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Mamay, a Film about the Steppe and Love

Ukraine has been making movies for decades but only a handful of the films made in Ukraine won an international recognition and still fewer became big hits. Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, directed by S. Paradzhanov, was the Ukrainian film that made the biggest splash (in the west it was shown as The Red Horses). Those interested in the history of cinema may remember O. Dovzhenkos Zemlya (Soil) and a couple of other films made in Ukraine.

Much hope was pinned on the recent films, Bohdan Zynoviy Khmelnytsky, directed by Mykola Mashchenko, and Molytva za Hetmana Mazepu (Prayer for Hetman Mazepa), directed by Yuriy Illyenko but neither seemed to be doing well either in Ukraine or internationally. A still more recent film, Mamay, directed by Oles Sanin, appears to have a much better chance to be both a critical and popular success.

Oles Sanin is better known as a producer of documentaries with about 70 films to his credit (most of them were made outside Ukraine), and his desire to make a feature film, a swashbuckling historical epic, came somewhat as a surprise. The directors had offers from American and European producers to help with making the movie but he rejected all these offers in favour of a Ukrainian producer. Fearing that any foreign assistance could turn his film into a blockbuster, Hollywood style, he chose to go it alone. Also, he wanted to prove to himself and to the world that films could be successfully made in Ukraine with the Ukrainian money.

The screenplay is based on two epic poems, one Ukrainian and the other one Tartar. In the words of the director himself, he wanted to make a documentary film about events that occurred in the 16th century.

The Crimean Tartars were a menacing presence in the southern areas of Ukraine for centuries, and it was only comparatively recently that the ethnic Tartars and ethnic Ukrainians settled down to peaceful and friendly coexistence. In the sixteenth century when the action of the film is played out, the situation was quite different, with Tartars and Kozaks (this spelling better reflects the word Cossack, pronounced and written in Ukrainian, from which the word actually originates) being bitter and irreconcilable enemies.

The Ukrainian epic poem, Duma pro vtechu tryokh brativ z Azovu (The Duma of the Escape of Three Brothers from Azov; duma was an ancient Ukrainian epic genre, somewhat similar to the Icelandic sagas), tells a story of three Kozak brothers who escape from the Tartar captivity. At the moment of escape they, as luck would have it, lead away two Tartar horses. The youngest brother is left without a mount and his two brothers, in order to survive, leave him to die in the steppe. They remain deaf to his entreaties and gallop away. Sometime later, they run into a contingent of armed Tartar horsemen and die in the skirmish. Their death is treated as punishment for leaving their brother behind to perish.

The Tartar epic poem, The Song of a Dervish about Two Mamlyuks, tells a story of two Christians who escape from the Tartar captivity; as they run away, they take with them the Golden Cradle, a sacred object for Tartars who believed it was into this cradle that the first born Tartar baby had been laid. A unit of Tartar mounted warriors is sent to intercept the escapees and return the cradle. The fugitives are killed and the sacred object is returned to where it belongs. Some time later, those who brought back the sacred object die in a battle and their death is treated as punishment for killing defenceless escapes who had no arms. As we see, in both epics the moral problem of inflicting death on those who cannot defend themselves and punishment for it is treated in a similar way Christianity and Islam in their moral precepts show more affinity than difference. Out of these two stories, Sanin weaves one, with the third brother who is left to die in the steppe surviving ordeal a young Tartar girl Nazl finds a young man in the steppe dying of thirst and exposure and nurses him back to life. She calls him Mamay which in the Tartar language means nobody. They fall in love with each other and get married. But it turns out that Mamays beautiful young wife is the sister of the warriors who bring back the Golden Cradle stolen by the two Christian escapees. The Tartars cannot accept their sisters marriage to a Christian and non-Tartar and challenge the young husband to do battle with them. He comes out the winner, but cannot stay with his wife who saw her brothers die by the hand of her husband. The young man leaves her to become a Kozak. Thus the film presents Mamay as a symbolic figure the Ukrainian knight, the one who renounces his peaceful life, his home and his beautiful wife in order to join the brotherhood of Kozak warriors.

Kozak Mamay is a traditional figure of Ukrainian folklore which can be traced back to the times of the 15th or 16th centuries. There are countless folk paintings, folk stories and songs devoted to Mamay to be found in many parts of Ukraine.

There are enough reasons to say that the film transcends the rigid confines of a historical movie and deals with several profound issues of human existence: duty, love sisterly and brotherly love, erotic love, and love of ones land; ethnic and religious conflicts; responsibility for everything we happen to do in this life. The director who plays the leading part evidently suggests that it is love that can bring peace to the two warring ethnic groups. It is not a novel idea but is presented quite convincingly.

History is not just an exotic background in this film it is the very fibre of it. The Steppe was the word used in Ukrainian in the times of old to describe the menace nomads posed for several centuries, and the steppe plays as significant part in the film as the actors themselves. The steppe in the film is much more than a wind-swept presence it is an integral part of the film, its central character.

Ukraine was a borderland between Europe and the enigmatic and dangerous steppe that stretched into the depths of Asia. It is from the steppe that hordes of fearsome nomads came wave after wave threatening to wipe away the European civilization, and it is Ukraine that absorbed the most devastating blows preventing the spread of further destruction. The Ukrainian nation and culture survived the blows but borrowed a lot from the steppe culture in language, habits and dress. Both the steppe and the symbolic figure of Mamay are pivotal in understanding the concept of the film.

The Tartars in the film are played by ethnic Tartars (with one exception that of the leading role who is played by Viktoriya Spesyvtseva, a Ukrainian actress of much acclaim). Most of the filming was done in the steppes of the Crimea. It adds authenticity to the film which is presented in an almost documentary manner.

The photography in the film is an art work of Serhiy Mykhalchuk whose contribution to making the movie highly impressive and expressive is as almost big as that of the director himself. Mykhalchuk is an experienced cinematographer in his own right he was nominated for a prize for the best photography at the 2002 International Film Festival in San-Sebastian in Spain (the film Lover was directed by the Russian director Valeriy Todorovsky).

Alla Zahaykevych, a Ukrainian composer and the founder of the Department of Music Information Technologies at the Kyiv Music Academy, was responsible for music in Mamay and the soundtrack to the film is not just a musical background the music is artfully used to help render the emotions and relations among the protagonists. The Ukrainian music traditions are interlinked with Tartar music traditions. The three ancient Ukrainian instruments that are played in the movie are lira, kobza and bandura whose origins go back to ancient times. Oles Sanin, the director, is an accomplished musician in addition to being the film director, and his inspired playing embellishes the soundtrack (Sanin is a member of a Kyiv kobzar group who maintain the tradition of Ukrainian bards that goes back to the fourteenth century). Tartar music is played by the jazzmen from the jazz band of Enver Izmaylov, a Ukrainian guitar player of Crimean Tartar descent who is well known in the jazz world both inside and outside Ukraine. The merging of Ukrainian and Tartar music traditions has been so skilfully done that they form a harmonious whole.

Almost any frame of the picture is a piece of visual art; combined with good acting and music that perfectly fits every sequence the overall effect is well nigh overwhelming. The picture is of a truly epic proportion. Instead of usual dialogues, in most cases we hear the Ukrainian and Tartar epic poems recited correspondingly in Ukrainian and Tartar by superimposed voices. The plot develops in such a manner that it is the imagination of the viewers that has to supply details to form a coherent whole, the music being an important link. The director Sanin brings back to the cinema a close correlation of the action with the music and scenery, something that used to be so skilfully done by Ingmar Bergman.

In spite of the state-of-the-art film technologies including Dolby Surround, the film cost only 250,000 US dollars to make it is a low-budget film by world standards. Several foreign distributors have already offered their services and the Good Factory Film, a distributor with Hollywood links, will run the film in the United States. The film will officially premier in 2003. The French are prepared to produce and sell Mamay videotapes, and the Iranians want to make DVDs for their own market and for other Oriental countries.

It seems to be a breakthrough a Ukrainian film goes truly international. Both the director Sanin and the cameraman Mykhalchuk are planning to make a new film this time a documentary about a trip of a group of Ukrainian sportsmen who practise extreme sports to Africa. Incidentally, the daring exploits in the wilderness of these fine athletic young men who call themselves Equites, have already been included into the Guinness Book of Records.

By Vladyslav Zhurba

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