“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” - Sergei Parajanov (1965)

Sergei Parajanov (originally “Sarkis Parajanian”, 1924-1990), like his friend Andrei Tarkovsky, managed to create a number of highly original and artistic films despite working under restrictive and oppressive conditions imposed by the government in Soviet Russia. An Armenian born in 1924 in Georgia, USSR, Parajanov studied at the famous VGIK school of cinematography in Moscow under Aleksandr Dovzhenko among others.  But even at an early age his creative attitude and independent lifestyle made his path difficult.  In 1948 he was sentenced to a five-year prison term.  (Although he was released from this prison term after three months thanks to an amnesty, Parajanov was repeatedly imprisoned over his remaining years for expressing his views.)  In 1950 he married a Tatar Muslim woman, but her conversion to Parajanov’s Christianity and the demented notion of “honor killing”, which is still prevalent today in some backward regions, led to her being murdered by her own brother. 

After his wife’s murder in 1951, Parajanov moved to Kiev, Ukraine, and entered the film industry there, where he made a number of conventional feature films and documentaries.  But it wasn’t until 1965 that Parajanov came to international attention when he made his first highly original masterwork, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini Zabutykh Predkiv).  Based on the novella by famed Ukrainian author Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky (1864-1913), the film recounts the doomed, romantic life of a young man growing up among  the isolated and provincial Hutsul (aka Gutsul) community in the remote Carpathian Mountains of Western Ukraine.  Although upon the film’s release the authorities and local press denounced the work for not conforming to Soviet nationalist cultural values (referred to as “Social Realism”), it was well received abroad.  It quickly won 16 foreign film festival awards and immediately established Parajanov as a major figure in world cinema [3].

What attracted wide critical acclaim for Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, though, was also a source of confusion for analysis: the film’s wildly over-the-top cinematography and mise-en-sceneParajanov and his cinematographers, Yuri Ilyenko and Viktor Bestayev, used a panoply of extremal camera techniques to provide a unique visual presentation of the story. It is almost as if the movie camera is an extra character in the tale.  This certainly gave the film a robust flavor of peasant pageantry, as if one were watching an extravagant village folk festival.  But the techniques used also violated many film narrative conventions and seemed almost intended to confuse the viewer.  As film critic David Cook remarked [3]:
"To say that Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors violates every narrative code and representational system known to the cinema is an understatement—at times, in fact, the film seems intent upon deconstructing the very process of representation itself."
Among the cinematographic techniques used were

  • Wildly moving hand-held panning and tracking shots.  In many cases the cameraman is evidently running after a character, as the camera bumps and sways up and down to the jogging motion of the person holding the camera and chasing the action.
  • Circular swish-pans.  In some cases the camera does several 360-degree pans in succession.
  • Very low-angle shots looking upwards at characters.
  • Obscured views, as the camera looks at action that is obscured by branches or wooded building slats.

  • Slow-motion action scenes.
  • Tight closeups of characters who are many times looking straight into the camera (and thereby breaking the “fourth wall” of narrative presentation). 

  • Heavy use of extreme wide-angle lens shots in scenes involving character movement.  This gives an unrealistic, head-spinning feeling to these scenes as characters move towards or away from the camera.
  • Rapidly elevating crane shots.  The camera would start at head-level and then elevate quickly to look down on the same scene.
  • Camera pans from objective to subjective perspective: 
    • The camera starts with a view of one person looking at something off-camera (objective view).
    • It then rather nonsensically pans upward, looking straight up into the sky.
    • Then it pans downward to a view of what the character was looking at (subjective point-of-view).
  • Extremal use of color. The images sometimes shift from vivid to faded coloring, and sometimes to black-and-white.  At other times a high-contrast image with a narrow color range gives an ethereal feeling to a scene.
These camera techniques are combined with a lively musical sound track featuring Ukrainian folk ballads accompanied by traditional instruments, notably jaws harp (aka Jew’s harp) music in order to create an affective atmosphere.  The viewer is almost forcibly immersed into the scenes presented.  Some people might be put off by these effects and complain that the film looks like a new film-school student’s efforts to try everything with the camera.  I would agree that not all of these camera procedures in the film work effectively, and some of them are so contrived as to distract and distance the viewer at times.  However, Parajanov was a seasoned professional at this point and clearly had artistic control.

The story begins sometime in the 19th century with an opening comment about the film’s setting:
“The Carpathians, a Gutsul land forgotten by God and people.”
And as the film proceeds, the viewer is given a closeup view of the coarse, full-bodied, and passionate world of these rustic people.  The focal character is Ivan, who first appears as a young boy of about ten years of age.  He attends a church ceremony, where his father insults a wealthier member of their local community, Gutenyuk, who he says is satanic.  The viewer is plunged into the intensity of the father’s contempt by showing his denunciation in tight closeup looking straight into the camera.  The two enemies immediately face off with axes outside the church, with Gutenyuk’s axe, seen head-on, splattering the camera lens with the father’s blood and killing him.

At the ensuing funeral of Ivan’s father, the boy strikes up an acquaintance with Gutenyuk’s young daughter, Marichka.  And this is a key to the narrative style of the film.  While his father’s death was undoubtedly traumatic to Ivan, his meeting with Marichka is what he remembered most about that time in his life – meeting a girl that he would come to love.  Throughout the film, the viewer is given not so much a fully structured narrative, but experiential fragments – the precursor mental images that are lodged in a person's memory and subsequently used to construct the narratives that he or she will later tell about himself (even to himself).  These are presented in the film as impressionistic vignettes – sometimes just as remembered routine activities, sometimes as key remembered moments.  These precursor-to-narrative vignettes are not always told from Ivan’s point of view, however, and so it as if the viewer is an intimately involved (but invisible) empathic participant in the story.

The film then proceeds through twelve separate titled segments outlining the course of Ivan’s life.  In the first of these segments, “Ivan and Marichka”, we see that even though the two young people are from families that hate each other, they become friends.  And as they grow up they gradually fall in love. 

These early scenes about their growing love are moving and lyrical, with the camera lovingly circling all around them as they sensitively interact, in stark contrast to the earlier brutality of the father’s death.  Eventually, though, a now grownup Ivan has to go work in another area as a hired shepherd, and he and Marichka must separate for a season.  But they promise to think of each other whenever they look up into the heavens at their favored star.  After they part, Marichka is walking outside and meets a busybody old woman who feels her tummy and says, “oh, it’s full”, suggesting that Marichka is pregnant  with Ivan’s child.

The following segment, “Meadow”, shows the bucolic life and routines of the Hutsul shepherds.  Then one evening Marichka, while thinking of Ivan, wanders outside to look at their favorite star and encounters a lamb in danger of falling off a cliff.  But in her attempt to rescue the lamb, she falls into the river and drowns.  Ivan, sensing that something is wrong back home, rushes back and is heartbroken to learn what happened.

The film now moves into the black-and-white “Loneliness” segment depicting Ivan’s grief over his lost love.  After some years of Ivan’s grieving, though, the concerned local people do manage to get him to rejoin society. The pace of action slows down as the film moves further into the coverage of local color.  A voluptuous young woman, Palagna, becomes attracted to the now partially rejuvenated Ivan, and soon they are engaged to be married.  The film covers the local pageantry of Hutsul weddings, with Palagna’s joyful participation in their being “yoked” in holy matrimony energizing the goings on.

Although Palagna is sensuous and vibrant, Ivan cannot forget Marichka, and he still moons over his lost love. Sometimes he has visions of Marichka appearing just outside the window looking soulfully at him. He has no passion for his new wife, and he appears to withdraw from her lustful embraces.  Hoping to have a child, Palagna turns to what many of the locals do in difficult circumstances: sorcery.  She starts seeing a local sorcerer, Yurko, who is full of boastful machismo, and she soon becomes his mistress.

At the tavern, Ivan observes the arrogantly scowling sorcerer caressing Palagna, and a violent confrontation becomes unavoidable.  In a 34-second shot, Ivan is shown circling around the tavern interior and struggling with what he is going to do about Yurko.  They finally confront each with axes (just like his father had done with Gutenyuk), and Yurko strikes Ivan forcefully. The succeeding 70-second shot shows the now-stunned Ivan reversing his circular path around the room, but this time everything is in a dreamlike slow motion, with a ghostly high-contrast and red-tinged image.

While Palagna calls Yurko her darling, Ivan staggers outside and down a desolate, charred slope to a river bank.  There he sees a vision of Marichka, and they talk of their undying love.  As Ivan dies, her hand reaches out to touch his.

The final segment shows the burial of Ivan, with the village life returning to inebriated boisterousness as the vodka flows at the wake ceremony.

Although Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is full of vibrant and emotion-filled imagery, the film’s unusual mise-en-scene has led to a diversity of interpretations as to its meaning. The issue concerns how one sees the narrative role of the camera, which is the unseen witness to what happens.  Clearly the camera does not play the role of an objective observer.  As Bohdan Nebesio has observed [4],
“The representational [my emphasis] role of the camera is deliberately undervalued at the expense of its active emotional involvement.”
But what is the camera’s concern? Ultimately Nebesio asserts that the film’s final sequence reflects a commitment to life and a rejection of death.  Perhaps along similar lines, J. Hoberman feels that the camera’s narrative stance is to represent the collective consciousness of the Hutsul people [5].

David Cook suggests that the film is not a narrative at all and is instead something of a quasi-religious essay [3]:
“The effect of both the soundtrack and the color system, like that of the film's optical distortions and dislocations, is to destabilize the spectator perceptually, and therefore psychologically, in order to present a tale that operates not at the level of narrative but of myth: youth passes from innocence to experience to solitude and death in a recurring cycle, eons upon eons. This is the "shadow" of "forgotten ancestors," the archetypal pattern that outlasts and transcends all individual identity.”
I would argue, on the contrary, that the film is indeed a narrative and that we need to consider the nature of how we understand the world in order to fathom Parajanov’s tale.  When we experience things in the world and try to make sense of our interactions, there are various levels of our comprehension. These are basically models of the world as seen from different levels of abstraction.  Although we might consider these levels to be merely arbitrary designations along a continuous scale, I will suggest here three levels:
  1. At the lowest level there are merely brief sequences of images and feelings that come to be lodged in our memories.  These are not just snapshots; they have a temporal element to them and they are essentially the retained outcomes of interactions.
  2. At higher levels are the narratives we construct from the material of Level 1.  These are the stories that we read and watch, as well as the stories we tell about ourselves.  But they always have a narrative (i.e. narrator’s) focus.
  3. At the highest levels are our “objective” models of the world.  In these models, the personal, subjective perspective is removed, and we presume to have an objective understanding of the world that is independent of any personal perspective.  Thus they are presumed to be scientific (i.e. independently confirmable).
When we use the written word, we ordinarily communicate our understandings at Levels 2 and 3.  But film has the unique capability of representing things at Level 1.  This is where much of Parajanov’s work resides.  Many of the sound and image sequences of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors are essentially reflective of Level 1 experience [6].  It is up to the viewer to take this raw material and develop his or her own understanding of what has been shown.

A friend asked me recently what is a “second-person narrative”?  She knew what a first-person and a third-person narrative perspective are, but was puzzled by what a narrative in the second person could be.  Now I am not an expert on this terminology, but it seems to me that Parajanov’s mise-en-scene could offer something of a second-person perspective in this regard.  It is up to you to take his impressionistic material and make sense out of it.

And the narrative understanding that I constructed from watching the film differs from those of the aforementioned critics.  They saw things from the “life goes on” perspective – the local folk culture’s extensive rituals that are presumed to be communal and extend beyond individual hopes and dreams.  From that point of view, the film’s ending is supposed to be a happy one.  But I saw things differently. To me the film is about eternal love – something wonderful that can elevate existence to the sublime – and how that love can appear even in the midst of somewhat brutish circumstances.  The closing sequence of the film, which shows the world sliding back into drunkenness, was not a happy one, but merely provides a contrast to the heavenly feelings that Ivan and Marichka felt for each other.  And even if their time together was short, their love was eternal. 

What Parajanov presents in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is not a thesis, but the raw material from which you can arrive at your own thesis.

[An earlier version of this essay erroneously referred to film critic David Cook as David Clark.  Thanks to reader 366weirdmovies for noticing this.]

  1. "Sergey Paradzhanov”, New World Encyclopedia, (23 March 2015).
  2. Roger Ebert, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”, RogerEbert.com, (30 January 1978).
  3.  David A. Cook, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: Film as Religious Art”, Post Script 3.3 (1984). See also
  4. Bohdan Y. Nebesio, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: Storytelling in the Novel and the Film”, Literature/Film Quarterly 22.1 (1994): 42-49. 
  5. J. Hoberman, “It Takes a Village”, The Village Voice, (23 October 2007). 
  6. I would also venture to say that Wong Kar Wai’s films operate at this level, too.


366weirdmovies said...

Excellent analysis. I particularly appreciate you categorizing the cinematographic techniques Parajanov uses here. I'd like to point out one minor error: in the body of the text, you refer to David Cook as "David Clark." I only noticed because I used your citations to find Cook's article, and I almost carried the error forward. Still, it's a very thought provoking piece that's helping me come to my own interpretation of this strange and marvelous work. Thanks! (apologies if this was submitted multiple times; I'm not getting a confirmation message that it was published).

Unknown said...

I think the film shows that life is short and brutal, and that religion, customs and traditions are a way that people make sense of it and find some hope. Ivan dies, but the ritual that is performed afterwards helps people to find meaning. It's not surprising that the Soviet authorities imprisoned Parajanov, since they saw traditions as an obstacles to their goals.