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“Giving Birth to Ourselves”: Kira Kovalenko on Unclenching the Fists

A woman and a man wear light jackets. The man drives a motorcycle and the woman sits behind him on the vehicle.Milana Aguzarova and Soslan Khugaev in Unclenching the Fists.

Unclenching the Fists, the sophomore feature from Russian director Kira Kovalenko, is set in Mizur, a small mining town in North Ossetia, one of seven autonomous republics in the perpetually unsettled constellation that is the North Caucasus. The liminal setting—at once vertiginous and cramped, as though a town sprouted up from the bottom of an avalanche—is key to the film’s moods, swinging from yearning to resignation and back. We root for the film’s young central character, Ada, played by Milana Aguzarova in a remarkable debut, to free herself from these shadows upon shadows—her brute father, her lapdog brother, a pile-up of overbearing men—but she refuses to make it easy for us. 

According to Kovalenko, it was a quote from William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust that served as inspiration for Unclenching the Fists: “Not all white people can endure slavery and apparently no man can stand freedom.” And so Ada, hobbled by trauma, pushes on through this paradox of a town, toward something new but altogether undefined. Unclenching the Fists enters release today from MUBI.

Filmmaker: You studied under Alexander Sokurov. His film school, I gather, was very close to where you grew up, in Nalchik?

Kovalenko: Yeah, right in the same city. When I was applying to school, I had no intention or desire to become a filmmaker; I just wanted to get a good degree. Sokurov’s personality drew me to film. The first thing he asked was that we read a lot, and for five years after, he gave us everything that he knows about cinema. And all the time, we were studying characters. 

Filmmaker: How do you mean, “characters”?

Kovalenko: We were watching lots of films and would study a given character scene by scene. He would also bring us documentary films, and we would observe how a person reacts to another person, and how a person reacts to a situation. For example, he brought in a Queen concert, and we watched Freddie Mercury. Then he would show us a totally different scenario—say, people handling an emergency. 

Filmmaker: It sounds like the school encouraged filmmakers to really consider psychology and reality. Do you feel like the school had a mission?

Kovalenko: There was absolutely a clear mission from Sokurov: to tell stories from the North Caucasus, our stories. Because the rest of the world is simply not aware of us. They don’t know. He encouraged us to find our own voices rather than simply learn by watching cinema. The thing is, we did not really know who we were when we came to school, so the whole process was a self-discovery. A search. Giving birth to ourselves.

Filmmaker: How did Sokurov feel about Unclenching the Fists?

Kovalenko: I showed him the film after it was completed. He wrote me a long letter, and, in quite careful terms, said, “I understand why your film won awards.”

Filmmaker: I’d like to ask you about the development of the material and casting. Is the story based on people you knew or already had met or did that come through the casting process?

Kovalenko: A friend of mine from North Ossetia agreed to help me with casting for the project. She traveled around North Ossetia, taking pictures of people in sports clubs and different venues, and would send them to me.

Filmmaker: In the U.S., that’s called street casting. Were these people in the photographs actually cast or were they more used as a design influence on the film’s look and costuming?

Kovalenko: I already had ideas for what certain characters should look like, so I gave her references and she took thousands of pictures so I had something to react to. I could say, “That’s the character” based on a certain look.

Filmmaker: But the main roles are played by trained actors?

Kovalenko: We actually found the lead actress [Milana Aguzarova] while she was enrolled in her second year at drama school. The actor who played the father [Alik Karaev] came from a very specific theater background. He’s a professional actor, but he works in a theater related to horses. It’s almost like a circus. But the rest of the cast, those are non-professional actors.

Filmmaker: The blocking in the film is so fluid. You always feel a sense of the space outside the frame. What was your rehearsal process like? 

Kovalenko: We rehearsed the entire film in chronological order, months before we started shooting. The actors and I went scene by scene…

Filmmaker: On location?

Kovalenko: In a rehearsal room, but when we would finish, we would go to the location and walk around it, observe.

Filmmaker: How long was the shoot? Was there a great deal of time pressure?

Kovalenko: We only had 25 days to shoot the whole film. The rehearsals had to be meticulous so that, when the shoot day came, the actors would be ready to step in and just go. 

Filmmaker: What was an average number of takes for any particular set-up? I’m thinking of the longer, more elaborate takes…

Kovalenko: It all depends on how complex the shots were, but for the longer shots, we would shoot as many as 13 takes. 

Filmmaker: Was it challenging to mix untrained actors with professionals?

Kovalenko: The challenge was that some actors needed just one take to get it right, while other actors would need 10 takes.

Filmmaker: As an American, I can imagine hearing producers looking at this material and saying it’s too depressing, too heavy…

Kovalenko: In my case, I got lucky with [producer] Alexander Rodnyansky. He gave me total freedom.

Filmmaker: Were there political concerns with the material? The Beslan school attack hangs over the film.

Kovalenko: There were no concerns from production, but I had to be quite careful when I was making the film in North Ossetia. If someone from the community were to have problems with the material, then I would have problems. 

Filmmaker: Did any of you local non-actors have issues with the material? 

Kovalenko: Well, what’s interesting is, only the lead actress, Milana, read the full script. For the rest of the cast, I would give them only the lines that they would perform. I didn’t want anybody to know what happened to the lead character by the end of the film. I did not want their performances to be influenced by knowing what happens.

Filmmaker: Were there any films of particular influence for you? I was reminded of the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta

Kovalenko: On set, I was inspired by Mouchette. That was a key influence. 

Filmmaker: There were times when watching the film that I felt what I was watching was actually dangerous, or risky in a very real, physical way. I’m curious about the process of creating that very accurate, very free sense of danger. I’m assuming there were no stuntpeople. Maybe there were. The last scene, when they’re on the motorcycle—

Kovalenko: The last scene, specifically, was indeed dangerous to shoot. We had no stunt people. It’s Ada on a speeding motorcycle. Every member of the cast and crew were on the same page, willing to negotiate a certain amount of risk to get the shot. In fact, it felt out of control. Almost too risky.

Filmmaker: Speaking of risk, I am curious about the climactic sex scene with Ada, about creating that intimacy between the actors. It just feels very real.

Kovalenko: Honestly, I was quite worried about shooting this specific scene. I’d assumed I wouldn’t be able to find an actress who would be willing to shoot it, because in North Ossetia, when it comes to sex and sexual scenes, things are quite strict. It came to a point where had to ask permission from her father to shoot the scene.

Filmmaker: In the United States, it’s become more common on movie sets to have intimacy counselors, who are there to make sure that the sex scenes are handled with care and dignity.

Kovalenko: That makes sense to me. I rehearsed with the two actors extensively, and it was quite a technical rehearsal, like where to place your hand and so on, so that they could feel comfortable with exactly what would happen. Boundaries could be preserved. Once we discussed every single step, every single detail, there was no space for improvisation. There was a sense of total mutual trust. 

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