The Living Fire is a documentary record of a dying light. In the highlands of the Carpathian Mountains, an entire way of life is fading, one that has sustained generations but whose extreme hardships are a deterrent to new generations. Ostap Kostyuk’s 2014 directorial debut, produced by the National Cinematheque of Ukraine and supported by the Ukraine State Film Agency, follows three generations of males in the Hutsul region where time has not so much stood still but has simply been measured differently.
Every year, around spring, the shepherds of Hutsul, a distinct ethno-cultural area whose name could be derived from the Slavic for migrant or wanderer, take their flocks to pastures high in the mountains. Women are left behind ‘like widows’, as the sole female comment in the film makes clear. The villages empty of men and livestock for about four months as they roam in search of grass which, in turn, sustains the flocks.
Kostyuk’s film, based on a decade of research and four years of observation, follows Ivan, a retired octogenarian shepherd whose wife died a few years before, Ivanko, a ten-year-old boy on the cusp of initiation into the shepherd’s life, and his godfather, the 39-year-old Vasyl, who raises lambs and who still carries in him a profound sense of vocation.
Everyone has a calling, as Ivan says, and it whispers to the shepherds to go to the mountains. This is the living fire at the heart of the film, an internal compulsion that is bound up with necessity and an overwhelming sense of fate. For those still undertaking the annual ascent, it could not be otherwise. More literally, the living fire refers to a very real, albeit ritual, fire that must be lit before the cattle arrive at the highland camp and that must be sustained throughout the season and at least for the duration of the camp. Its fuel consists of flax fibres twisted together, supplemented by kindling, and Ivan recalls how he saw the method as a boy back in 1946. Beside him is Ivanko, hearing of the process for the first time. As a boy, he already has to know how to deal with animals and to spot injuries while gleaning methods of survival from his elders.
The transmission of these centuries-old processes has become ever more difficult. The older shepherds are dead or dying and their former pastures are increasingly deserted. In one area, only a single pasture remains active among scores. Ivan is preparing for his own death: his coffin – his ‘home’, as he refers to it – is ready and his funereal garments have been prepared, including the richly embroidered cloths worked on by his wife before her death. The land is everything, he says, and we will all return to it, bald and toothless as when we were born. His simple and honest philosophy is touched with sentiment and longing. Shedding a tear, he remembers one occasion when his wife came up to the hills with his children to see how dad was doing. ‘I’ve got to forget it all,’ he says. But of course he can’t, for his longing to be at one with the land is so great.
Kostyuk’s approach to the waning of a community and a way of life is to reveal rather than to tell, and to allow the generations to speak for themselves. Although the cinematography combines wide and stunning landscapes with still life frames, and conveys how life is lived, from the making of the pungent brynza cheese to surviving in the mountains on cold bread and lard, it is the textured soundtrack that opens out a broader, cultural dimension. Voices, ‘drymba’ or mouth harp, accordions, ‘trembita’ or long horn, shepherds’ songs and the Christmas performance of the ‘Carolers of Zhabyivskiy Potik’ invest the film with a form of cultural commentary that concretises and conserves its subject matter. Just as Ivan built a room for himself and, as he says, will live out his days there, the film itself fixes a disappearing world with a curatorial compassion.
But beyond the absorbing circumstantial detail of that world are universal human dramas: the childhoods that have been lost to early adulthood; marriages that have been rendered skeletal through prolonged separation; old age that is tinged with paradoxical regret and nostalgia. The only moments in a film that bring forth something abstract, almost mystical, are the blurry, watery images of the midnight birth of a lamb. Life has a way of going on.
For Vasyl, the most important thing is to keep the flock healthy and whole; the young Ivanko, meanwhile, though deeply connected to nature, learns at school about the great flows of air across the earth’s surface. As for Ivan, he contemplates buying a piglet at the village bazaar, haggles a bit over it, before realising that though he wants it he no longer needs it. The living fire is no longer his responsibility. Who will keep it burning is another question.
The Living Fire can be seen at Rich Mix Cinema on Thursday 10th December 2015 (18.15) as part of the Ukrainian Cinema Days in London Festival, supported by the Ukrainian Embassy London. Nick Barlay is an author and journalist whose latest book, Scattered Ghosts, tells the story of his Hungarian Jewish family over 200 years.