Pamfir Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk (Ukr; 2022) Oleksandr Yaksentyuk, Stanislav Potiak, Solomiia Kyrylova
viewed Tyneside Cinema 11 May 2023; ticket: £10:25
Sukhollytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ seemed to me to be a strange convoluted chaotic film. At its core ‘Pamfir’ is located in the tensions generated in Ukraine between individualistic and collective ethos, between the visceral demands of village life and the experience of corruption as a social constant. ‘Pamfir’ is visceral in look, of the body and of the marks that corruption makes upon the body; and the atmospherics of Sukhollytkyy-Sobchuk’s scenario create an atmosphere of delirious despair.
It’s to be noted that Sukhollytkyy-Sobchuk wrote and shot (but didn’t edit) his film before the Russian invasion of his country. The film can perhaps be understood as a sort of psychic prelude to that event and its consequences. In this I was reminded of Kirill Serebrennikov’s movie ‘Petrov’s Flu’, a Russian film made in 2021 which comes across as a prelude to Putin’s war, a dispatch from the collective state of mind of Putin’s Russia. In Serebrennikov’s film life is an alcohol fuelled hallucination experienced as a constant state of fear punctuated by acts of paranoiac violence: a collective death trip. Seen in Feb 2022, a few days after the invasion of Ukraine, Russian brutality, its capacity for destruction and self deception, the incoherence and nightmare quality of Putin’s Special Military Operation were all prefigured by Serebrennikov (who I believe has left Russia). Serebrennikov had looked into the hellish foundations of Putin’s state and shown us the demons that occupy and drive it.
In like manner I read Sukhollytkyy-Sobchuk’s film as a dispatch from Ukraine. It’s film says something about an underlying schizo situation that defines his country.
The film opens with a primitive arresting image: a Shaman like figure, enveloped in a straw body costume, grasping a skull capped staff and wearing a grotesque animal mask, sits on hay bale in a barn facing the camera square on. As the scene unfolds (comprising of a single shot like much of the filming) the figure is revealed to be the returning paterfamilias Pamfir (Pamfir is his nickname; actual name is Leonid). The costume and mask he has donned is his way of turning his coming back into a surprise joke. The costume is one of a number that Pamfir’s son Nazar and friends are making for the upcoming collective celebration of a pagan festival. References to the festival (which is possibly an early winter festival like Samain) run through the scenario, and are returned to multiple times. The feeling from Sukhollytkyy-Sobchuk’s script is that, as in most of the West, this festivity based on primitive masked dance and re-enactment, is form without content. It has become a pretext, an excuse to revel, but it is no longer part of way in which the villagers actually understand or relate to life. The festival is celebrated as part of the annual round of life, but compartmentalised. This in some respects is strange; the life of the village and its people, its deep rural isolated location, the physicality of human and animal relations, suggests that the people might retain some element of a shared vital connection with a pagan pre-modern tradition. But they don’t. They are corrupted by other forces.
The people now have a new religion. Here in Pamfir’s village, the old Ukrainian Orthodox Church is represented as having no presence. There are no signs of orthodox priests, no bearded patriarchs walking through the village sprinkling holy water. There is a new religion. The village has been colonised, converted to a form of American style evangelicalism in which interpretation of the Bible is put to the service of the American way of life with its insistence on the primacy of individual salvation and its distrust and devaluation of collective endeavour. God is on the side of the little man, behind him all the way. The Pastor sermonises during the service: “God puts each of us to the test but never asks of us more than we can do.” And Olena, Pamfir’s wife, tells him: “God transforms pain into duty.”
Sukhollytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘letter’ ‘Pamfir’ teases out the contradictions endemic in the Ukrainian psychee between a past collective form of life and the new American style individualistic modernism.
As an individual Pamfir is helpless to determine his own fate, whether or not God is on his side. He is a strong and self reliant but is crushed by both the social and corrupt collective forces that surround him. He cannot fight the lesions of corruption which strangle the village. Unemployment and perhaps the force of his own character mean he cannot get work that pays enough in his own village. To sustain himself and his family he resorted to smuggling (cigarettes to Romania – the village is very close to the border) and when caught doing that, he traveled to Poland to find work. On his return his wife and son are both want him to stay with them. His individualist ethos and pride, make this impossible for Pamfir. His work papers destroyed in a fire caused by his son, Pamfir decides to undertake the smuggling run last time. But times have changed. Whereas cigarette smuggling was once possible as an individual enterprise, the business has now been taken over by a criminal gang whose boss has the resources to pay off the police and border guards. Smuggling is stitched up territory. Smuggling has become part of the endemic corruption of the state, and an individual has no chance of disturbing this criminal monopoly. Pamfir’s last ditch attempt to smuggle is doomed to failure which consequently plays out in disaster and in the end he is shot like a dog.
‘Pamfir’ may be read as an analogous microcosm to Ukraine’s pre-war state, buffeted between remembrance of a mythic collective history and the vistas of a promised individualised future, squeezed between endemic corruption and a yearning for self affirmation. But on my reading at least it ends with a metaphysical proposition.
Pamfir is forced to deliver a package from the criminal gang to their opposite number in Romania. The route he is instructed to take from Ukraine to Romania is by means of a narrow pipe that has been laid across the border. Instead of taking the package himself Pamfir gets his son Nazar to do the job. The concept of the narrow bore pipe suggests of the idea of rebirth for Nazar. The father dies, the son is reborn. As Pamfir is shot dead beside the entry to the pipe line, the son crawls through it as through a birth canal; albeit one that leads to Romania. A joke perhaps, but Romania is filmed as if seen in a vision. On getting through the pipe it is as if Nazar has not so much come to another country but into another dimension. A dimension of purity. As he walks over the ground towards the Romanian border guards, snow has fallen. The world is become white, purest white, the white of rebirth, unsullied, presenting a vision of the purity of the soul. ‘Pamfir’ for all the dark tropes actions and despair it depicts – ends on a note of hope.
Of course Romania, is a member of the EU. It’s also a country that is and has been notorious for corruption. But at this point being in the EU is kin if not a state of grace then at least the possibility of a hope to which Ukraine aspires and for which she is fighting a war of necessary, unto death.
Adrin Neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org