Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: Storytelling in the Novel and the Film

In the history of Ukrainian literature and cinema one and the same title marks the tarn to the modem. Tini zabutykh predkiv (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors), a novel by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky and a film by Serhii Paradzhanov (Sergei Paradjanov), became milestones in the development of their respective art forms.
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by Bohdan Y. Nebesio

In the history of Ukrainian literature and cinema one and the same title marks the tarn to the modem. Tini zabutykh predkiv (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors), a novel by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky and a film by Serhii Paradzhanov (Sergei Paradjanov), became milestones in the development of their respective art forms. Kotsiubynsky’s work is one of few Ukrainian novels that marked a departure from the nineteenth-century tradition toward modem prose. The 1964 screen adaptation of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors plays a similar role in the history of Ukrainian Soviet cinema. Paradzhanov’s film revolts against the imposed Socialist Realist style that had dominated Soviet cinema since the early 1930s and challenges the “classical cinema.”

Paradzhanov’s film is an adaptation of Kotsiubynsky’s novel in a broad sense. The film is not a mere illustration of its literary archetype but a fully fledged cinematic interpretation. In the novel, the narrator attempts to present a psychological portrait of the protagonist using images borrowed from nature and mythology. The rendition of events, both real and imaginary, takes a verbal form. In contrast, Paradzhanov’s cinematic narrator breaks with its literary prototype. His narration takes a purely cinematic visual form. The story of the two young lovers, Ivan and Marichka,1 is told by a subjective camera-narrator with the help of titles, slow motion and the manipulation of time and space. The film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, exemplifies the visual narration divorced from the verbal narrational technique employed by its source, the novel.

Considering only its narrative structure, the novel, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, is not a complex work. The narrative technique of the novel is rooted in the nineteenth- century tradition. Kotsiubynsky adopts the traditional chronological system of presenting events. This choice gives Kotsiubynsky the advantage of achieving an epic progression between the birth and the death of the hero.2 Although by its length the work comes closer to a short story, its epic treatment of the hero makes it a novel. The story of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is told in the past tense. The ulterior narration, having originated in the oral tradition, has the advantage of being plausible. It creates an illusion of reality and discards any fictional connotations. Because the narrated events have already happened, common sense tells the reader not to question their authenticity. In ulterior narration the narrational process seems to be natural and does not bring the reader’s attention to the narration itself. Kotsiubynsky’s choice is most likely’dictated by the topic. While dealing with a myth, he does not intend to change its reception or question its mythical qualities. Since a myth also originated in oral tradition, it would be deceiving, far Kotsiubynsky, to highlight the narration itself and question the phenomenon from which the novel’s material came.

There are two narrative levels in Kotsiubynsky’s novel. The narrator’s account is consistent throughout the novel except for one instance where a character in the story, engages in narrating another story. This narrative within a narrative is subordinate to the main narrative. This is the case with Mykola’s story. Mykola, a fire keeper in the uplands, tells Ivan stories about how the mountains originated and where the smoke comes from. The unbelievable story about the dubious relationship between God and the devil, derived most likely from folk legends, shakes any preconceptions about the origin of the world. Kotsiubynsky certainly does not want to credit his narrator with these stories, which push the myth to an unbearable extreme. Although the main narrator also creates a mythical world, the plausibility of its governing forces is always justified. Mykola’s story, in comparison with the main narrative, stands out as fiction. By adopting this hierarchical structure, Kotsiubynsky gives the impression of a self-reflexive narrative, in which Mykola’s story deals with exactly the same subject matter as the main story. In contrast to Mykola’s story, the main story maintains its plausibility and strengthens the reliability of the main narrator.

Kotsiubynsky’s narrator can be described as omniscient (absent from the story) and in a privileged position to the material of the story (extradiagetic). He is familiar with the feelings and thoughts of the characters, knows the past, present and future and is aware of what happens in several places at the same time. The degree of perceptibility, or signs of presence, of the narrator in Shadows can be described as a prevailing overtness. Since the dialogues in the story are reduced to a minimum, the narrator is responsible for the identification of the characters, for descriptions of the settings and for the commentary. Kotsiubynsky’s narrator does not treat all the areas of his authority with equal attention. The settings in the story play a very important role and the narrator stresses their importance.

The narrator’s engagement in lengthy descriptions of the settings serves two purposes. Firstly, it causes the dedramatization on the level of the pilot. All the scenes in the novel that have dramatic potential are abridged by the narrator: They are given almost journalistic treatment, where only the basic facts are stated. This is the case with Marichka’s death. The narrator presents a logical explanation of the happening combined with the witness’ account:

… he [Ivan] did not find Marichka alive. The day before, when she had been fording the Cheremosh, the water had taken her away. A flood had sprang up unexpectedly, and savage waves knocked Marichka off her feet, swept her over a waterfall, and then carried her off between the rocks below. People watched the waves toss her about and heard her screams and entreaties but could not save her.3 (27)

Such a presentation of a dramatic event diminishes the reliability of the narrator. The given facts are of a general nature and do not prove the narrator’s acquaintance with the event. Mention of the people who saw the accident underlines the fact that the information is secondhand.

Secondly, the lengthy descriptions of the settings are closely related to the Impressionist technique used by Kotsiubynsky in his prose. The narrator’s descriptions, especially of nature, reflect the inner feelings of the character. There is a special relationship between the narrator and the main character of Ivan. An omniscient narrator presents nature as reflected by subjective feelings of the protagonist. Special authority is given to the narrator, who is able not only to describe feelings and thoughts, but also to give an account of how the feelings and thoughts are reflected in the character’s surroundings. The narrator is given the power to see the world through the eyes of the protagonist, colored with the protagonist’s subjective vision. Although it is never explained that the outside world reflects the soul of the poet-protagonist, Kotsiubynsky’s technique implies such a reading. The division of the novel into various Impressionist pictures becomes a made of his later style. As E. Wiśniewska points out, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is:

… a collection of loosely gathered impressions in a homogeneous lyrical mode, so characteristic for the final period of Kotsiubynsky’s writings and for his poetics under modernist influences.4

The identity of the narrator in Shadows of For gotten Ancestors plays a very important role in the novel. Although the narrator does not take an active part in the novel’s plot, he is a member of the Hutsul community. Since the novel itself operates on two levels of public and personal myths, as Rubchak argues,5 there is a necessity for a narrator who can render both myths to the narratee without losing their mythical qualities. Thus, Kotsiubynsky’s narrator is an insider, a member of the community who believes in Hutsul myths and accepts them uncritically. His narration avoids the curiosity of a stranger drawn into a new exciting domain. He refrains from explanations that would justify or rationalise the mythological milieu. He creates a closed world that is governed’by mystical forces indifferent to any outside influences.

There are several factors that establish the narrator’s identity. All of them come from the narrator’s commentaries. The narrator’s judgment of the characters’ actions tells us more about the narrator than about the actions themselves. In a passage devoted to the sexual aspect of teen-age love, the narrator expresses an ambiguous moral judgment. His simple approach represents the prevalent view of sex among the Hutsuls. Yet, the narrator succeeds in achieving a wonderful innocence and naiveté while dealing seriously with superstitions, which can be expected only from the true believer.

She [Marichka] had been Ivan’s since the age of thirteen. What was so strange about that? Grazing the sheep. She had often seen the billy goat covering a doe or the ram coupling with a ewe. Everything was so simple and natural, so little changed since time immemorial, that no impure thought ever clouded her heart Yes, the goats and sheep did become big with young, but people could be helped by a sorceress. Marietta was not afraid. Around her waist next to her skin, she wore a clove of garlic over which a sorceress had whispered, and nothing would harm her now. (15)

In contrast to the uncomplicated narrative technique used by Kotsiubynsky in the novel, the film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, is praised far its uncommon approach to narrative cinema. There is a confusion among critics on the subject of narration in the film. David A. Cook, in his analysis of Shadows as a religious art, very accurately summarizes various approaches to the film:

The relationship between narrative logic and cinematic space—between point of view inside and outside of the frame—is so consistently undermined that most critics on first viewing literally cannot describe what they’ve seen. Adjectives frequently used to characterize Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors ate “hallucinatory,’’ “intoxicating,’’ and “delirious”—terms that imply, however positively, confusion and incoherence.6

Contrary to the first impression the film may evoke, Paradzhanov proceeds to develop the plot in an epic progression. The viewer meets Ivan in his childhood and accompanies him until his death. The narration advances in a linear way and the narrational order is never broken. The division of the film into chronological parts, in fact, stabilizes the time continuum. The events are always situated in the fictional time of the film. Paradzhanov uses subtitles to resolve any ambiguity or confusion that may arise. Often, the tides explain the images on the screen. Furthermore, they connect events that are remote in time and thus compensate for the off-screen time. For example, before the part of the film titled Alone begins, the subtitle provides a linkage with the preceding part by justifying Ivan’s absence: “People supposed that he died of great sorrow, and girls composed songs about their love.”

The images on the screen, always set in the present tense, have two places of origin: either the consciousness or the subconsciousness of the characters. The shots representing either subconscious or unconscious states of mind are marked by a temporal manipulation. They are filmed in slightly slower motion, which naturally stretches the action time; for example, Ivan’s unconscious departure from the tavern after being hit by Yura and his subconscious reunion with Marichka shortly before his death. This kind of temporal manipulation in the film distinguishes the subconscious or unconscious sequences and facilitates their recognition by the viewer. Far Paradzhanov, the fictional time in the film consists of the time of fictional reality and the time of fictional psychological reality. Both times are cinematic and they intertwine within .the fictional time of the film replacing each other. They never break the continuity of the dramatic action of the film, since the action takes place both in consciousness and subconsciousness.

The spatial continuity of Shadows, which falls into David A. Cook’s category of “perceptual dislocation,”7 poses another problem. The more accurate term for describing spatial continuity in Shadows would be perceptual incompleteness. Paradzhanov quite logically and consistently violates the classical method of building a dramatic space in cinema. If a Hollywood director had a sequence consisting of a long establishing shot, a medium shot and a close-up, be would arrange them in this order, ensuring that an establishing shot is at the beginning of the sequence. Very often Paradzhanov uses only one type of shot in a sequence (for example, medium) which makes the completion of the narrational space by the viewer impossible. For example, the night conversation between Ivan and Marichka is filmed entirely in medium shots and close-ups. Most shots are taken from a low angle from behind one of the fence boards. There is no long establishing shot in the sequence. The place of the lovers’ meeting remains a mystery.

The incompleteness of cinematic space in Shadows also takes the form of a cinematic metonymy. Some representative objects are used to create a sense of space rather than to show the space itself. For example, in the part of the film titled Alone the narration takes a verbal form. The events are told by the off-screen, gossipy voices. The images on the screen show Ivan at several locations, but the narrational space has to be recreated by the viewer combining the oral information and the incomplete image on the screen. A static image of Ivan resting at the construction site is composed of an unfinished doorway with an axe and a sitting Ivan. The image seems to be located in a deserted place and has no relation to the images that precede and follow. It is complemented by a female voice-over telling how she hired Ivan to build her a new house. The spatial partiality of this image is thus supplemented with the extradiagetic voice to compensate for the spatial incompleteness.

In terms of mise en seine, Shadows offers many instances where the viewer’s perception as well as his/her sense of space are subverted. Unlike Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow-Up,8 Paradzhanov does not make a fictionality of the cinematic image a prime concern of his film. More as a visual joke played on the audience, some scenes in Shadows show objects that appear to be something else. The contrast between the appearance and the nature of things makes the viewer feel deceived by the narrator and thus, the narrator’s reliability is questioned. When Ivan comes to Palahna’s house during the wedding sequence, he is shown stepping across the

threshold. Two-thirds of the left-hand side of the frame is blackened. A viewer may perceive this scene as being viewed through the doorway of an adjacent room. A moment later the black portion of the screen appears to be a lid of a large, opened trunk. As soon as the lid closes, the entire room with many wedding guests can be seen and the traditional wedding customs begin. In the same sequence, a roof of a house is shown by a camera looking downward. It resembles a wall, because of the unusual camera position and the two-dimensionality of the screen. As the camera moves back the true nature of the image is revealed.

The images in Shadows are very often shown not directly but are mediated by certain objects, which causes further limitations in recreating a narrational space in the viewer’s mind. Possibly to implicate a “witnessing nature” in the manner of Dovzhenko, the camera involves us in a voyeuristic act of peering through various objects, as if afraid of being discovered. The innocent games of Ivan and Marichka in a meadow are seen through the camera hidden in grass among flowers and the adolescent lovers are watched from behind bushes, trees and fence boards. The wedding in the village is mediated by the trees and golden leaves. The sequence is the most colorful and the most dynamic in the him. It also encloses the most distorted narrational space created by the rapidly moving camera. Also in Ivan’s subconscious visions Marichka is not seen directly. On Christmas Eve he sees her behind the window; during their final meeting Marichka is viewed through tree branches and through the water in an underwater shot. The narrational space behind the mediating objects is always limited and incomplete.

The most intriguing part of the cinematic narration in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is the identity of the narrator and the point of view established between the narrator and the narrated story. Paradzhanov breaks with a literary restriction of fixing a point of view of the narrator. He no longer accepts a coherent, justified standpoint for the omniscient narrator. The changes in camera angle, in distance from the object and in movement give the film director an advantage of infinite narrational possibilities to look at the story. Virginia Woolfs dream, “one wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with …”9 became a reality for the film director. Paradzhanov seems to take full advantage of these possibilities offered by cinema to look at the story.

His narrator goes beyond the narrational possibilities offered by classical cinema. The double vantage point employed by the narrators in the classical cinema of Hollywood shifts between the view of an omniscient camera and the point of view of one of the characters in the story. The so-called point of view shots usually give a clear indication of whose point of view the shot explores. Most often the camera looks over the shoulder of one of the protagonists in the story, partially showing the person whose view is presented as well as what that person may see. The shifts between the changing points of view are always indicated, so the identity of the cinematic narrator is always obvious to the viewer. In Shadows, however, the identity of the cinematic narrator is deliberately an ambiguous matter:

From the beginning of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors through its final frames, Paradjanov has forced the viewer to ask himself at every turn a single question; through whose eyes do I see?10

The answer to this question is complex. There is. no regular pattern or tendency in the film that would help to justify a critical approach. The point of view of the camera throughout the film reflects the artistic concerns of the various people who contributed to Shadows, proving once again that film is a synthetic art.

Many individuals who worked on Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors admitted that the film is a result of collective effort. It is certainly not an auteur film reflecting the personality and ideas of only its director. The film represents a creative catalogue of the writer I. Chendei, cameraman Yu. Illienko, set designer H. Yakutovych and composer M. Skoryk, assembled into a unified whole by Serhii Paradzhanov.

Thus, the camera work in the film should be seen not only as an execution of Paradzhanov’s ideas but also as an artistic experiment by Yurii Illienko. Praised by international critics as a director of photography, Illienko projected on Shadows his way of perceiving the world through the camera. Therefore, if a camera is to be a cinematic narrator, the man behind the camera is the major force in manipulating the point of view of the narrator in the film. For Illienko, the camera does not merely register the reality in front of it, but is an extension of the artist’s emotional perception of the world. The technical handicap of the camera affects the artist’s vision and acquires a philosophical as well as emotional meaning. Therefore, Illienko tries to overcome the natural limitations of the most technological art form and give it an emotional significance. He said:

… whatever is behind my back, is this also a world? A world in the philosophical sense, a world in the sense of space and time, and of everyday living, and probably most importantly in the emotional sense? […] I always wanted to absorb everything around me. And I began to experiment with a hand-held camera striving in some way to imitate a whirlpool which draws everything into it.11

Shadows, his first major work, summarizes his concerns about the film medium and sets ground far his emotionally committed camera.

Not watching but absorbing the surrounding world, Illienko’s camera in Shadows acquires an identity of its own. It becomes a participating observer, emotionally involved in the story. The camera cannot, however, he identified with any of the characters. It is self-conscious, with its own emotionality and its own set of values. It attracts the viewer’s attention to itself, but it does so in a way that goes beyond any previous attempts by filmmakers to engage the audience in playful interchange with the apparatus. The camera coquetry in Shadows is not preoccupied with the representational nature of cinematic image and the means of achieving it, but with giving the camera an emotional identity. The camera presents the events and comments upon them at the same time. The camera’s subjective commentary does not intend, however, to rationalize or classify the images. It also does not want to show the camera’s dominance and control over the image. The representational role of the camera is deliberately undervalued at the expense of its active emotional involvement.

In Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors there are many examples where the camera through its distance, angle and movement expresses the feelings of the cinematic narrator toward the subject of narration. For example, in the sequence in which Ivan discovers Marichka’s dead body the camera emotionally sympathizes with the shocked man. When Ivan crosses the Cheremosh River, attracted by a group of bystanders gathered around an unidentified object, the camera follows him. It is hand-held and positioned above the walking Ivan. As Ivan approaches the river bank and recognizes the dead body the camera stops, as if it were shocked by Ivan’s discovery. Then Ivan realizes the tragedy, runs away from the camera and sits down on a stone. The camera, suspended in its position for a moment, suddenly becomes self-conscious. Hand-held and shaky, it moves rapidly toward Ivan and stops suddenly in a close-up, framing Ivan’s head and staring eyes. A very slow pan to the left reveals the bare feet of Marichka in the left-hand bottom comer of the frame. This last image is kept on the screen for longer time and dissolves to red. The scene described above is a single take, uninterrupted by editing. The highly subjective camera shows its emotional involvement in the tragedy. It reflects Ivan’s feelings, but cannot be identified as Ivan’s subjective vision. The camera distances itself from Ivan and seems to be equally troubled. Shocked at first, the camera reacts with its vision being disturbed. Then it tries to comfort Ivan, neglecting at the same time Marichka’s body. The close-up of Ivan’s head seen from behind places the grieving man in the privileged position in the frame. This emotional rapport between the camera and the protagonist diminishes an objective presentation of the tragedy. Marichka’s death is not as tragic as Ivan’s life at this point. The camera fully acknowledges this and shows its emotional involvement by sympathizing with Ivan.

Rapid spins of the camera throughout the film prove, on the one hand, Illienko’s desire to grasp the world in its completeness; the world behind one’s own back. On the other hand, they indicate the camera’s emotional commitment. The colorful folk wedding is seen by the moving and spinning camera. It anticipates Ivan’s return to communal life after six years of solitude. Although it is not clear whether the images are seen through Ivan’s eyes, they portray the joy of life Ivan is about to experience. The camera being in fee privileged narrational position (omniscient) has fee power to foresee fee upcoming events. The dynamic wedding sequence is fee camera’s emotional reaction to what is going to happen. The dynamics of fee camera (fast tracking and 360-degree spins) suggest feat the dance triggers the camera’s emotional expression. The tempo and rhythm of fee sequence imply that this cinematic dance depicts a joyful experience. The sexual interlude feat follows proves the expectation to be correct.

It is not the first time that dance, joy and eroticism come together in Ukrainian cinema. In Dovzhenko’s Zemlia (Earth, 1930), Vasyl returns home after a night spent wife his beloved. The erotic nature of his encounter is suggested by fee boy’s hands touching fee girl’s breast. On fee moonlit, dusty road Vasyl does a folk dance wife spins and leaps, a primeval expression of fee joy of life. Illienko’s camera attempts to convey a similar ecstasy. It becomes a dancer, for whom movement is the only means of expression. Blurry images replace mise en scène and rainbow-like colors flash rapidly, making fee images unrecognizable.

The camera switches its loyalty in fee final sequence of Shadows. It abandons its emotional commitment to Ivan and seeks new challenges. The camera stays with fee dead body of Ivan for a while and then joins fee youth in games and dances. It becomes again an active participant in life. Its placement in the centre of fee dancing circle suggests renewed emotional commitment to life and a rejection of death. This is a strong cinematic statement by fee cameraman and the film director.

The last shot in the film, fee children’s heads flamed by fee window,12 functions as a flaming device for fee fictional-mythical world presented in the film. It is composed of two shots separated wife a jump-cut. The first shot flames fee window very closely and fee second, from fee same angle but a different distance, considerably reduces the window on fee screen. The camera’s withdrawal distances fee audience from fee fiction of the film. The camera takes the position of the audience and is watched by the children from the screen. A very strong division between our world and fee fictional world to which fee children belong is implied by fee closed space and fee entrapment of fee children.

In contrast to fee last image slowly withdrawing fee viewer from fee fictional world, there is an alternative image having a reverse effect at fee beginning of the film. The shot, in which the camera travels rapidly down wife a falling tree and kills a man, draws fee viewer’s attention to the harsh reality of Hutsul life. The camera-narrator comes from fee outside world, located somewhere high above ns. It becomes quickly involved in fee life of fee people and sympathizes wife them. Until its final withdrawal it tries to understand human condition.

In conclusion, fee film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, tells fee story of Ivan and Marichka by its own means which are different from those employed by fee novel’s writer. Kotsiubynsky’s folk-inspired epic deals wife the problems of artistic creativity. The writer’s traditional narrative style gives life to fee mythical qualities of the fictional world he creates. In the film, Paradzhanov’s camera-narrator replaces fee narrative logic of Kotsiubynsky’s prose with fee logic of visual associations. Like modem art, Paradzhanov ‘s narration is more self-conscious, more deliberately ambigu­ous and more concerned wife fee artistic process. The experimental use of hew visual grammar is combined wife the revitalization of old cinematic techniques. The intertitles, a borrowing from silent cinema, are supplemented wife fee perceptual incompleteness of fee images. The action is mediated by inanimate objects in carefully designed compositions of the frames. Furthermore, the film introduces the emotionally charged narration, which, as a result, contributes to its lyrical form of expression. The identity of the narrator, an unresolved mystery of the film, makes Paradzhanov’s work a philosophical meditation exploring the notions of life and death.

Bohdan Y. Nebesio
University of Alberta


1. The similarities between this story and the Romeo and Juliet story “under the shadows of unforgettable Shakespeare” have been pointed out by several critics; for example, John Seeyle, “Five from the East,” Film Quarterly 19.4 (1966): 57.

2. Elżbieta Wiśniewska, O sztuce pisarskiej Mychajla Kociubyńskiego (Wroclaw: Polska Akademia Nauk, 1973): 41.

3. This and subsequent quotations from the novel are taken from its English translation: Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, tram. Marco Carynnyk, (Littleton, CO: Ukranian Academic Press. 1981).

4. Wiśniewska 41. This and subsequent translations from Polish and Ukrainian by B. Y.N., unless otherwise stated.

5. For more information about Hutsuls, their demonology and rituals see Bohdan Rubchak’s “Notes on the Text” and “The Music of Satan and the Bedeviled World” in Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Littleton, CO: Ukranian Academic Press, 1981): 43-121.

6. David A. Cook, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: Film as Religious Art,” Post Script 3.3 (1984): 19.

7. Ibid. “Paradjanov proceeds by means of perceptual dislocation, so that it becomes impossible at any given moment to imagine a stable time-space continuum for the dramatic action.”

8. In Blow-up (1965), Antonioni shows the illusive nature of a camera image by juxtaposing a real murder with its photographic representation.

9. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, quoted in Keith Cohen, Film and Fiction: The Dynamics of Exchange (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1979): 157.

10. Cook 22.

11. Yurii Illienko, an unpublished interview with B.Y.N., Toronto, 7 March 1988.

12. See an analysis of the last shot of Shadows in L.Z. Pohribna, Tvory M. Kotsiubynskoho na ekrani (Kyiv: Naukova dumka, 1971): 131.

Source: Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1 (1994): 42-49.


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