What images come to mind when we talk about the Hutsul culture? For many, these are the canonical frames from the film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, handsome Ivan Mykolaichuk who became the personification of the Hutsul lad, and the melancholic music by Myroslav Skoryk. Shadows is undoubtedly a phenomenon of the Ukrainian and world cinema, and it was it that shaped the perception of the Hutsul culture and captured it in a poetic and mythical image.
However, the Hutsul region was recorded in many films: starting from the pre-war melodramas of Eastern European countries and the Soviet propaganda of the 1940s and ending with the modern interpretations in the form of musicals and biblical parables. We invite you to take a trip back in time and see how filmmakers shaped the image of this region.
1930s and the trip to exotic lands
In 1933, two films appeared at once with radically different approaches to the material, which introduced the Hutsul region to cinema. Both films were melodramas with a simple, from the point of view of a modern viewer, plot, which had its obligatory attributes: la femme fatale, betrayal, and murder.
The Polish film Przybłęda paid tribute to the then Polish vogue of the exotic and original Hutsul culture. The film was shot in the village of Zhabie (today’s Verkhovyna) with Polish actors, among whom was movie star Ina Benita, who was called the Polish Marilyn Monroe. Although the local culture was supposed to be just a setting, the creators managed to display it with care and integrity, showing on the screen the Hutsul clothing, everyday life, wedding, and local entertainment at the Kosiv market.
The creators of the Czechoslovakian melodrama Marijka-nevěrnice, which was filmed in the village of Kolochava, went a step further, trying to document reality. They involved the locals, Czech employees and Jews, tavern owners, in the filming, including in the lead roles. Although Marijka is no longer perceived as a genre film, it is an incredible ethnographic and folklore document of the time, where the local dialect, the soundtrack of kolomyikas (the Hutsul folk-song genre), and the landscapes of Terebovlia were mixed.
The Polish interest in the Hutsul region did not stop at Przybłęda, the region was constantly captured in documentary films. For example, a short sketch of 1937 called Let’s Go to the Hutsul Region seems to advertise this region to the viewer. In general, the films of the 1930s gravitated towards documenting factual reality and reconstructing it on the screen, without interpreting it in any way.
Liberation and oblivion
After that, the Hutsul region abruptly disappeared from silver screens until the 1960s. The answer is easy to find in the history of the region, because in 1939 the occupation of the Western Ukrainian lands by the Soviet Union began. In the state of «fraternal nations», there was no place for original culture.
This tragedy left its mark on cinema as well: in the early 1940s, two radically different newsreels were released. The Tragedy of Carpathian Ukraine, which captures the struggle of Carpathian Ukraine for independence, was filmed by Kalenyk Lysiuk, Ukrainian entrepreneur and philanthropist from the USA. There was even a place in the film to introduce American viewers (the film was created for American cinema distribution) to the Hutsul culture in a small scene.
Another documentary film of 1940, Liberation, directed by Oleksandr Dovzhenko, was commissioned by the Soviet authorities. The film was supposed to show how the USSR «liberated the Ukrainian people from the oppression of the Polish landlords and, in general, the artificial Polish state» and «finally reunited the Ukrainian people with a friendly family of fraternal nations». The viewer will also find five-minute fragments with the Hutsuls there, where it is shown how they seem to be incredibly happy with the arrival of the new government.
The flowering of the Hutsul culture on the screen
Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s trip to the Transcarpathia during the filming of Liberation and the local folklore inspired him to a new idea: a film about Oleksa Dovbush, the leader of Opryshky. Ivan Kavaleridze was the first to try to implement Dovzhenko’s idea, but the beginning of World War II interrupted his work on the film.
Anyway, the film of the same name about Oleksa Dovbush was released in 1959. The adventure action picture was made according to the canon of the Soviet scheme: a positive main character, a clear antagonist who was personified by the Polish landlords, and, of course, a happy ending. And Dovbush himself was played by Russian actor Afanasiy Kochetkov. However, it was this film that again showed the Hutsul culture on the screen, turning to its legends. It also continued the tradition that was born during the filming of Marijka-nevěrnice — to involve the locals in the filming, this time in secondary roles and in crowd scenes.
In 1962, Armenian director Serhiy Paradzhanov, who had no notable works in his creative work so far, was commissioned to shoot the film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors to mark the centenary of Mykhailo Kotsiubynskyi’s birth. No one expected that the film would become a world masterpiece and start a particular film school of Ukrainian poetic cinema. First of all, the film became special thanks to the synergy of the creative team: starting from the acting of Ivan Mykolaichuk, whom the locals perceived as a local Hutsul lad, and ending with the innovative cinematography by Yurii Illienko.
Paradzhanov fell in love with the culture of the Hutsul region and completely immersed himself in it. During filming, he lived with the locals, talked a lot with the Hutsuls, and always asked them to control the process so that all rituals were displayed as authentically as possible. Although the famous wedding scene of Ivan and Palahna with a yoke is not part of folk rites and was not approved by the locals, the director still decided to keep it in the film for the sake of symbolism. And the folk music in the film was performed by the Hutsul musical band of musician Vasyl (Mogur) Hrymaliuk.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors accurately showed the Hutsul culture and, at the same time, interpreted its mythology, elevated it to extraterrestrial and mythical perception, thus creating a peculiar work of art.
Ivan Zelenchuk, a researcher of the Hutsul region, who worked as the head of the Hutsul Region Department at the Research Institute of Ukrainian Studies says:
Shadows became a kind of film psalter for the Hutsul people. The film was such a great success among the locals that they even said that they began to understand and respect themselves more. They understood that the region is beautiful, and the people are talented.
When we talk about the 1960s, it is worth mentioning two more films that approached the topic of the Hutsul region in a more documentary way. Immediately after Shadows, there was created Kermanychi (Drivers) , an almost forgotten short documentary film, an ode to the disappearing profession of bokorash (Carpathian log drivers). The film became a hit and received awards at international film festivals in London, New York, and Leipzig. 14 years after the release of the film, in August 1979, the last raft passed the Cheremosh river, ending the history of bokorash workers.
The war-themed film Annychka also featuring Ivan Mykolaichuk combined the documentary nature of melodramas of the 1930s and the metaphorical images of poetic cinema. And it continued the tradition of involving the locals, some of whom had already starred in Oleksa Dovbush and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.
Soviet propaganda in action
The success of the Hutsul theme and the flourishing of Ukrainian culture did not escape the Soviet authorities. Perhaps it was precisely as a response to these successes that the musical comedy Trembita was shot, which was released in 1968 and became one of the most popular films of the year.
To understand whether Trembita is an entertaining comedy, or an element of propaganda and the formation of the «correct» image of the region, we can turn to the original source of the work. Yurii Miliutin’s 1948 operetta of the same name, despite its frivolous and adventurous plot, had a clear political orientation. The operetta was supposed to show two worldviews in the «liberated» Transcarpathia: the «right» one, aimed at building socialism, and the «wrong» one, that is, dreams of the bourgeois past.
Trembita also feels like a political statement. From the Hutsul culture, only the landscapes of the Ukrainian Carpathians, the sounds of trembita, and attempts to reproduce the Hutsul clothing and marriage proposal rites remained in the film. All the characters of the film speak Russian, and there is a constant contrast between the Hutsul characters and the soldier characters (the events take place after World War II), where the locals always have to appear narrow-minded and simpler.
Long wait for independence
After the 1960s, when the ban on the national culture came into effect again in the Soviet Union, the images of the Hutsul region also disappeared from the cinematography. The region still remains a popular location for shooting primarily war films, such as The Legend of Immortality and High Pass. However, landscapes and particular scenes in national dresses or with the Hutsul speech do not become full-fledged images, but only a necessary plot tool.
In 1989, when the collapse of the USSR was approaching and censorship almost did not exist, Ukrainian director Stanislav Klymenko made the film Stone Soul. The screen adaptation of Hnat Hotkevych’s novel, which once again turns to the historical theme of the opryshky movement, gives a new interpretation of the film image of the Hutsul region.
Again, the viewer sees attention to details as in the 1930s and 1960s, and to the reproduction of everyday life and language. However, it is the first time that class themes completely disappear on the screen (compared to previous Soviet films). The film again appeals to the world of senses, as Shadows did before, but does so in a more down-to-earth way: in particular, scenes of sex and naked bodies appear on the screen. What sets this film apart is that it can finally talk openly about the importance of religion for the Hutsul culture, and the scenes in the church play a big role in conveying the state of the characters and the plot. Although Shadows and Annychka also had scenes in the church, they are very short and censored so as not to create too much spirituality in the films.
After 1991, when the dogmas of socialist realism finally became a thing of the past, Ukrainian cinema continues to turn to the Hutsul culture, creating completely different films in terms of form and content.
Some of the creators refer to historical material. Director Olena Demianenko filmed Yaroslav Barnych’s operetta Hutsulka Ksenia (Ksenia the Hutsul Girl), creating a bright show on the screen with music from Dakh Daughters. Hutsulka Ksenia seems to try to convey the fullness of life in the region before the arrival of the Soviet authorities. Also, the legend of Dovbush gets a new life with Oles Sanin’s film, which is already considered one of the most expensive films in the cinema history of independent Ukraine and is still waiting for its premiere.
Cinema begins to speak openly about the importance of religion for the culture of the region. Brothers. The Final Confession of 2013 recreates the story of life and complicated relationship of two Hutsul brothers. The film has many allusions to biblical stories, including Saint Christopher, and completely preserves the Hutsul dialect, offering the viewer Ukrainian subtitles instead. The documentary road movie Zarvanytsia explores faith and religion in Western Ukraine through a process that unites dozens of Christians every year: walking to the Zarvanytsia tract.
Finally, the process of researching the modern Hutsul region begins, where we can contrast two views of the region, as if ‘from the inside’ and ‘from the outside’. Director Ostap Kostiuk, who is originally from Kolomyia, shot the documentary film The Living Fire, in which, using the example of several generations, it is told how the attitude to the Hutsul culture in general and to the profession of sheep breeding is changing. This is one of those films that interpret the existence of this culture in the context of today and encourage a dialogue about the place of old professions in the industrialized world. In search of the house where her grandfather grew up, Italian director Micol Roubini filmed the village of Yamna, which is now part of the city of Yaremche. The film Road to the Mountains constantly changes its tonality from a detective story to a lyrical study of memory and allows you to look at the modern Hutsul region through the eyes of a person ‘from the outside’, who is not familiar with the local history and sees everything for the first time.
When cinema is intertwined with reality
Why exactly did the Hutsul region become a leitmotif of the Ukrainian cinema of the 1960s? «It’s about interest in a culture that better than others has preserved the features of original syncretic thinking… Let’s remember that the Hutsul people are the same Slavs who once fled from baptism in Kyivan Rus. Over the centuries, in their environment, the fire of pagan ideas was zealously supported, which have preserved their original charm to this day,» this is how Ivan Mykolaichuk explained the magic of the region in Serhiy Trymbach’s book Ivan Mykolaichuk. Mysteries of fate.
The Hutsul region had a huge impact on Ukrainian cinematography and culture and is currently an organic part of the Ukrainian film process. Older films have become documents of the era, which even now help scientists to learn the long-term cultural processes of the region, and modern artists to authentically convey them in a work. Later films, primarily Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, were a pioneering word in the world cinema language, as well as a manifesto of the Hutsul culture. Thanks to which the whole world saw its originality, and the Hutsuls themselves internalized this feeling and experience. For Ukrainian cinematography, this region has become more than a location, but a full-fledged co-creator. In turn, cinema and the filming process also left their traces in the region.
The locals keep stories and memories (and some people also keep more tangible things, such as the original script for the film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors), because they became full participants in the filmmaking process. In addition, the film was also an important part of leisure.
«Until recently, when there was no Internet here, there was practically an information famine. Therefore, films very often became a window to the world. People often went to the movies to communicate with each other. We can say that we had such a form of communication as watching a movie. It also gave a sense of community that we are gathering together,» explains Ivan Zelenchuk.
It is also interesting that already in independent Ukraine, people wanted to forever preserve this experience of co-creation and share it, creating museum houses dedicated to films: the museum house of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, in which Paradzhanov lived during filming, or the house of Annychka, directly in which the film was shot. Thus, cinematography has a direct impact on the region, creating new centers of culture. Museum houses also provide an opportunity for a new experience of watching films, because viewers can directly interact with the locations of the works.
Main photo: from the archive of Serhii Yakutovych