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A Goats’ Song* or reflections on a film, A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa


Ivan Mazepa is a Ukrainian national hero — or if he is not widely regarded as such, he should be elevated to the status of a national hero. For the past three hundred years, the Russian Orthodox Church has been anathematizing him for his attempt to free Ukraine from the “brotherly” strangling clutches of Moscow. Recently, Yury Illenko’s film, A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa, was shown at the Art Centre of the University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. It is the first film about Mazepa in Ukraine, and its creators said they wanted “to impregnate the Ukrainian subconscious with emotions and values…” (of which kind we shall see). The atmosphere around the film was ripe with scandal even before it was released. The critical opinions ranged from “a complete flop” to “an unqualified success.”


* Tragedy: from, ultimately, Greek tragoidia, literally “goat’s song,” from tragos, “goat” + aeidein, “to sing.”


Encyclopedia Britannica informs an English-speaking reader:

Ivan Mazepa, born c. 1644, Mazepintsy, near Bila Tserkva, Pol. [now Belaya Tserkov, Ukraine] died Sept. 8 [Aug. 28, Old Style], 1709, Bendery, Moldavia [now Moldova];

hetman (leader) of the Cossacks in the Russian Ukraine who turned against the Russians and joined the Swedes during the Great Northern War (1700–21).

Having served as a page at the court of the Polish king John Casimir, Mazepa was educated in western Europe but returned to his native land and in 1663 entered the service of Petro Doroshenko, the Cossack hetman of Ukraine west of the Dnieper River.

During the 1660s and 1670s Mazepa’s transfer of loyalty between rival hetmans contributed to the complex and prolonged warfare (that continued into the 1680s) among the Turks, Russians, Poles, and various Cossack factions for control of the Ukraine.

Mazepa subsequently succeeded the established hetman of the Ukraine (1687) and fought against the Crimean Tatars (1689). When Peter I the Great took power, Mazepa managed to win Peter’s favour and retain his position in the Ukraine.

Peter, however, alienated Mazepa and the Cossacks, ordering them to perform uncustomary duties and allowing the Russian army to mistreat the Ukraine’s civilian population. Consequently, when the Great Northern War began (1700), Mazepa entered into secret negotiations with Charles XII of Sweden. When Charles led his forces into the Ukraine seeking supplies and reinforcements, Mazepa and 5,000 of his Cossacks joined the Swedes instead of going to the aid of the Russians (October 1708). Mazepa, however, was able neither to inspire the Ukrainian population to revolt against the Russians nor to supply the Swedes with enough Cossacks to prevent the Russians from inflicting a major defeat upon them at Poltava (June 1709). After that battle, Mazepa escaped with Charles into Turkish-controlled Moldavia, where he died.


It is with a considerable degree of bitterness that I should call this film a fiasco. The original idea was grandiose; exciting promises were made; an unheard amount of money — by Ukrainian standards — was spent (in excess of 2.5 million dollars). But the film turned out to be depressingly bad. You can hardly call it even a feature film — it is rather disjointed sequences of exhaustingly frantic, overstrung figments of feverish imagination, montage of fictitious bits and pieces spun around the central theme, all of which were put together and edited by someone’s feeble and uncertain hand. There is no narrative story to speak of. Such major events in Mazepa’s life as his relations with the Russian tsar Peter I, the Battle of Poltava, his escape with the defeated Swedish King Charles XII are presented as loose, imaginary sequences, “a highly personal view” in the words of Yury Illenko, who was the film director, author of the screenplay and director of photography. But right from the start, the film breaks down into incoherent, disorderly schematic fragments, whose artificiality and histrionic hamminess stand in the way of letting the audience grasp what is actually unfolding on the screen.

Mazepa — a page at the court of Jan Casimir, then a diplomat and military leader of Zaporizhian Sich, and still later hetman of Ukraine, was a figure that inspired interest and creative urge in many authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — Voltaire, Byron, Pushkin and Hugo among them. But Illenko is not interested either in a straight narration or in actual historical events, and deals in ambiguous imagery, mystifications, introducing into the film brutal violence and no less brutal erotic elements, all of it designed to spin the heads of the viewers.

At the same time, a risky attempt by a film maker to make a film about Mazepa deserves respect, and as such an attempt A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa is probably justified, all the more so that there are rare moments in the film which reveal the artistic potential of those who were involved in making this film. Serhiy Yakutovych, a remarkable Ukrainian artist who was Mazepa’s art director, contributed his talent to this film. Alas… One cannot help wishing there had been several films about Mazepa, or at least one which would present a straightforward historical narrative. But it’s wishful thinking, and to make the first and only film about Mazepa was to shoulder an awesome responsibility. Illenko was crushed by the burden of it. Neither were the actors up to the mark with a possible exception of Bohdan Stupka as Mazepa.

It does not seem accidental that lllenko tries to draw a parallel between himself and the protagonist of his film, Mazepa. In one of his interviews he said, “I was also anathematized, continuously, so to speak, I was being subjected all the time to ‘micro-anathemas.’ He [Mazepa] is my spiritual brother…” Illenko is much annoyed by the complaint of some people who have seen his film that “the film is incomprehensible.” He believes that “a creative project” does not necessarily address itself to the reason; neither does it need any justifications or explanations: “When you watch a creative act unfold, you immerse yourself in this world that is being created, you share the emotions…We were taught that a work of art could be ‘understood’ by reason. But it’s a great mistake! How can you ‘understand’ Venus of Milo, for example?”

Ihor Didkovsky, the film’s producer, supports Illenko’s idea “to work out a theory of national dignity” by cinematographic means — such was supposedly the main intention of the film maker. “We [Ukrainians] are a nation that has a certain spiritual world, a certain potential, and that develops not only in the real historical process, but lives in a certain existential realm,” says Didkovsky. According to him, “the creators of the film wanted to provoke in the Ukrainians a critical attitude to their own nation through which they can come to love.”

Serhiy Yakutovych, in his interview given to the KINO-KOLO magazine (it was a revealing and profound interview in many senses), spoke a lot about the filming of Mazepa and of his contribution to it. The artist’s attitude to it had a mystical element in it “[it was] like a funeral rite at the burial of the Ukrainian poetical cinema.” Yakutovych said that he worked 18 and more hours a day and then he literally collapsed with exhaustion. He mentioned, among other things, that it took him two full weeks to decorate the room where an important scene was to be played with murals — 180 square meters of painting on the walls! But in the film it is a short episode in which the wife of Kochubay [one of Mazepa’s comrades-in-arms who was later executed for high treason] comes to see Mazepa and instead of the murals the camera focuses on the woman’s naked bottom (incidentally, this role was played by Yefymenko, Illenko’s wife). “Illenko concentrated on arousing a scandal by his film rather than tried to go deeper into serious things, and I don’t think he should have done that,” said Yakutovych.

The film opens with a map of Europe appearing on the screen — the map, in fact, is a naked woman, with Ukraine located at her groin and this inguinal location must be symbolical of unquenchable lust she arouses. It is Mazepa’s idea, the film suggests, to present Europe in this way, with Ukraine being coveted as the object of universal carnal desire, and consequently, the rest of the film is no more than unfolding of this “prelude.” It has induced one of the foreign critics of the film to remark that “[Mazepa] was a political act of self-determination in the tenth year of Ukrainian independence.” Ukraine and the Ukrainians have been placed by Illenko in the lower regions, in the genital area, and it is only the extremely lazy who do not take advantage of it and do not have sex with her. And with this image as a starting point, it looks quite logical that the film abounds in coarse scenes of sex and aging nudity.

Mazepa himself, who in real life was an astute statesman of vast education, patron of art, is turned by Illenko into semi-insane, wicked, conceited, sneaky buffoon, a character from a primitive show at a fair of the roughest kind, with a great selection of masks to wear.

There is no doubt that in “poetical cinema” (and Illenko obviously made an ill-advised attempt to create a film in this line) no one seeks an illustration of historical events — the artist is free to let his imagination fly. However, a film which purports to be “visionary” and “poetic” — and in the case of Mazepa free to make havoc of the national history — but in which we see characters who are given the names of real historical figures, such a film is doomed to lose the audience’s trust and respect. The audience subconsciously retreats into what is more familiar for them and resists the “poetical” licence, and a defensive mechanism is released. Some of the film critics may say that Illenko “has gone beyond the usual stereotypes and confines of a historical film,” but as a result, the audiences remain largely cold and unsympathetic (characteristically, during the show I attended at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy Art Centre, many of the spectators, mostly students, left long before the end of the film, but those who stoically stayed put and saw it through, ignored the invitation to take part in “a discussion about the film with the director himself”!)

Vadym Skurativsky, a well-known Ukrainian film and art critic, calls the film “a poignantly authentic cry of pain.” But the tragic character of the situation around the film is only exacerbated by what Mazepa says at the beginning of the film: “Tragedy is a Greek word that means ‘goats’ song.’” The film director Illenko emphasized in his public appearances that “a prayer” in the name of the film should be treated in a much wider sense, and that it indicated a new genre in cinema, but it is very difficult to accept this statement. The film is steeped in senseless brutality and violence; traditional values are ridiculed and turned inside out; the pageant and grotesque elements are blown out of all proportion — all of this provides ample evidence for assuming that there was a purposeful intention to cause outrage and scandal. These attempts to shock are in many cases so obvious, so naive, and so badly performed that they provoke embarrassment at the director’s bad taste and actor’s poor performance rather than revulsion (one of such sequences is the one in which Kochubay’s wife masturbates using the severed head of her husband; I admit I failed to understand what the message of this episode was, and which emotions the director thought it should arouse). “Post-modernist immorality” is the name given to this phenomenon by the culture-trends analysts. But Ukrainian society already went through a period of moral and cultural authorities being toppled and removed from their pedestals, a period of doing away with spiritual principles — and Ukrainian society has emerged much battered and spiritually bankrupt. That is why what we need most today is a forcefully positive, concentrated drive aimed at establishing a new harmony and a new unity of purpose; unfortunately, “post-modernism” exemplified by A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa tries to impose on us “a cult of absence of culture,” negation of noble myth, of sacredness, of unifying ethical and national standards. No wonder the film flopped at the Berlin Film Festival.

Ukrainian society does need someone who would proclaim, loudly and clearly, “We need evolution rather than revolution.”


Compiled by Myroslava Barchuk


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