“Directing is fundamentally the truth as it’s transformed into images: sorrow, hope, love, beauty. Sometimes I tell others the stories in my screenplays, and I ask: ‘Did I make it up, or is it the truth?’ Everyone says: ‘It’s made up.’ No, it’s simply the truth as I perceive it.” – Sergei Parajanov, in conversation with Ron Holloway1

Sergei Parajanov’s Тіні забутих предків (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, 1965) is a masterpiece of magical realism, in which actual events are interspersed with dreamlike passages that place the real world in a state of constant flux. A fantastic tapestry of tracking shots, whip pans, handheld camerawork, hallucinatory images, a few Godardian intertitles and stark visuals amid an explosion of highly saturated colour (favouring reds and yellows), the film transports the viewer into a deeply romantic yet brutal world where life is uncertain, and death can happen in a matter of an instant. Reluctantly released by the Soviet authorities because it deviated from the official “Socialist Realism” school that Moscow embraced, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was an international success on the festival circuit, eventually influencing other extravagantly romantic works, such as Jaromil Jireš’ Czech film Valerie a týden divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, 1970).

Based on a 1911 novel by Ukrainian writer Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a Romeo and Juliet story, in which the protagonists, two star-crossed lovers, hope to rebel against their warring families. Ivan (Ivan Mykolaichuk) is a young boy who falls in love with the Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova). Marichka’s father, however, is responsible for the murder of Ivan’s father, so their relationship is fraught with tension. Ivan leaves the village to find work and make some money so that the two can be married. But in his absence, Marichka accidentally drowns, leaving Ivan bereft. He strikes up a new relationship with Palahna (Tatyana Bestayeva), and the two are married, but the match isn’t a success; Ivan still pines for Marichka. In response to Ivan’s neglect, Marichka turns to the affections of Yurko (Spartak Bagashvili), a local molfar, a person reputed to have magic powers. When Ivan learns of this, he tries to kill Yuko with an axe, but Yurko easily bests him. Fleeing to a nearby forest, Ivan thinks he sees Marichka, and pursues her spirit as it floats through the woods. But when Marichka’s spirit reaches out to touch Ivan’s hand, her caress is instantly fatal. With a cry, Ivan falls to the ground, dead. 

The film is remarkable for many reasons, including the fact that it was shot at the Dovzhenko Film Studios in Ukraine, as well as location shooting in the Carpathian village of Kryvorivnia. Secondly, the Dovzhenko Studios, named after the famous Soviet director Alexander Dovzhenko, typically produced Russian language films only, as Ukraine was at that point under Soviet domination, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As a fledgling director, Parajanov attended the VGIK (Soviet All-Union State School for Film Art and Cinematography) and took courses with Dovzhenko himself.

Parajanov’s short “diploma film” for the VGIK, Moldavian Fairy Tale (1951) so impressed Dovzhenko that he demanded to see it twice. When Rostoslav Yurenev, later an important critic and at this point another member of the VGIK examination board, complained that Parajanov had merely copied Dovzhenko’s 1928 film Zvenigora, Dovzhenko leapt to Parajanov’s defence, determining that the young director had never seen Zvenigora, and made sure that the young filmmaker passed out with honours. Parajanov then directed eight films from 1964 onwards which he later dismissed as apprenticeship work, until he finally found his style with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Partly this was due to the impact of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ива́ново де́тство (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962), which stunned Parajanov into thinking about cinema in a whole new way. As he told Ron Holloway, “That’s when I found my theme, my field of interest: the problems faced by the people. I focused on ethnography, on God, on love and tragedy.” But problems with the release of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors began almost immediately. 

As Parajanov noted in a 1995 interview with Ron Holloway, “when officials saw the film, they understood it broke the principles of Socialist Realism and the social rubbish that ruled our cinematography at that time. But they could do nothing because it was too late: two days later, Mikhail Kotsyubinsky [the author of the novel on which the film was based] had his jubilee. It was his centenary. So they said: ‘Let him go ahead and show his film.’ The film was released. They could ban it later on. And then they would somehow be finished with the whole affair. But when the intelligentsia saw it, they were moved. The film caused a chain reaction of unrest. The ministry asked me to make a Russian version. The film was not only shot in the Ukrainian language, but it was also in the Hutsul dialect. They asked me to dub the film in Russian. But I turned then down categorically.”

While the film was a smashing success around the globe, at home, things began to go badly for Parajanov. As he told Ron Holloway, “I was an Armenian in the Ukraine, dealing with Ukrainian issues. I was awarded 23 gold medals for Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors — the first in Mar del Plata, the last in Cádiz. I was known and recognized in the Ukraine. The Ukrainians loved me. My wife was Ukrainian, my son was Ukrainian. But this was not liked in certain circles. I was arrested and imprisoned [in 1973] for five years. A harsh sentence.” The conviction was a sham –Parajanov was arrested on such vague charges as “business with art objects,” “leaning towards homosexuality,” “incitement to suicide,” and “black-marketing” (Holloway).

Hearing of Parajanov’s arrest on such trumped-up charges, Andrei Tarkovsky wrote an open letter to the ruling Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, asserting that “in the last ten years Sergei Parajanov has made only two films: Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors and The Colour of Pomegranates [1969]. They have influenced cinema first in Ukraine, second in this country, and third in the world at large. Artistically, there are few people in the entire world who could replace Parajanov. He is guilty – guilty of his solitude. We are guilty of not thinking of him daily and of failing to discover the significance of a master.” It was only after a coterie of Western intellectuals intervened on his behalf – including the American novelist John Updike, the French poet Louis Aragon, and the actor Herbert Marshall – that Parajanov was released four years into his sentence, in 1978. Even then he was rearrested in 1982, again on utterly false charges, though he was released shortly thereafter.

In prison, Parajanov wrote four screenplays and created roughly 800 drawings; the drawings were subsequently exhibited in a museum to overflow crowds. But he was unable to make another film until 1985, and after that made only two more films, and one incomplete film, before his death in 1990 at the age of 66. In the end, Parajanov’s legacy rests on the two films on which he had at least some degree of artistic freedom; Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Colour of Pomegranates, an equally stunning piece of work. Parajanov was realistic about the route he took as a filmmaker; rather than following the path of least resistance – the Communist party line – Parajanov dared to create work of originality and brilliance even in the most difficult of circumstances. We can then rejoice in the work he was able to complete, but also mourn the fact that he was not allowed more freedom as an artist, something that befalls all those who are fated to work in a totalitarian state – proving once again that true freedom is the most important prerequisite for those who seek to follow their own vision, no matter what the cost.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Тіні забутих предків, 1965 Ukraine, Colour 97 mins)

Prod Co: Dovzhenko Film Studios Prod: N. Yureva Dir: Sergei Parajanov Scr: Ivan Chendej and Sergei Parajanov, from the novel by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky Phot: Yuri Ilyenko and Viktor Bestayev Ed: Marfa Ponomarenko Prod Des: Mikhail Rakovskiy and Georgiy Yakutovich Mus: Miroslav Skorik

Cast: Ivan Mykolaichuk, Larisa Kadochnikova, Tatyana Bestayeva, Spartak Bagashvili, Nikolay Grinko, Leonid Yengibarov, Nina Alisova, Aleksandr Gai


  1. Holloway, Ron. “Sergei Parajanov Speaks Up,” Kinema (Spring, 1996) <https://openjournals.uwaterloo.ca/index.php/kinema/article/view/834/758>.

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press, which has to date published more than twenty volumes on various cultural topics. He is the author of more than thirty books on film history, theory, and criticism, as well as more than 100 articles in various academic journals. He is also an active experimental filmmaker, whose works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art. His recent video work is collected in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He has also taught at The New School, Rutgers University, and the University of Amsterdam. His recent books include Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine (2019), The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond (2017), Black & White Cinema: A Short History (2015); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s second, expanded edition of his classic book A History of Horror (2010) was published in 2023. Dixon's book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third, revised edition was published in 2018; and a fourth revised edition with a great deal of new material will be published in early 2025. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. As an experimental filmmaker, his works have been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, Filmhuis Cavia (Amsterdam), Studio 44 (Stockholm), La lumière collective (Montréal), The BWA Katowice Museum (Poland), The Microscope Gallery, The National Film Theatre (UK), The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, LA Filmforum (Los Angeles), The New Arts Lab, The Exploding Cinema (London), The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Rice Museum, The Oberhausen Film Festival, Undercurrent, Experimental Response Cinema and other venues. In addition, Dixon’s films have been screened at numerous film festivals throughout the world, including presentations in London, New York, Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Monterrey (Mexico), Urbino (Italy), Tehran (Iran), Naples (Italy), Athens (Greece), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rybinski (Russia), Palermo (Italy), Madrid (Spain), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Australia, Qatar, Amsterdam, Vienna, Moscow, Milan, Switzerland, Croatia, Stockholm (Sweden), Havana (Cuba) and elsewhere.

Related Posts