The old adage “write what you know” has rarely paid off with such bleak, persuasive power as it does in Unclenching The Fists, which won the Grand Prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar this year, is Russia’s submission to the International Feature race at the Oscars and is screening at AFI Fest. Mubi has U.S. rights and is planning a theatrical release ahead of digital in 2022.
Kira Kovalenko’s confident debut feature is largely based on events of her own youth. Like her fictional heroine Ada (Milana Aguzarova), Kovalenko grew up in a dreary mining town in the Caucasus. She captures, with unsentimental precision, the way life spent with the same few people, year after year, can be both suffocating in its intensity and numbingly dull.
Ada’s home is in North Ossetia, a thinly populated but strategically important wedge of Russia on the border of Georgia and next to Chechnya. Check it out on a map. Split between two hostile countries, Ossetia is a region exhausted by war. Everything about it seems tired. “Haven’t you got anything better to do?” Ada’s brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov) shouts routinely at the boys who spend their afternoons throwing explosives at the pock-marked wall of a bombed building. Bang, bang, bang. The fact is that no, they haven’t; their lives are as bare as the treeless hillsides rising behind the motorway that bisects their town.
Predictably enough, Ada longs to escape. There are plenty of films that tell that story, all with a feminist twist; the difference here lies in the specifics of this story, which are not at all predictable. Ada is kept a virtual prisoner by her widowed father Zaur (Alik Karaev), allowed out only to go to work at the local shop — when she gets home, he locks the door and pockets the key while she rushes to cook his dinner. He has hidden her passport, which means she has no identification papers; he controls even how she wears her hair. Worst of all, he refuses to let her have an operation to fix the effects of a debilitating war injury that has left her incontinent. Zaur doesn’t want anyone interfering with his little girl. Besides, as long as she is disabled, he has her cornered.
Where to turn? Dakko is a cheerful companion but makes his own demands; the little boy in his grown body is so emotionally starved that he wants to sleep in Ada’s bed, tell her his dreams and call her “mom.” Sometimes he seems to want quite literally to crush her. Ada’s hopes for a rescuer are pinned on her surly older brother, Akim (Soslan Khugaev), who works in a distant town and visits rarely. Her fallback option is Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov), a feckless, slightly loopy local boy whose only recommendation is that he adores her. Rescuing herself is beyond the scope of life as she knows it. Where could she go?
Kovalenko and her co-writer Anton Yarush weave this story’s warp and weft of contradictory truths with tremendous skill and intelligence. Nothing about this situation is as simple as we want it to be. Zaur is not exactly a villain; he laughs with the family he oppresses. The boys Ada trusts as her allies are also part of the patriarchy that constrains her life; they are unreliable liberators, likely to turn traitor any time. Ada herself is erratic to the point of madness, clinging to Akim with her own octopus grip of neediness. “Forget ‘down there,’” he says at one point. “It’s your head that needs help.”
That ruling intelligence is matched by an authorial sobriety. Much of what happens could be the stuff of melodrama, but the emotional needle never moves more than a couple of quivers from the center of the dial. Kovalenko was schooled in film at a workshop run in the remote North Caucasus by Aleksandr Sokurov, the minimalist maestro who made Russian Ark. Her brand of realism is similarly austere; even Ada’s story of how she received her crippling injuries becomes coolly matter-of-fact in the telling. Which feels exactly right, because the fact is that everyone’s life seems normal to the person living it. It is only later, after breaking free sufficiently to be able to take a filmmaking class — by way of example — that you can look back and say: How did we live like this? How on earth did I survive?
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