Adam Solomons talks to the Ukrainian director about his Cannes hit and how even a non-political film can be bastardised by war
Made shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and released months into it, Pamfir has the unnerving feeling of being a “prewar” film. That seems like no accident. A story of a father’s return home from work abroad – and the unfinished business he couldn’t ever get away from – it brims with quiet (sometimes loud) tension that ultimately, inevitably boils over.
Director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk, like everyone in his country, has since had to join his country’s war effort. His conscription has come in the form of documentary filmmaking about the suffering of his nation: short film Liturgy of Anti-Tank Obstacles, about a religious workshop that swiftly shifted to making anti-tank weapons at the outset of the war, won plaudits at Sundance and the London Film Festival.
Pamfir is a taste of his talents with less direct purpose. It’s a drama about family and the lure of crime that wouldn’t be out of place in New Hollywood. Which is a nice way to say it’s been done before. What Pamfir offers above all, though, is a look at a now-unrecognisable Ukraine, where existential threats are easily avoided by the cautious. But Leonid (Oleksandr Yatsentyuk) isn’t one of those.
AS: First of all, congratulations on your film and its reception. It’s finally getting a release in the UK. What’s the state of filmmaking in Ukraine at the moment? Is any happening at all?
DS: At this moment, I can only speak for Kyiv. In terms of fiction, we’re moving step by step back towards the previous situation before the war. The most important role for Ukrainians in the industry at the moment is in documentaries. A lot are being made because a lot is happening. They’re trying to tell different stories about volunteers, soldiers, snipers, people who died, the new reality and so on. Inevitable they fixate on the reality of our moment. Films will ultimately prove a key part of documenting the enemy’s crimes and oblige Russia to pay for everything. I’m working on two documentaries about the war at the moment. I know many people doing the same.
Pamfir is a very stylish film made up almost entirely of uninterrupted long takes. Is that a personal style or an artistic choice in line with the ideas of your film?
There was a very strong reason for this. What we wanted to honour with the film was the idea of a myth being born: who this guy is, how he got his strange name, and so on. Like chapters of a fairytale, each scene represents a key moment on his journey as we see the myth being made in real time. It was necessary from that perspective and written in the script that way. We only break the form in one scene and there was a very specific reason for that. Hopefully people who watch the film will understand that. Another motif is animals. They’re in every scene in one form or another – literally or as images, paintings, et cetera. That was important to us in presenting the animalistic side of human nature.
One very important scene takes place in a church. The Ukrainian church has played a contested role since the outbreak of war. Did you sort of see that coming in the thorny, nuanced way you showed religion in your film?
In most countries, the government and the church unite together as a power. Both depend from each other. That’s not our reality, and makes us different from the Russians, who built a monarchy and united it with religion. In Ukraine it’s a more complicated relationship and I think that’s a very good thing. Although I think the secularisation of Ukraine happening now is the way forward and will improve our civilisation. Unfortunately some parts of our church were double agents for the Russian invaders. They must be rooted out.
Do you ever find yourself becoming frustrated at all with interviewers like me fixating on the war in Ukraine, rather than treating your film as its own thing that predates events anyway?
Every time you make a film, you’re chasing time that you won’t get back. Pamfir represents a specific version of Ukraine that excited between 2015 and 2018. As soon as Russia’s invasion took place, this became a historical film. During war you learn to accept the reality you’re handed, not the one you want. The breakdown of that reality is why we will, and should, never have any cultural bridges with Russia.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Pamfir is released in UK cinemas on 5 May.