SSIFF 2021 interview: Kira Kovalenko (Unclenching the Fists)

After winning the top award in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Ukrainian film Unclenching the Fists looks destined for a long festival run. First stop: San Sebastián. At a roundtable interview with director Kira Kovalenko, Cédric Succivalli discussed casting professionals and non-professionals both, the influence of Alexander Sokurov, the future of Russian cinema, and the oppressive environment her protagonist has to endure and how that mimics her own experiences.

Q: Your film has a mixed cast of professional and non-professional actors. The lead actress was a real find, I must say. She reminded me of Émilie Dequenne in Rosetta. How did you find her, and can you elaborate a bit on your casting process in general?

KK: The problem with casting for me is that if I do a ‘traditional’ casting I never get the actors I want, so that is why we ourselves searched for actors. We went to a lot of small towns, going to places where young people would meet. I must have shot more than 1000 photos and short videos. But for the father and daughter, the central characters of the film, I did want professional actors, because these were roles that had a strong element of what it means to be an actor: hiding yourself. Alik Karaev, who plays the father, is a theatre actor. Milana Aguzarova, who plays the lead role of Ada, was in her second year in acting school, so she was still almost a non-professional. We worked a lot on creating the character through rehearsal, because Milana is very different from Ada in terms of temperament and character. So we rehearsed how she moved, how she looks, how she speaks, the intonation and melody in her voice.

Q: It’s not only her family that wants Ada to stay where she is, it is in a sense her whole community. How was that for you? You grew up in this area, was there any pressure on you to stay and be a ‘local girl’, so to speak?

KK: I grew up in a neighbouring republic, and basically all the problems that Ada is facing in the film were mine as well, until a certain moment in my life, which was when my parents became more permissive towards me with regards to men. That was when I managed to free myself.

Q: I would like to talk a bit about Alexander Sokurov and his film school, of which you were a student. The past few years we have seen several films from that school’s alumni, and for all of them the time in Sokurov’s classes was life changing. What was it like for you, and how did it change you, both as a filmmaker and as a human being?

KK: When I enlisted in his school, I knew nothing about cinema and what it meant to be a film director. I just wanted an education that would fulfill myself. The desire to make a film only grew towards the end of my studies. As for the change as a person, my personality was awakened by my desire for education. Just like my characters I had no idea what I was up to, but I knew I wanted to be the master of my own future.

Q: Ada is a survivor of the Beslan hostage crisis, but this fact is kept implicit in the film and not made directly explicit, which means it might be overlooked by non-Russian audiences. What made you keep this fact implicit and not make it more of a reference?

KK: I think what happened to Ada is easy to understand for everybody. She is a survivor and a victim of a terrorist attack, and I think it’s not necessary to extensively explain that. There have been a great number of attacks, and I’m speaking globally now, that have wounded a large number of people, so I think people can relate. A person is a sum of their past. It is the same for victims of the Chechen war and the children who survived that. As for the physical challenges that Ada has to face: her story is the true story of a girl who came from Chechnya.

Q: How challenging is it to emerge as a filmmaker in Russia at the moment, especially as a female one? What are your difficulties in networking and getting funding and so on?

KK: I can’t really compare between male and female directors, since I only know the female side (laughs). But it’s really very, very difficult for any filmmaker in Russia to get their first film off the ground. I do think that the difficulties in getting funding and in establishing a network is a more global problem in cinema today though, and that’s for any gender.

Q: There seems to be a new generation of filmmakers in Russia breaking out right now, young filmmakers like Kantemir Balagov and yourself. How do you explain this sudden emergence?

KK: One part is Sokurov’s film school and the films that were born from that: he gave so much of his life for those films to be screened, so we owe him an enormous amount of gratitude. As for cinema in Russia as a whole, I can feel a fresh breath of air circulating; a new generation, new names we will see a lot of interesting stuff from in the future.

Q: The way the film is shot feels intentionally claustrophobic, with its muted colours and rainy, grey environments, but there is one spot of colour, namely Ada’s purple jacket. This really stood out for me. Was there a significance to this choice?

KK: The town where the story takes place is like a box where one can hide a person, which can feel claustrophobic. I spent a month in a town like this, where every day you can see just a tiny bit of sky with all windows facing the mountains, so it becomes a very small place. But that one bit of colour… I took a lot of photos, and I noticed that a lot of women were wearing purple, so I wondered why. At first I thought they wanted to separate themselves and stand out from their surroundings. Then I realized this place has a lot of different colours. Somebody with a difficult life tries to use him or herself to add more colour to their world. So I saw that I needed to help my characters by giving them more colour. And purple is such a childish colour, which felt right for Ada.