Scarred States: "Unclenching the Fists" and the Art of Escape

This Ossetian-language film spotlights female experience in the North Caucasus, and questions the reach and ramifications of Russian power.
Carmen Gray

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Kira Kovalenko's Unclenching the Fists is showing exclusively on MUBI starting May 23, 2023, in many countries in the series Viewfinder.

Unclenching the Fists

Unclenching the Fists (Kira Kovalenko, 2021).

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, it has been almost impossible for members of the global film industry to ignore cinema’s soft power potential as a propagandistic tool of imperialism. Scrutiny over the ethics of supporting films funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture or tied in other ways to state oppression has ignited debate over what Russian culture constitutes—and exposed the fallacy of a monolithic identity within the lands the Kremlin claims as its own. Director Kira Kovalenko’s sophomore feature Unclenching the Fists (2021) counts Russia as its country of production (and was its official Oscar submission). But it was shot in the Ossetian language, in North Ossetia, an official republic of Russia in the North Caucasus. From its very first frames, the film makes clear its characters are removed from the way of life in the capital of Moscow, which exercises its muscle impersonally.

Little beyond survival captivates the youth of Mizur, a former mining town in North Ossetia that is the setting for Unclenching the Fists. Tall cliffs hem them into a colorless landscape of dust and pockmarked apartment blocks, and they fixate restlessly on breaking out of their confinement. Here, there is not a lot to do but drive. Much of the film takes place in cars and on motorbikes. But bustling metropolises seem largely out of reach. Kids, in circular inertia, pull doughnuts in a parking lot. While the wider world is a faraway fantasy, the impact of regional power struggles remains brutally material.

Kovalenko shows life in Mizur through the eyes of a woman who, as she comes of age, has a specific reason to want to leave. As a child, Ada (Milana Aguzarova) was caught in the 2004 school hostage siege in the nearby town of Beslan. Although she survived, her body still bears visible scars, and her reproductive system has sustained damage from being injured by explosives. Reconstructive surgery is only obtainable in a larger Russian city, but her controlling father, Zaur (Alik Karayev), restricts her from leaving the house, let alone traveling out of Mizur.

The Beslan terror attack, in which more than 330 people, the majority of them children, were killed, is referenced only obliquely in Unclenching the Fists. Talking about it is not something that comes easily to Ada and her family, though an air of desperation and volatility hangs thick over their lives. Years of President Vladimir Putin’s brutal war in Chechnya to quell separatism underpinned the bloody three-day siege. It was ordered by Islamist insurgent Shamil Basayev, who demanded Russia withdraw its troops from Chechnya and grant the breakaway republic independence. Beslan residents blamed the Kremlin for mishandling the crisis by sending in grenades and flamethrowers to take out the militants rather than cautiously rescuing the children trapped inside. For Moscow’s elites, the siege was a shocking reminder that, despite the Kremlin’s aggressive drive to impose a homogenous Russian culture on every inch of its soil, not all inhabitants subscribe to this notion of empire, especially on its peripheries. In the wake of the tragedy, Putin’s government toughened its autocratic powers over minorities and any perceived threat to Russian identity.

Kovalenko, who grew up in Nalchik, the capital city of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic neighboring North Ossetia, treads a delicate path through these fraught geopolitical tensions. That her characters speak in the Ossetian language is in itself enough to undercut the myth of a blanket Russian unity, but they avoid pointed political conversations. The Russian language is heard filtering into the family home only through the television, announcing memorial services to the dead—a macabre, unidirectional messenger of state power that is intimate with the factual mechanics of lives lost, but unreceptive to any voices of response or grieving humanity. 

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, 2019).

A graduate of the five-year directing course run by leading Russian arthouse auteur Aleksandr Sokurov at the Kabardino-Balkarian State University, Kovalenko is one of several filmmakers from the North Caucasus to have gone on to festival success after attending the notable but short-lived program. Sokurov, who has publicly supported secession from Russia for the North Caucasus republics, is the kind of Kremlin critic who has been able to maintain a close, albeit fractious, line of communication with Putin in meetings. Ambiguity over the degree to which his hand in these projects exerts a paternalistic influence adds to the friction and identity conflict that infuses them. 

At its premiere in Cannes, Unclenching the Fists was awarded the Prix Un Certain Regard, bringing an unusually bright spotlight to voices from Russia’s margins. Kovalenko’s partner and fellow Sokurov school alumnus Kantemir Balagov, who is also from Nalchik, did the same for the Kabardian language when he premiered his critically praised feature debut Closeness (2017), centered around an ethnically motivated kidnapping, in Un Certain Regard. Balagov later won Best Director in that same section for his sophomore feature Beanpole (2019), about women psychologically dislocated by the Leningrad siege, and a film, like Fists, backed by powerhouse producer Alexander Rodnyansky. Together, Kovalenko and Balagov cowrote her first feature as a director, Sofichka (2016), a story of love and violent family disapproval based on a Fazil Iskander novella and shot in Abkhazia in the region’s language.

These are not the only filmmakers that have found a springboard to international attention through Sokurov’s program. This year the Berlinale premiered The Cage Is Looking For A Bird (2023), the Chechen-language feature debut of their Grozny-born fellow student Malika Musaeva.  It has much in common with Unclenching the Fists, particularly in its quietly oblique, contemplative vision of a young woman yearning for escape. These are films that favor poetic gestures over head-on statements or agitation, which open up visibility and voice for women under Russian rule far from Moscow, but avoid stirring too much political controversy.

Nevertheless, Unclenching the Fists acknowledges how Russia claims the physical labor power of those on its peripheries, and even their lives, as grist for its political and extractive might. Ada’s elder brother Akim (Soslan Khugayev), who sparked local resentment when he left for better earning possibilities, has returned from the industrial town of Rostov unexpectedly. Meanwhile, Ada’s father has hidden not only the only house key, but her Russian passport, an identity document that is indispensable if she is to check in for her operation out of town. Her domestic imprisonment mirrors a broader regional subjugation. Here on Russia’s margins, one is taught that their best hope for living as a whole person is to be subsumed into the state, classified and documented accordingly.

Unclenching the Fists (2021).

Ada’s yearning for freedom is presented primarily as a pushback against patriarchy. Her red-edged, purple tracksuit jacket, a splash of color in Mizur’s dusty environs, is a defiant expression of life on her own terms. Between the intense and overbearing presences of Akim, her needy younger brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov), her would-be lover Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov), and her father Zaur, her sphere is suffocating, and very male. They observe no bodily autonomy or boundaries, whether forcibly restraining her, pinning her between themselves on the dance floor, sleeping in her bed, or insisting that she pour away her perfume to avoid attracting men. 

In an encounter of inexperienced sexual fumbling, Tamik exhibits empathy for Ada’s personal history and particular vulnerabilities, but innocent discovery is little match for the ghosts of collective tragedy. Trauma, and a sense that the world is a dangerous place, has exacerbated her father’s aversion to seeing her grow up and leave the nest. His health and mobility are rapidly declining, making it easier for Ada to break free, but also providing Zaur with another lever of guilt to prevent her from rushing for her own way out. In a static shot through the open door and windshield of a parked car, Zaur chases his daughter. We are at an observational, almost resigned remove, sensing few options for a changed balance of power.

Ada’s final flight in the film offers the closest to a wide open road we will get, before a wedding convoy charges through in a thrilling, vertiginous chaos of camerawork, regional flags waving and revelrous gunshots blasting skyward. Ada’s dramatic but inconclusive gesture of tossing her bag and documents away onto the highway suggests an ultimate renunciation of any outward domination over her identity—but without elucidating what alternatives for a fulfilling way forward there might be. Kovalenko, in a film ultimately as cryptic as it is lyrical, hints that the past and all of its pains might form the very essence of who we are, and cannot be simply excised from any authentic future.

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