The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors Sergei Parajanov (USSR 1965) Ivan Mykolaichuk, Larisa Kadochnikova, Tatyana Bestayeva
streamed by the Star and Shadow Cinema from YouTube 27 May 2020 during the great plague.
Like the snow that covers the land in the opening sequences of ‘The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors’ (‘Shadows’), so Parajanov’s film overlays the consciousness of the viewer with the images of a symbolic journey. The viewer travels not only through the territories of a remote culture but through a mythic soul-scape, on a journey from life to death. And the narrative, like the snow covers and alters the contours of what can be seen; to understand we have to look through the surface and see what lies hidden from our immediate vision.
Parajanov’s title, The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors points to his intention in making his film: to reveal the shadows. Through music through image, Parajanov calls up the buried psyche of the Hutsul people, giving filmic form to the living ghosts of the past that were negated by a Soviet film industry that was hostage to history and the lifeless illusionary beings of an arid future.
Inspired by Tarkovsky’s ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, ‘Shadows’ is a personal political response to the dead hand of Socialist Realism which was supposed to guide Russian film makers of this era. Soviet film making was directed in principal by a materialist manifesto. The scripts scenarios context development and interpretation were judged and determined by Marxist dialectic in which ideologically correct time was travelling in one direction: towards the victory of the proletariat, the realisation of Marx’s prophecies. But filmed in a society in which a shamanistic culture remained intact under the outer garb of orthodox religion, ‘Shadows’ follows the another path another time line, the soul journey: Ivan’s movement towards consummation of love. A journey that is archetypal and as an archetype is located outside time. Parajanov’s invocation of archetypes runs counter to the dogmatic shibboleths underlying soviet scientific orthodoxy. ‘Shadows’ embraces the hallucinogenic and the ecstatic. It breathes rare pure mountain air that rises above the stale gasses trapped in the abyss of political dogma.
Located in a Hutsul settlement in the mountains, the story told is that of the possession of Ivan’s soul by love. The love between Ivan and Marichka is born in extraordinary circumstances. They come together in blood, after the killing of Ivan’s father by Marichka’s father. Consequent to the killing the antagonistic tensions between the two families might endure for generations, but what happens is that love, as an exterior force occupies the souls of the two young people, overpowering them and fusing their destinies. They become as one, twinned souls in life and death, overtaken by the archetype of ‘the Lovers’ that transcends death, transcends time.
When Marichka dies in an accident, the separation for Ivan is a violation. After her death they exist in separate forms: he body; she spirit. The shock of separation is the shock of losing part of himself, because fused in an archetypal form of love he and Marichka are not two but one. Parajanov does not depict Ivan’s loss as melodramatic pantomime in which he expresses the loss as an inconsolable emoting, a flooding out. Marichka’s death does not cause this type of emotional pain, rather another type of response, an imperative to tear away from life and start on the journey to rejoin her. In the way Parajanov shows Ivan, he has no ‘me’, in the sense of responding as an individual, he is a type. With Marichka’s death Ivan is subsumed into a mythical realm in which there is only the necessity to become one with her again.
The effect of Marichka’s death is initially to weaken and loosen Ivan’s grip on life, as he experiences a pressure he perhaps does not understand but to which he bows. Acceding to her persuasion Ivan marries Palahna, a union that takes place in the human domain, and which crystallises for Ivan that after Marichka’s death, he no longer belongs to the world of men. Married and crushed by his new earthly bonds Ivan commences an accelerated race towards world of the the dead and re –unification Marichka. His marriage to Palahna is barren and she desperate for a child that Ivan cannot give her, seeks out the local shaman, which relationship leads to Ivan being axed to death by the shaman in a similar fashion to his father. A death that in blood mimics that of his own father, but this time avows with his own blood Ivan’s tie to Marichka.
So one sees things in Parayanov’s film, perhaps one sees nothing more than one’s own shadows.
The way the film is put together, the fusion of camera work music and mis-en-scene creates a maelstrom of hallucinogenic effects that transpose the action into an otherworldly dimension. Parajanov’s camera, whether filming in the suffocation of the candle lit interiors or in the exposed raw exteriors, becomes a rhythmic instrument exulting in the intensities of collective and organic life. Most of the music is played by the people, pipes reeds horns jews harps digs deep into the fabric of the images calling up apparitions of daemons spirits and wraiths. And the settings: the compressed churches and wakes and the natural settings in particular the river sequence, become portals to a parallel dimensions of existence. In his fusion of these filmic elements Parajonov projects a vision of a world balanced on an edge between substance and shadow.
The Soviet film industry was mandated to produce films with narrative structures which could only be interpreted in one way: that is to say in support the state’s official ideology. Tarkovski and Parajanov (after 1965) were not interested in making films that led to one interpretation. Their films were diffuse, structured to exploit material and content that were intentionally malleable, designed to bring out into the light manifold inherent possibilities of human experience. What viewers take away from their films depends on what they see in the shadows, what is brought into light by their own subjectivities.