Ostap Kostyuk: The Living Fire

I have to go to words from literature, as we normally do when writing about films. This Ukrainian documentary is prose and poetry and essay at the same time. It is informative and emotional. You learn from it as you always do, when a skilled film crew takes you to a place, where you have not been before and that you know nothing about – and it does not limit itself to an anthropological or etnographic approach but succeeds in conveying an amazingly beautiful (in image, sound and characters) artistic interpretation of a tradition that is disappearing. And it invites you to reflect as does an essay.

The location is the Ukrainian Carphatian Mountains and as for content, here is a quote from a text brought on screen in the beginning of the film: … (they) leave their villages for 4 months to graze their flocks on highland pastures… only a few remain to carry on the craft of their ancestors…

That’s actually what it is about, past and present, and what you need to know before you are taken into the lives of the three protagonists, who push the narrative ahead. They are from three generations: Ivan the 9 year old boy, Vasyl 39 years old and Ivan 82 year old, the trio who are step by step characterised through words and wordless sequences, via cuts from one to the other, to end up having all three of them together in a shack in the mountains, in one of many memorable moments.

Mostly thanks to the old Ivan, who is the one who can tell about how it was before, what he remembers from the sheep herding tradition, at the same time as the film gives us his sadness and grief. His wife died a couple of years ago and now he is preparing for his own departure from the earth: He has built his own coffin, he shows to the camera what he will wear when in the coffin and he regrets having been away for so long from his wife, when working in the mountains. So does the wife of Vasyl in a short sequence, with tears in her eyes, she says: I’ve been alone for 15 summers now.

Ivan, the boy, goes to school, you see him sleepy and grumpy in cold weather outside a shack, you see him as a shepherd caring about a sheep with a bad leg, you see him lying in the grass laughing. The latter in a scene that has no explanation as such, typical for the film that includes several scenes of moments that can express emotions (here maybe freedom and innocence of childhood) and has no informational or structural importance. Thus ”Living Fire” goes wonderfully beyond traditional narrative to become visual poetry. Equally there are some stunningly wonderful sequences of Cinema Pur mixing the sound of lambs being born and music in a congenial montage.

The camerawork (Oleksandr Pozdnyakov, Mykyta Kuzmenko) contributes strongly to create the spiritual dimension of the film as does the music score composed by Alla Zahaikevych. It is much more than a support to the image, it has its own life and beauty bringing the story to a reflective level.

A piece of reference and guidance: I was thinking of Pelechian and his ”Seasons” when watching, as well as Latvian Viesturs Kairiss film ”Pelican in the Desert”. Two other great works, like this of a superb lyrical quality.

The film was given a Special Jury Prize at the recent Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.

Ukraine, 2014, 77 mins.




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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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