Ukrainian refugee Yuliia Leites writes in greek libertarian journal “Aftoleksi” about the film “The Oath of Pamphir” that is currently projected in cinemas across the country – we learn that it is still projected in Thessaloniki for a few more days.
I heard about this film back in 2020/21 while living in Kyiv. My dear friend was a member of the film crew. He used to travel for shooting to the western, Carpathian part of Ukraine.
A few years later, I also ended up in this region. On 24.02.22, when Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine had begun, there was a high threat of Kyiv falling. So, my friends and I got in our cars and drove towards the Romanian border (the one crossed by the characters in the movie). I spent the first week of the invasion in a village similar to one of Pamfir’s.
I was very surprised that this film is being shown in Greek cinemas, alongside ‘Avatar’ and that people are coming to watch it. I imagine that for many Greeks, the first encounter with Ukrainian culture will be through watching this film. It’s like hearing about someone from many people (the news) and finally meeting them for the first time in real life — getting a chance to form one’s own opinion.
Characters of the movie speak hard-Ukrainian. I barely understood something for the first couple of minutes, but then I adjusted my ear, and things went smoothly. The people’s language in the film is heavily mixed with Romanian, not due to ideology but geography.
Speaking about ideology generally, it is too much of a Western construct. I didn’t see it adopted by either the director or the Ukrainian state.
There is no ideology in the film but Pamfir’s ethics. He is constantly forced to fight for it against the outstripping circumstances.
Talking of which, imagine oneself as a centuries-colonised and invisible country on the periphery of Europe. A giant neighbour attacked with lots of weapons and a vast army. No one expected your resistance to appear so fierce. It becomes unexpected even for you. Others start paying attention, but attention does not grant victory.
To win, to defend your cause, you need 1) to be recognised, 2) to be understood by quickly changing the misconceptions constructed by decades of red propaganda of the empire
3) to get weapons and other help.
In such circumstances, would you send a film showing your country’s raw reality — poverty, smuggling, corruption, and cruelty? ’Pamfir’ contradicts all the soft-power laws of late capitalism with its supermarket of symbols. Or outperforms them all.
In my opinion, the very act of premiering this film now, considering it might work as an introduction to Ukraine, is quite a bold act, an anti-auto colonial one or simply ignorant as some of the genius moves are.
Yet, by avoiding the desire to polish the country’s controversy and imperfection, this refusal to decorate (simply by postponing the release date for a year/two) — is an excellent example of what we can call an anarchist practice performed by Ukrainians.
I’m sure such a film would never have travelled as cultural diplomacy of the empire. China sends pandas, Russia sends Dostoevsky and ballet, and the US — superheroes. A movie like ‘Pamfir’ can come only from a free country that is not trying to turn its culture into a weapon or a commodity.
Speaking of culture, Ukraine indeed has one. It is incredibly vivid and alive, preserved by peasants and working people. It still has two interconnected narratives: the pagan and the church one.
The church depicted in the film is not a classical Ukrainian church but something similar to Baptism, probably widespread in the Carpathian region. The director exposes populism and systematic oppression by showing a priest who betrays his faithful parishioner. He selects the money and power of the material God (Morda mobster) over the abstract God he is preaching. So he informs the bandits about Olena’s and Pamfir’s son, causing the tragedy at the fest celebration.
The narrative of the Malanka carnival demonstrates the pagan-rooted level of Ukrainian religiosity. It is celebrated on January 13, New Year’s Eve, according to the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian one.
According to the legend, Malanka is the name of the daughter of two Slavic gods, Lada and Lado. A snake stole her to the realm of the dead (something similar to the myth of Hades and Persephone). But in our version, it was not her mother who rescued her, but the hero Vasyl.
Thus, January 13 is celebrated as the holiday of the Moon — Malanka, and the next day, January 14, is dedicated to the Sun — the day of Vasyl.
On the night of 13-14 of January, in the liminal space, between the moon and the sun —the people of Ukraine celebrate the Generous Evening (Shchedry Vechir). It is the night girls tell fortunes for love, and children carol in the neighbourhood, singing ritual songs — Shchedrivky. They also sprinkle wheat around homes to make the year generous and happy. It is symbolic that the central act of ‘Pamfir’ occur this night.
According to the belief — how you spend the night will determine the whole year.
Filmed long before the war, ‘Pamfir’ looks into the future, foreseeing the dark times of the Ukrainian resistance — the struggle between the terrible snake of ugly soviet populism (Morda) and contradictory but still pure-hearted Pamfir, who dies to make his child’s life better than his own.
Another question is, what does ‘better’ mean for the people of Ukraine? The uneducated Pamfir (his son reads for him in the film) believes in higher education, culture and the European market economy.
It is pretty ironic that his son eventually ends up in Europe in the aftermath of tragic circumstances. Right now there are 8,000,000 Ukrainians have been forced into international integration because of the war. They finally have the opportunity not to dream but to live the Western project — experience it performatively.
Who knows, maybe there will be a ‘Pamfir 2’ or even a ‘Pamfir 3’, in which the son will return to Ukraine and fight for radical authenticity, against all colonial empires, for the rights of the working people, as Nestor Makhno once did.