Ostap Kostyuk’s The Living Fire is a gentle documentary that provides an intimate and respectful look at an increasingly fragile and detached rural community of herders. The title card, which reads “Only a few remain to carry on the craft of their ancestors”, is followed by breathtaking shots of the snow-laden mountain ranges, evincing much of the film to follow: awe-inspiring, defiant and focused on characters that define themselves through isolation. Commissioned by the Ukranian State Film Agency, the documentary is set in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine, providing a setting for Oleksandr Pozdnyakov and Mykyta Kuzmenko’s cinematography to be at its most spectacular throughout. Every year, Hutsul shepards leave their villages for four months to graze their flocks on highland pastures. For Kostyuk, this period marks the focus of the documentary, that, and the vicissitudes of the different generations who partake in this activity.
There’s a simultaneous sense of defiance evident in the basic premise that this community is able to continue to exist in the 21st century in the first place. This is the kind of persistence that frames the documentary: a study of survival. The story has three different characters, generations and experiences that it tracks. Firstly, Ivanko – a ten-year-old boy moving out of childhood and into the workforce – is faced with the spectre that he could be the last generation to take on the life he is taking. After him comes the 39-year-old Vasyl, who is in a position of regret at the loss of his youth – a loss that the director insinuated Ivanko will have to grapple with later in life. Finally, 82-year-old Ivan is less bitter and regretful. Instead, he is satiated in a place of quiet comfort, viewing his life without the regret and fear of his younger counterparts.
The abject absence of intimacy amidst the workers adds to the isolation they experience throughout the documentary. It’s insinuated that this deep-seated individualism is cemented from a young age, most potently expressed in the scene where one of the elders responds to a child: “Are you still crying? Keep it up and I’ll give you a reason to cry.” There’s no sympathy for perceived weakness in the communities of the Carpathian Mountains portrayed in The Living Fire. There’s this prevailing unspoken notion that it’s a necessity to have this perpetual harshness, as it primes individuals for the harshness their environment mirrors back at them.
There’s often a certain eeriness that the filmmakers purposefully provoke, with the film occasionally drifting from its carefully cut stability into a world of shakier cameras, high-pitched violin drones in the background, and a less coherent narrative to pinpoint. This becomes more palpable due to the contrasts they draw with the majority of the rest of the film. The Living Fire has a sense of antiquity that punctuates it throughout. The art of milking the sheep, the recurring classical orchestra soundtrack, and the intimate interviews – combined with experiments with focus, often blurring half the scene and slowly panning into focus – highlighting the raw beauty of the landscape in which The Living Fire is set. These eerier sections come and go throughout the documentary, but they create a thematic consistency of a feeling of total isolation in the mountains. They imbue a metaphysical element into the tasks being completed by the men and give their often mundane rituals a greater sense of purpose. When Vasyl goes about his daily tasks with a cold detachment, there’s this sense of obligation that emerges. He’s neither resists nor embraces his tasks, but simply completes them.
The complications emerge in the quaint isolated community – where its elders espouse that “no one knows the joys of the solitary”– in the period where the most substantial shifts in their way of life occurs: the change of seasons. When the snow, shown in those awe-inspiring opening shots, begins to clear towards spring, the period of herding the sheep truly begins. This seemingly simple practice is at the centre of the documentary, as Ostap Kostyuk repositions it as an inherently complex task. Its simplicity is evident, but the mindset required to push back against modernity and the prospect of a different life is at the heart of the difficulties; especially for the younger generations. It, resultingly, becomes the biggest issue of conflict between Ivanko, Vasyl and Ivan.
Ivan is a poignant character study and a figure that sits in conscientious objection to the modernisation of the world; passively rather than aggressively, going about his way of life with a quiet painful view that he will be one of the last to live in such a way. He reflects with a nostalgic sadness on his recently deceased wife throughout, a powerful reminder of the impermanence he too faces. In one moment of reflection, this is too painful for him, with his declaration “I’ve got to forget it all” coupled with his wiping tears away from his eyes forming one of the more painful scenes of the film.
When you strip everything back off The Living Fire, it remains at its core a film about the condition of modernity. It’s about the transitional nature of it, the gradual shift from generation to another, and the slow erasing of traditions that are incompatible with the strict conditions that modernity espouses. Ivan declares at the start of the film: “When you’ve had to milk rain-soaked sheep. You’ll crave not cheese or butter to eat.” It seems peripheral at the beginning, but poignant by the end. While the film is seasonal – beginning and ending in winter – it’s also statement that spans a lifetime. It’s a way of being, and an existence that Kostyuk paints as extraordinarily beautiful by the time The Living Fire reaches its conclusion.