Co-production case study: Pamfir
10 March 2023
“One important lesson”, told Ukrainian producer Aleksandra Kostina to a room full of aspiring producers at the 2023 edition of Rotterdam Lab, “is that if you have a problem, you really need to ask everyone, because you never know what you're going to hear.” She was recounting one of the most precarious moments on the production of Pamfir, her debut feature film as producer as well as the debut feature for its director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk.
The film is set in the Chernivtsi region of western Ukraine in the Carpathian Mountains, as the village gears up for Malanka, the new year festival. The majesty of the surroundings combines with the pagan-rooted celebration to give the film its striking mystique, but for the crew, relying on unpredictable mountain weather proved a major challenge. “Maybe it’s better to make films without snow,” joked Kostina.
The plot unfolds across the changing seasons, from early autumn to the mid-winter festival. “In the mountains, when you need golden autumn you have snow. When you need snow you have spring.” As the crew arrived on location to shoot the winter episode, there was no snow at all. They rearranged the schedule and shot the indoor scenes, and finally waited until the end of January before there was minus-20 degree weather and thick snowfall.
“People thought we were crazy.”
Preparing the shoot for the winter scenes was a huge operation, needing three days to unpack everything, prepare the costumes and rehearse. “During these three days the snow melted to the ground. It was black ground totally. I didn't know what to do.” The bitter disappointment brought the crew to a standstill. The film’s defining scenes were at risk and the stalled production was costly. The team were arguing about how to carry on – “maybe it will have to be winter without snow.”
A room full of the bickering crew was interrupted by Kostina’s five-year-old son. “He said ‘I saw there is snow in the mountains, so just go up there, take the snow and bring it down.’ And that's what we did in the end. People thought we were crazy.”
Aleksandra Kostina © Jan de Groen
Rotterdam Lab producers © Jan de Groen
David Pope speaks to Aleksandra Kostina © Jan de Groen
Rotterdam Lab Co-production Case Study session © Jan de Groen
Relying on mountain weather was just one of a number of risks Kostina had to be prepared for on the project. Making a director’s debut means you should be prepared to spend as much as 30% more on the budget. “Sometimes we made some costumes that we didn't use, or some props that we didn't use. We had a lot of overtime and I started to fight at the beginning of the production but then I just realised: okay, it's a debut film. It's impossible for him to make it any other way.”
“People who care can bring much more interesting results.”
Believing in the director and the project was vital to pulling them through. “It's a long period, it's like a marriage.” Since 2013 Kostina had worked as a freelance line and executive producer. After seeing Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s short Weightlifter, she knew she wanted to be involved in his first feature. In 2018, she set up the production company BOSONFILM and personally financed the package needed to pitch Pamifr to funds and financiers. Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk had been working on the project since 2016 where it had participated in TorinoFilmLab. The project was accepted onto the Cinéfondation Residence and then the finances began to fall into place, before production in 2020 and the premiere in 2022.
The film ended up a rather dizzying Ukrainian, French, Polish, Chilean, Luxembourg, German co-production, but despite the maze of funding sources, co-producers and cash flow logistics that are part-and-parcel of setting up a European co-production Kostina “couldn't say it was really complicated.” The most important thing was choosing partners and co-producers that you could trust. “People who care can bring much more interesting results.”
Amongst the funders and financiers was IFFR’s Hubert Bals Fund, which provided the project with €53,000 in support through the HBF+Europe: Minority Co-production Support scheme in 2020. “It’s not only money,” says Kostina. “It puts your project in the spotlight.”
Film still: Pamfir
Film still: Pamfir
Film still: Pamfir
The co-producers, which included Les Films d'Ici, Madants, Quijote Films, Mainstream Pictures and Wady Films, provided vital creative input throughout the process, in the script stage through to the editing process, where the feedback rounds were crucial in reducing the director’s cut of the film which was two hours and 20 minutes long. “He was just like: ‘there is no way that I can kill any second from this edit.’” After nine months of editing, they produced a final cut 40 minutes shorter.
“We don't know what will happen to us, whether we'll be alive or not.”
Having trust-worthy partners wasn’t just for creative benefit, as the invasion in February 2022 would prove. “All the shooting material and all the video material was in Poland so it was safe. But sound editing was in Ukraine and we finished it only a few weeks before the full scale invasion started.” Kostina told the dramatic details of the sound editor’s journey in the first days of the war to the studio to retrieve the material and send it to their French co-producer.
“That was the moment when we thought: ‘we don't know what will happen to us, whether we'll be alive or not, but at least our partners can finish the film.’” The co-producers were faithful to their commitment and the film was invited to premiere at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight. “This news was really very strange. We didn't feel that it's possible to leave the country and we didn't really want to either.”
“It's our responsibility to show it.”
Several months later, the film has been heavily acclaimed and toured festivals across the world including IFFR where it screened at the 52nd edition. But, screening it in Ukraine remains “the last challenge on this project for us.” They first premiered it to several full-house screening rooms during the Kiev Critics Week in October 2022. “Twice there was an air raid siren where you need to go to the basement until the danger is clear, and then you can come back and see the rest of the film.” Waiting for the worst of the winter cold to be over, necessary so people can sit comfortably in cinemas that don’t have access to power generators, Pamfir will be released throughout Ukraine on March 23.
“Cost effectively, strategically, it doesn't make any sense at the moment. But it's our responsibility to show it to the Ukrainian audience. People heard so many things about it, in this country, that country, won this award and that. It's our responsibility to maintain the cultural life in Ukraine and show it to them. In the end it’s public money.”
This case study was presented as part of Rotterdam Lab, IFFR’s training programme for emerging film producers from across the world which hosted 73 emerging talents at IFFR 2023.
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Pamfir, Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk, 2023, Ukraine
When his affectionate son commits arson to prevent him from going abroad, Leonid is obliged to abandon his newfound life of honesty and resume contraband work. But the powers-that-be won’t tolerate this regression.
Produced by BOSONFILM
in co-production with Les Films d'Ici, Madants, Quijote Films
in association with Mainstream Pictures, Wady Films, Moderator, Studio Orlando
produced by Aleksandra Kostina, Jane Yatsuta, Laura Briand, Bogna Szewczyk, Klaudia Śmieja – Rostworowska, Giancarlo Nasi
co-produced by Artem Koliubaiev, Alyona Tymoshenko, Silvana Santamaria, Adolf El Assal, Adam Gudell