Oles' Sanin, Mamai (2003)

reviewed by Rory Finnin© 2009

mamaiFrom 1843 to 1844 Taras Shevchenko labored over an etching that would become a centerpiece of his visual journey across the historical, cultural, and geographical landscape of Ukraine, Zhivopisnaia Ukraina (Picturesque Ukraine). Titled Dary v Chyhryni 1649 roku (The Gifts in Chyhyryn in 1649), the work features a trio of Muscovite, Polish, and Ottoman emissaries awaiting an audience with Bohdan Khmelnyts'kyi in a room sharply divided by light and shadow. Between them lies an array of opulent gifts for the Cossack hetman. Off to their right, Khmelnyts'kyi’s military council engages in rapt discussion in an adjoining room, but the emissaries exhibit a strange disinterest in the proceedings. Instead, with gazes ranging from patient to anxious and fatigued, they look out at the spectator. They draw us into the work, inviting us to relive a once-glorious Ukrainian past, and conduct our eyes to the large canvass cast in darkness on the wall behind them, a painting of the Cossack Mamai.

In Mamai (2003), Oles' Sanin’s first feature film, this iconic image of a lone Cossack wanderer playing the bandura, while ostensibly foregrounded in the film’s title, is as opaque and ulterior as the painting in Shevchenko’s etching. It is ever distant and mysterious, an empty signifier. To a degree, its position as such is an unintentional byproduct of an ambitious triadic narrative that is often confused, even undermined, by images and sequences “more juxtaposed than connected.”[1] But in leaving the Cossack Mamai vague and obscured—at one point literally shrouded in mist and darkness—Sanin offers us a provocative filmic meditation on its position as a marker of an “empty” Ukrainian identity, one formed not by ethnic or confessional allegiances but by the vast openness of the steppe. As the director himself observes, “in Turkic languages, ‘Mamai’ means ‘no one’ (nikhto), ‘the impossible’ (niiak), ‘he who is without a name, without the word.’ This is emptiness itself” (Sanin 2003).

mamaiThe figure of the Cossack Mamai, particularly ubiquitous in Ukrainian art from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, is at once familiar and strange. With a horse and sword by his side attesting to freedom and martial prowess, he wears a zhupan (Cossack overcoat) and displays the trademark oseledets, the long lock of hair on an otherwise shaved head. Yet this is not Gogol'’s belligerent Bul'ba, Panteleimon Kulish’s Byronic Kyrylo Tur, or one of Repin’s rakish Zaporozhians. The Cossack Mamai sits in the Turkish bağdaş (cross-legged) position, projecting wisdom and serenity not unlike Buddha under the Bodhi tree, and bears the name of a fourteenth-century khan of the Golden Horde. He grasps his bandura in solitude, his eyes passive and capacious, a site of memory of an era of liberty and sovereignty somehow both long departed and close at hand.


Sanin seizes on the Cossack Mamai’s liminal position between the Slavic and Turkic worlds, between the worlds of the flesh and the spirit, from the film’s very outset. The breve of the iot in the film’s title heading is rendered with a cross and then, subtly, with a crescent. Interspersed among the opening credits are stills of Cossack Mamai genre paintings and Crimean Tatar zoographic calligraphy, of abstract Crimean Tatar tamgalar (insignias) and aging manuscripts of Ukrainian dumy. These texts help place the film’s events in an almost mythical, extrahistorical time. Alla Zahaikevych’s score, meanwhile, incorporates elements of both the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar musical traditions, culminating in a brilliant scene in which nonsynchronous sound colors a passionate argument between the film’s two central protagonists.

mamaiSanin structures the entire film, moreover, to deliver a moment in which one of these characters, played by Andrii Bilous, literally becomes this ambivalent figure of the Cossack Mamai. He does so at the intersection of three distinct yet interrelated (if not convoluted) plots in the diegesis, the first adapted from the Ukrainian epic tradition, the second derived from Crimean Tatar folklore, and the third conceived by Sanin himself (Sanin 2003). The first plot is based on “Duma pro tr'okh brativ azovs'kykh” (“A Duma about Three Brothers from Azov”) in which two brothers, fleeing from Crimean Tatar captivity on horseback, abandon their youngest brother on foot (Ukrainian dumy, 78-91).[2] According to Sanin, the second is inspired by a Turkic legend about three Mamluks who search for the Golden Cradle of Genghis Khan, a talismanic object whose disappearance from the fold, like that of the Roman Aquila, portends death and destruction (Sanin 2003). In Mamai, these two tales are conflated into a storyline that pits three Crimean Tatar brothers, seemingly empowered by the Golden Cradle, against the two escaped Cossacks, who become increasingly mournful of the abandonment of their brother. Sanin supplements this pursuit across the steppe with a romance between the two protagonists deserted by these warring sides, the Cossack brother left for dead (Bilous) and Amai (Viktoriia Spesivtseva), the sister of the Crimean Tatar brothers who discovers and revives him.

mamaiSanin expressed a concern that this elaborate plot structure would confuse his audience, and he seemed to struggle to find an editing rhythm in post-production that would offer the spectator a handle on the story (Sanin 2003). In one rather drawn-out set of sequences, he cuts from horses galloping under a high sun in slow-motion to a horse neighing against the backdrop of a blood-red dusk in live action and then back again, contributing to a lack of semantic, motion, and color continuity that was likely not a production objective. Yet such concerns are perhaps beside the point for a filmmaker who, like his cinematic forebears Sergei Paradjanov, Iurii Iliienko, and Leonid Osyka before him, ultimately privileges the revelatory poetic potential of the image over narrative coherence. Indeed, in concert with cinematographer Serhii Mykhal'chuk, Sanin constructs Mamai as a constellation of moments rife with ethnographic detail in which the frame becomes a startlingly fresh and vivid still life tableau: incandescent lovers shimmering in moonlight; Amai’s haunting eyes emerging from a niqab; Cossacks caked in a white dust wrought by brutal labor slowly scaling a pale cliff, undetected by their Crimean Tatar captors.

mamaiAfter Amai cleanses this hardened white dust off the face of the abandoned brother—removing a mask—and names him “Mamai”—removing once and for all the need to wear one—we see the young Cossack craft a bandura while enveloped in a nocturnal haze. Sounds of distant music, alternately diegetic and extradiegetic, give him pause, and he looks up with curiosity and trepidation before sitting bağdaş with his instrument and thereby fulfilling his namesake. He becomes the Cossack Mamai, and in the best traditions of Ukrainian poetic cinema, the film becomes a genre painting. To emphasize the profundity of his protagonist’s transformation, Sanin splices into the scene stills from old Cossack manuscripts, one of which reads: “Khoch dyvys' na mene ta ba—ne vhadaiesh, zvidkil' rodom i iak zvut', nichychyrk ne znaiesh” (“Though you endeavor to look upon me, you cannot divine my origins; of my name you know nothing at all”).

mamaiFor all its ostensible importance to the film, this “mamaification” is brief, plot-superfluous, and devoid of elaboration. Sanin’s Cossack Mamai is a vague emblem, an empty vessel—but an emblem nonetheless, one that represents an intervention on the part of the filmmaker into the politics of national identity and human rights in Ukraine. This intervention is contextualized by what we might call Sanin’s use of space, symmetry, and sentiment. Mamai was shot on location on the Crimean steppe, and the historically porous region is a critical character in the film, a vast and open land where no man-made enclosed space can be found. There are no villages or towns, no farms or fortresses, no churches or mosques in Mamai; there is only Amai’s barren, roofless homestead covered by a loose patchwork of tattered tarps and kilims. Intentionally or not, her home evokes the samozakhvaty (“self-seized” shanties) occupied by scores of today’s Crimean Tatars, who have returned to their ancestral homeland after enduring decades of forced exile in Central Asia and now struggle for the right to own land and reclaim the property seized from them in 1944. Indeed, Sanin subtly and sensitively alludes to the contemporary plight of the Crimean Tatars at a number of points in the film, never more so than in a scene in which one of the Crimean Tatar brothers prays tearfully inside the trunk of a twisted dead tree, longing for enclosure, longing for home.

mamaiAccording to Sanin, Mamai is meant as an act of recovery of an oft-forgotten history of coexistence, cooperation, and union between the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar communities (Sanin 2003). The child born of Amai and Mamai’s marriage—who is only alluded to at the conclusion of the film but, in hindsight, revealed at its very beginning—is a clear gesture to this history (and an apparent appeal for future solidarity). Yet given the hunt for the escaped Cossacks by the Crimean Tatars, Mamai features a plotline of conflict and discordance between these two groups as well. It is a plotline, however, full of dramatic irony, because we witness a strong symmetry between those who flee and those who pursue, a symmetry that neither side can see. Sanin ensures that the actions of the Cossacks are mirrored in those of the Crimean Tatars: when the former ride, pray, emote, or fight, so do the latter. What divides them, then, is insubstantial, arbitrary, unknown.

mamaiAs open and enigmatic as the steppe, Oles' Sanin’s Cossack Mamai advances a Ukrainian identity capable of reconciling opposites and containing multitudes. It is a national identity of individual self-ascription, one available to all who make the decision to love the Other, the stranger, the foreigner. Mamai is, after all, an ambitious love story; in Sanin’s own words, it is a tribute to “the love of a daughter of the Crimean Tatar people (narodu) for a Ukrainian who is deserted by his own brothers on the steppe, a love that transforms him into the mythical Cossack Mamai himself” (Sanin 2003). Its appeal to our best sentiments, coupled with its extraordinary visual poetry, makes it a new landmark of Ukrainian cinema, highly worthy of its submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Rory Finnin, University of Cambridge


1] This comment is made by Frank Curot (“les plans sont plus juxtaposés qu'enchaînés”) in reference to the filmmaking of Sergei Paradzhanov, who along with Leonid Osyka bears a profound influence on Sanin’s poetic style (Curot 2000: 231).

2] Excerpts from “Duma about the Three Brothers of Samarka” (“Duma pro tr'okh brativ samars'kykh”) (“Usi polia samars'ki pochornily,/ Ta ne iasnymy pozharamy pohorily,/ Til'ky ne zhorily/ U richtsi Samartsi,/ V krynytsi Saltantsi,” Ukrainian Dumy) are also read in an extradiegetic voiceover at the beginning of the film.

Works Cited

Curot, Frank. “Singularité et liberté: Serguei Paradjanov ou les risques du style,” Études cinématographiques 65 (2000).

Sanin, Oles'. “Khto boït'sia Mamaia,” Kino-Kolo, February 2003.

Ukrainian Dumy, trans. George Tarnawsky and Patricia Kilina, intro. by Natalie K. Moyle. Toronto: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1979.

Mamai, Ukraine, 2003
Color, 80 min.
Director: Oles' Sanin
Script: Oles' Sanin
Cinematography: Serhii Mykhal'chuk
Art Direction: Iulian Tikhonov, Andrii Syverynko
Sound: Ol'ha Kyryliuk
Music: Alla Zahaikevych
Cast: Viktoriia Spesivtseva, Nazl Seitablaeva, Andrii Bilous, Serhii Romaniuk, Oles' Sanin, Akhtem Seitablaev, El'dar Akimov, Emil' Rasilov, Zarema Belialova
Producers: Hanna Chmil', Aram Gevorkian
Production: Dovzhenko Film Studios, Kyiv; Fresky Studio


Oles' Sanin, Mamai (2003)

reviewed by Rory Finnin© 2009