Set in the breathtaking Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine, Living Fire is a captivating story of three shepherds, each at a different stage in his life. Living in a world bound by tradition, they reflect on the meaning of their own existence as the contemporary world begins to encroach into their remote community. 10 year-old Ivanko must leave a carefree childhood behind as he transitions into adulthood. 39 year-old Vasyl reflects on a youth lost as he toils with unforgiving daily labor. Ivan, at 82, is recently widowed, and reflects with gratitude on a life that was good when rooted to a bountiful land. As the snow begins to melt and spring approaches, all three men prepare to begin the difficult journey of following their sheep into the mountains, a journey that his been a part of their families for generations. But with the temptations of an easier contemporary life and the pressures of modernity, they find themselves caught between two worlds—and the struggle to maintain their way of life becomes increasingly difficult.
This year’s film showcases the trials and tribulations of a B.C. childless couple who try and adopt two Ukrainian sisters from a orphanage in Horodnia (northern Ukraine), 7-year old Alyona and 8-year old Snezhana. The couple later learns the sisters have three siblings and try and adopt them all – 15-year-old Sergei, 16-year-old Yuliya, and six-year-old Sasha.
The film shows the challenges with adopting children across the age spectrum, with the eldest having the most trouble fitting in. Yuliya used to be the children’s protector, but finds that’s no longer her role, and struggles for independence from her new parents as she reaches adulthood. There is a language barrier at the beginning of the family’s relationship, but the parents did not show any signs of learning any of the children’s language in the movie. The parents face their own struggles connecting with the children at times, and the financial difficulties with adopting all of them (the movie claims around $200,000) and how it has drained their savings. The father is a nurse who eventually works up in the arctic a month at a time for additional income, and the mother is on disability from a car accident (which is the reason they did not try to have their own children).
The children also have to deal with the physical and emotional battle scars of their past – we are told some have learning disabilities (which are not thoroughly addressed in the film), Sergei suffers from lack of a growth hormone that leaves him only 4’6” tall entering adulthood, and at least one girl appears to have some form of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The younger children appear to adapt better than their own older siblings, who want to return to Ukraine to visit their old friends.
The movie itself provides a good glimpse into the life of an adopted family and the struggles of immigrating, fitting and growing up. The movie is solely focused on the family and offers little into any politics (there was a state-wide adoption ban from the government) and life outside the family (there is little footage of the children’s past lives in the orphanage). Julia even interjects herself into the documentary, especially during conflicts, when the children shut themselves off from communication. She is able to interview them in their native Russian to hear their true feelings no whatever matter is pressing them. Filming the family in their home most of the time can certainly be challenging, as the camera cannot be candid in their small house – sometimes the conversations that the family have feel a little forced, most likely to save face in front of the camera. Nonetheless the true feelings do come out and are captured in the film, making it worthwhile to see.
‘Ancestors in the Attic’ aired tonight on Global an episode about a man trying to look up his Ukrainian roots at the WWI internment camp in Spirit Lake, Quebec:
Growing up as a Ukranian-Canadian, Jerry Bayrak always faced prejudice. But he also heard whispers that his family dealt with even worse when they first arrived in Canada. No one would ever tell him anything about those early days. All Jerry’s Mom would reveal was that she grew up in a small town called Spirit Lake, near Montreal. But it wasn’t until Jerry began digging that he discovered that Spirit Lake was actually a World War I internment camp. Now, with the help of Ancestors in the Attic, Jerry begins a dramatic search to discover the truth about Spirit Lake and about one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history.
The Ukrainian Canadian internment was part of the confinement of “enemy aliens” in Canada during and for 2 years after the end of World War I, lasting from 1914 to 1920. About 5,000 Ukrainian men of Austro-Hungarian citizenship were kept in twenty-four internment camps and related work sites, also known, at the time, as concentration camps. Another 80,000 were registered as “enemy aliens” and obliged to regularly report to the police. Those interned had whatever little wealth they owned confiscated.