This article appeared in the May 27, 2022, Cannes Film Festival special edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here. Catch up on all of our coverage of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival here.

Pamfir (Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk, 2022)

Pamfir, the Ukrainian crime drama that debuted in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight last week, is a film of dualities. The director, Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk, describes the lead character as a Janus-like figure, and opens his film with the image of an unknown man in costume—grass poncho and devilish mask—which we soon discover conceals both the titular character and his brother.

The film tells the story of a decent family man, a well-digger just returned from working abroad, who is dragged back into crime for one last job. In his village, located near the border of Ukraine and Romania, he is something of a local legend, known as “Pamfir” (“stone” in English), a nickname he inherited from his grandfather and which he dons when smuggling goods across the border, his family’s long-standing business.

Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s camera waltzes gracefully around its characters, drifting wide and close, occasionally settling to frame certain expressions and environments, before floating off again. It’s a formal elegance at odds with the brutality of the film—one of man as beast. Pamfir never wanted this life; he just happens to be good at it. Working with his hands, he tells his son Nazar, is all he knows.

When Nazar deliberately burns his father’s employment papers, and accidentally torches the local church, the family is forced into debt and and Pamfir must return to a life of crime to make ends meet. If the the plot reads as somewhat schematic, Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s storytelling renders it as emotionally thrilling as it is visually compelling. As he explains below, the film takes cues from fairy tales, local myth, religion, and most prominently, the carnivalesque atmosphere of the Malanka festival, a Ukrainian folk holiday.

Not long after Pamfir premiered at Cannes, I met Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk for a chat on the beach. I got sand in my socks, but the conversation was worth it.

I read that you made a short film based on the Malanka festival. Why did you carry that theme through to this, your first feature?

You know, when we talk about the carnival, it’s [a time] of possibility. It’s a moment when local people can come together and change their behavior, their character: to try on another coat, to become another being. It represents an opportunity to change yourself or hide yourself—to become something you want to explore.

Aspects of the carnival—costumes and masks—are present throughout, and the film culminates with the festival itself. When we first meet Pamfir, he’s disguised, playing a trick on his mother—a surprise return. What about those elements of Malanka made you want to utilize them so?

It’s like a box inside a box. During the film, we see characters who represent some personality; and then in the carnival, these characters come to represent some kind of behavior or even power. When we talk, for example, about the first shot: it’s an animal, it’s a beast. Inside the main story, we have characters: mother, father, son. But each of these is just a role they play. When somebody chooses a character from Malanka, he chooses because he wants to be somebody who he is not. For example, [Pamfir’s brother] Viktor is weak, small, and nobody respects him or is scared of him. So he wants to have a big costume, a scary mask, et cetera. And Pamfir, he doesn’t need the mask. When he hides his face, it’s not because he wants to be scary—it’s because he wants to hide his motivations. He makes a onetime deal with his conscience, but because of the circumstances, he has to become another person. He’s the real deal, he doesn’t need to become anything [he’s not already]—he doesn’t choose a character.

For the smugglers, the passageway—tunnels, wells, hallways, carnival rides—represents many things. It’s a place of becoming, but more explicitly, one of thresholds and borders. I liked the line when the smugglers arrive in the E.U. and Pamfir asks: “Does it feel any different?” The obvious answer being: no. 

There’s no difference, no geographical difference; there’s only a border. But they’ve come to a place where breaking the law means a great deal, and to break the law is nothing unusual for Pamfir’s family. If you need some money, you just need to [smuggle] cigarettes somewhere and pocket the payment. For my characters, it’s not a place to reckon with your conscience, it’s a place where you’re like an alien—you have no family or friends. When Pamfir is working abroad, he wants to come home, but when he’s home, he understands it’s better to be away. He never finds his place in this world; he’s stuck in the middle.

Chernivtsi is a region with a great deal of history. Are you choosing that just because it’s close to the border, or is there another reason?

I chose it for a couple of reasons. It’s a border space, but it’s also a very multicultural area with different cultural treasures, with a lot of nationalities, so it’s quite a unique place—extraordinary in all these ways, but especially for this carnival. It’s the place where you can meet with this dualism: where people believe in God, they are good Christians, but also they have these pagan rituals that hold the same levels of importance.

I wanted to ask how you approached the film stylistically, because it is quite striking. There are so many long takes, and they’re very graceful. 

Each long take is something like seeing a picture from [Pamfir’s] life, a chapter in a story. The film is like an algorithm for how we create a myth. In myth, in storytelling, a fairy tale has something like short chapters, so each shot serves as a chapter. You should be with the characters all the time, and so anytime there’s a new chapter, it has to represent something important to their journey. I was very radical in this way. I thought we should always move with the characters. When they move, we move. When they sit, we sit. When they run, we run. And the moment of movement is important. We’re [motionless] three times during these sequences: we begin from a static image and end with a static image. But in the middle of each shot, we have one strong moment where we stand in place and think: about the beginning and the end, alpha and omega. It’s the place where people can create—where nature surrounds the characters. In every scene, nature is present. Maybe just the sounds of birds, or sometimes fake animals—but the film has a lot of real ones as well. This middle place is also somewhere we can meditate and pray, like a church; it’s a place to think about your spiritual life, a quiet place.

Where did that idea come from, the “middle space”?

I think, during the script-writing, the church scene was very important. Church is the easiest way to do this, but some people don’t need church. They don’t need religion. It’s okay, I’m this kind of person. I’m not Christian, I’m not a believer, but I know that for a spiritual life, I need to be precise in my thinking and to work on myself—to behave carefully for something or someone. It’s a way of losing [yourself], because if you think you are perfect, the church is the right place to remind you that you are not. If you think you are perfect, bad things will definitely happen to you. The church gives you the feeling that you are a sinner every time, every day, even right now, even when you cross the road—you are a sinner, and it’s a place where you can think about yourself as something imperfect. You can do this with religion or without, and I prefer without. Each time you’re in this space, you start again.

When did you start making the film? How long ago?

The first shooting day was two years ago.

Can you give a sense of how the last two years have been? Because obviously, you’re making the film, but upon the moment of the release, the war breaks out, and that affects the way you’re presented on the world stage.

It’s like they changed a system of coordinates, because you use your professional tools to achieve your ambitions and you go through this long process, and the result of this should be a movie—but when war comes, it’s like a break in the system of coordinates. Nothing is more important than human life. I think that, in our country, it doesn’t matter if it’s a filmmaker or a businessman or a person with a regular job—it’s a break, and it’s made our existence into “before war” and “after war.” Before the war, I was a filmmaker, but now everybody is a volunteer. And after months, I figured out how to contribute, because I also make documentaries, so I take my camera and film things and show how the war has changed our country. I see how other people are better volunteers than me, so I decided to do this, to start filming, because I can tell more individual stories; I can open [viewers’] eyes. People are no longer statistics. A hundred people, a thousand people die, but if you see their personality, you can feel these deaths, this loss. This is important to show: every number, every destiny, every family. So many lives have stopped because of the war, and so to show this through the individual, to make this visible in an international arena, was important.

James Wham is a writer based in London. His work has appeared in The BafflerThe New Left Review, and Reverse Shot.