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A small movement of young filmmakers in Russia’s remote, politically fraught North Caucasus Mountains is starting to make a big noise, first at the Cannes Film Festival and now in the Oscar’s best international feature race.
Remarkably, filmmakers Kantemir Balagov (with 2019’s Beanpole) and Kira Kovalenko (with her new drama, Unclenching the Fists) — both of whom studied with the great Russian director Alexander Sokurov in a North Caucasus filmmaking workshop — have won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard grand prize in consecutive editions. Now, Kovalenko’s movie is Russia’s official Oscar submission, the country’s striking acknowledgment of an artist who may be working on the geographic margins but whose international impact is anything but marginal.
Unclenching the Fists director Kovalenko and producer Alexander Rodnyansky spoke to THR Presents, powered by Vision Media, about the genesis and inspiration behind the film, which will be released in the near future by its North American distributor, Mubi.
Kovalenko’s drama (co-written with Lyubov Mulmenko and Anton Yarush) trains its intense focus on a young woman named Ada (played by Milana Aguzarova), living with her family in the grim mining town of Mizur, in North Ossetia, and suffering under the twin burdens of childhood injuries sustained in a brutal Chechnyan hostage crisis and a domineering father in declining health. She hopes for a way out of her dead-end existence, and her older brother, visiting from a nearby city, may be able to help her.
“Originally,” Kovalenko says, “I wanted to film a story about three brothers and a father, instead of what it became, which was two brothers, a sister and a father. What changed is when I was on the way to the location of my original story, and I saw this town [Mizur] in this canyon surrounded by two cliffs, and it seemed like the kind of place where someone could be protected. I was also thinking at the time of William Faulkner’s phrase from his novel Intruder in the Dust, that while very few can endure slavery, nobody can stand freedom. My new story was born of that place.”
Kovalenko explains that Ada and her complicated life was inspired partly by the works of Faulkner and French novelist Georges Bernanos, best known for Diary of a Country Priest, famously adapted for the screen by Robert Bresson, as well as a project she knew about in the Russian Republic of Dagestan in which daughters wrote letters to their fathers about things they couldn’t talk about. “And of course,” she adds, “it was important to find these contrasting personality traits within her of strength and weakness.”
Rodnyansky says she was “deeply impressed” by Kovalenko when they first met. “I had seen her shorts and her first feature, and then I was really impressed with her story idea for Unclenching the Fists. Especially with her metaphor of freedom as a burden. It seemed very relevant for someone living in the country we’re living in. She combines a deep understanding of human psychology with a great artistic talent. In general in Russia, young female filmmakers telling these socially relevant stories with such strong artistic appeal [are rare].”
This edition of THR Presents is presented by Mubi, Inc.
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