Ukrainian Malanka and the Regional Peculiarities of "Pamfir"
Dmytro Sukholytkyi-Sobchuk's live action film tells the story of a man nicknamed Pamfir, who used to be a smuggler in a border village in Bukovyna. Now he is an exemplary family man who has returned home from working abroad. However, life forces Pamfir to return to smuggling again.
The film is immersed in the regional context, traditions, and customs: from smuggling to the Malanka holiday.
Svidomi talked to the director Dmytro Sukholytkyi-Sobchuk, production designer Ivan Mykhailov, costume designer Mariia Kvitka, and concept artist Olha Yurasova about the cultural component of Pamfir.
What is Malanka?
It is a folk name for the celebration of the New Year, a tradition that has pagan roots. For the ancient Slavs, Mokosh was the goddess of agriculture, fertility, and life-giving female power. According to the Christian tradition, January 13 (December 31) is the feast day of St Melania the Younger, which coincides with the pre-Christian holiday — hence the name Malanka.
Malanka is a folklore image and a holiday traditions of which may differ not only from region to region but also from one "kut" ["corner," part — ed.] to another. During the celebration, people dress up as different characters and go from house to house, announcing the arrival of the new year and wishing the house owners well.
The celebrations are particularly distinctive in Bukovyna and Galicia, particularly in the villages of Beleluia, Krasnoilsk, and Vashkivtsi. In preparation for the film, the team went on expeditions to these villages.
"In two days, on 13 and 14 January, we travelled to several villages to see the process of preparing for the Malanka celebration in Bukovyna and Galicia. We wanted to portray our unique Malanka in the film based on the most interesting things we saw. All the details were important," says concept artist Olha Yurasova.
This is not the first time that Dmytro Sukholytkyi-Sobchuk has explored the Malanka ritual through the lens of cinema. In 2013, he released a documentary Krasna Malanka, which told the story of people from the Bukovyna village of Krasna preparing for the holiday.
"A live-action film was a logical continuation. Here, Malanka became an element of duality, where a character can change their nature," says Sukholytkyi-Sobchuk.
Malanka has survived only in some villages. Why?
Production designer Ivan Mykhailov says that today Malanka is celebrated in Bukovyna, Hutsulshchyna, and Pokuttia, as well as in the Odesa and Vinnytsia regions and several villages in the Khmelnytskyi region.
The disappearance of this tradition is linked to Soviet Union policies. Mariia Kvitka adds that back then, celebrating Malanka could result in punishment.
"During the Soviet era, people who celebrated Malanka on the territory of Ukraine were sent into exile for more than 10-15 years," the researcher says.
In her opinion, this is why Malanka in Romanian villages has remained as multifaceted and authentic as 100 years ago.
"On the contrary, it became sharovarshchyna (a stereotypical representation of Ukrainian culture — ed.) and just plays a role of a beautiful holiday. But for Krasnoilsk, it is a serious festivity, a traditional holiday, for which they prepare on a large scale. Most people who live in Krasnoilsk don't live there during the year but come specifically to celebrate Malanka," says Kvitka.
Mykhailov adds that for Romanian villages, Malanka was a way to preserve their authenticity.
"Krasnoilsk is a Romanian village after all, which somehow ended up in the Soviet Union after World War II. Thanks to Malanka, [the villagers] saved their identity and preserved their traditions," he says.
Director Dmytro Sukholytkyi-Sobchuk explains that Malanka in Pamfir is a tradition that is a starting point for the village.
"Often in Bukovyna, the Malanka holiday is the starting point for the year, because it is a kind of outburst, a release of energy and preparation for the celebration. Here, Malanka acts as a kind of hot core that moves the main characters' stories like tectonic plates and serves as a kind of background where the main events take place," he says.
The traditional plot centres on Malanka, who walks with her companion Vasyl, as according to church tradition, St Melania the Younger's Day (January 13) ends the yearly circle, and St Basil the Great's Day (January 14) begins it. Among the characters of the carnival are Grandpa and Grandma, Tsynanka and Tsyhan, and Bear and Death. But depending on the region, the line-up varies. Sometimes there is a doctor, horsemen, and devils, who were banned by the church in Krasnoilsk.
Dmytro Sukholytkyi-Sobchuk explains that Malanka celebrations can vary — it all depends on which animal is the totem animal in the village.
"If we talk about the context of our film, the key figure, the totem animal, is the bear. It carries a threat — it is a wild animal that needs to be tamed. In other villages, in Tarashany in Bukovyna, the totem animal is a horse, the one that helps to cultivate the land. For Pamfir, I chose a wild beast, untamed, an unstoppable force. It was part of the concept, where in Malanka, it was important to choose someone who would be such an animal embodiment to explore the duality of human and animal," says the director.
Olha Yurasova adds that bears can also differ not only in villages, but also within the same settlement.
"In Krasnoilsk alone, there are three types of bears, depending on the part of the village," says the concept artist.
Ivan Mykhailov adds that the bear as a symbol of nature is typical for all European cultures. For example, Ireland has a straw bear festival. Such European celebrations have common roots: they originate from the Roman Saturnalia, a festival in honour of Saturn celebrated in Rome at the end of the V century BC.
During the celebration, the participants act out stories, dance and sing, in particular Christmas carols. Each Malanka group goes around the village. The house owners treat them in their yards, and Malanka banishes the "evil from their house."
In Pamfir, there is also a "boranka" between the Malankas — a fight between characters from different corners of the village. It usually takes place between bears and devils. The winner is the one who puts the opponent on the ground.
Pamfir has also preserved the tradition that each corner of the village has its own Malanka.
"My main focus was to separate them visually. They differ in their masks, and you can see that some masks are good — this is Nazar's corner, which is quite sweet and kind. In the corner of the anti-hero Morda, the characters are quite belligerent, so the masks are black and brown, which should terrify with their appearance," says Mariia Kvitka.
Masks and costumes
The bear costumes are made from pereveslo, bundles of dried sedge twisted into a knot. An important element is the headdress decorated with a flower. Such costumes weigh 30-40 kilograms.
The costumes in the film Pamfir are not a reproduction of the costumes of any particular region — they are creative compilations from Bukovyna and Hutsulshchyna.
Olha Yurasova explains that the main difference between the costumes is the masks. These masks are made of papier-mâché, flour, glue, starch, and even animal skin. In the Soviet period, masks were made from gas masks, from which glass eyes were cut out and then decorated with appliqué and painted. Gas masks are still used for this in Beleluia.
Pamfir used traditional masks from the villages of Beleluia, Hlyboka, Vashkivtsi, Krasnoilsk, and Tarashany, as well as custom-made masks by folk craftsmen and artists from Chernihiv, Lviv, Chernivtsi, and Beleluia.
During the Malanka celebration, masks play the role of otherworldly beings, each with a different role to play.
"When you put on a mask, you turn into another creature. It's a rite of initiation and transition. People believe that spirits supposedly come on this day. And [by putting on the mask] we appease these creatures, so they don't come again," says Mariia Kvitka.