues and successors – a place of refuge from oppressive reality. If free Ukraine has been dreamt of through the figure of the exotic Hutsul “other”, is it our place to blame the West for its own orientalism?

In May 2022, as the life started to return to wounded yet unbreakable Kyiv after the first shock of the war, a restored and digitised version of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was screened at the Dovzhenko Centre, the national film museum and archive. It was an illustration of Ukraine’s struggle for cultural freedom, so necessary in times when hope has become an act of heroism. Ukrainian poetic cinema lives on in the modern artistic resistance: not only as a method of ethnographic and metaphoric narration with a uniquely bright and articulate visual language, not only as a dream space, but as a direct frame of reference. Ivan Mykolaichuk’s iconic gaze is being drawn and painted by young artists. Frames from these films often serve as visuals in music videos for singer Jerry Heil, the voice of the generation who grew up alongside their newly independent country. This generation, my generation, has taken over the process of reimagining and reviving folklore, translating it into the modern context, restoring its function as social commentary and root of identity. With this in mind, the importance of the work done by those artists in the ‘60s cannot be overestimated.

Natalia Guzevataya is a Russian-Ukrainian cultural anthropologist, artist, and curator and co-founder of the Samizdat Eastern European Film Festival (Glasgow) and MOST: Testimony Festival (Yerevan). As a researcher and theatre maker, she works with themes of post-Soviet identity, decoloniality, and the fragility and fluidity of memory.

Explore our collection of Ukrainian poetic cinema here.