Interviews

Cannes 2021 Women Directors: Meet Kira Kovalenko – “Unclenching the Fists”

Kira Kovalenko was born in Nalchik, Russia. She graduated from Alexander Sokurov’s directing workshop at Kabardino-Balkarian State University in 2015. She made her feature directorial debut in 2016 with “Sofichka,” which premiered at the Tallinn International Film Festival (Black Nights Film Festival).

“Unclenching the Fists” is screening in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. The fest is taking place July 6-17.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

KK: This is a story of a girl in a desperate fight against herself, her memory, and her desperation. The world around her, the people close to her, and she herself are wounded and at the same time inextricably linked together.

These links, these connections, are part of her life and the decision of whether to sever or save them is her most important test.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

KK: I conceived this story quite naturally. The idea grew inside of me gradually and the only thing I had to do was answer a moral question of whether I had a right to tell it.

When I realized that this story is so important to me that I just couldn’t stay silent, I began doing what I do — working as a director and filming it.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

KK: I never speak after watching a film — the spiritual work inside of me feels more important than anything I can put into words. When someone is watching my film, if he can for a moment feel himself as my co-author, this would be more important than words for me.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

KK: My biggest challenge was my constant fight to transform the feeling of my own vulnerability, weakness, and helplessness into an artistic form.

Overall, I feel that the act of creating a film is a constant struggle: struggle for every frame, struggle against the circumstances, and most importantly struggle against yourself.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

KK: My teacher, Alexander Sokurov, and the experience of studying in his workshop. When I first came to him I didn’t know anything about the profession of directing and I was absolutely indifferent to films and filmmaking. Sokurov’s workshop helped me grow as a person. This was my biggest goal, and only when I felt I had enough personal and professional experience, I decided to try and direct a film. It was a long process.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

KK: The best advice is to read a lot and love literature.

I can’t remember the bad advice I’ve received. I forget bad advice quickly.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

KK: I don’t feel like I am in a position to give advice, I don’t think it is right. But I do want to support women who feel right now like they cannot succeed professionally and cannot find financial support to direct their films. Please don’t give up on the profession that you love and never turn back.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film. 

KK: Kira Muratova’s “Getting to Know the Big, Wide World” and “The Long Farewell”; Larisa Shepitko’s “Wings,” “The Ascent,” and “You and Me”; and Tatyana Lioznova’s “Three Poplars in Plyuschikha.”

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

KK: When the pandemic began I just finished my film. I spent last year trying to accumulate new experiences and to come up with a new idea for a film. I have read a lot and thought a lot, but the future can worry me.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?

KK: This is an important issue for me as well. I am not just a female director: I am half Russian and half Balkarian. My ethnicity was never really represented in the industry at all and I feel that my film and my crew — the actors and people on set, everyone — is a major breakthrough for my region and for my people. I feel that this is the most effective way of making our industry more inclusive: leading by example.

Alexander Sokurov made the first step towards more representation and inclusion when he started his workshop in Nalchik and not in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Alexander Rodnyansky made the second step when he chose to finance and support my film and the films of Kantemir Balagov — not just young directors, but directors from North Caucasus. Our region is populated with dozens of ethnicities that are almost never represented onscreen and I hope that my film, which was shot entirely in the Ossetian language, will help to integrate North Caucasus into the Russian and global film communities.

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