Unruly Bodies and Borders in Kira Kovalenko’s “Unclenching the Fists”

May 18, 2022   •   By Alex Karsavin, Alex Bliziotis

ON SEPTEMBER 1, 2004, Knowledge Day — the traditional start of the Russian school year — armed Chechen assailants stormed School Number One in Beslan, North Ossetia. Over 1,000 hostages were taken and 330 killed, most victims school children. The tragedy of the Beslan School Siege still hangs over North Caucasus life, a region long mired in conflict. The wave of brutality addressed in Kira Kovalenko’s Unclenching the Fists begins with Chechnya’s push for regional autonomy in 1991 and follows the subsequent Chechen Wars (1994–1996, 1999–2009). Only overtly manifested in the film’s final act, this specter of violence nevertheless underwrites the interpersonal and cultural relationships at the forefront of Unclenching the Fists, winner of the 2021 Un Certain Regard award at Cannes and slated for distribution through MUBI this spring. Unclenching’s ambiguous relationship with trauma and memory is indicative of current trends in contemporary Russian film. Kantemir Balagov’s Closeness and Beanpole (Balagov was also a classmate of Kovalenko under the storied auteur Alexander Sokurov) and Elizaveta Stishova’s Suleiman Mountain also deal with familial strife that functions as an ambivalent metaphor for larger territorial and cultural conflicts. But Kovalenko inaugurates a new canon of Former Soviet Union (FSU) filmmaking, one in which the periphery is the protagonist.

Seeking to “become whole” after the siege left her disfigured, the film follows Ada, an Osettian girl, as she fights to escape her father’s stifling household in order to receive treatment for her long-standing injuries, which have left her incontinent and unable to have sex. The siege has long been a watershed moment in alarmist nationalist rhetoric in the region, the beginning of an ongoing push to secure an ethnocentric Russian core national identity at the expense of the “dangerous” margins. Official language of the era characterized Russia as a “weak” feminine body, taken advantage of by external actors — the West, terrorists, nonwhite migrant workers. Kovalenko works to subtly reshape these connotative body politics. Ada’s body appears as the terrain for a referendum on Russia’s violently parochial relationship to its cultural, ethnic, and geographic peripheries. To come of age is to gouge open old wounds.

For the half-Russian, half-Balkarian Kovalenko, who grew up in Nalchik, the capital of Russia’s Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, the question of representation has always been central. Her first film, Sofichka — based on a story by Fazil Iskander — was shot in Abkhazia in Abkhazian with a crew of largely unprofessional local actors. Unclenching the Fists also centers the lead performance of newcomer Milana Aguzarova as Ada, who inhabits the role with a skittish, stunned detachment, her purple windbreaker often strategically donned to conceal the latter half of her face. Ada’s tense relationship with her father Zaur (Alik Karayev) — loving in one moment, venomous in the next — reflects the region's conflicting desire to both distance itself from the Russian metropole and secure closure from its traumatic Soviet past. These battle lines are literally and figuratively drawn on Ada’s body, as her struggle with voicelessness ends only through her father’s own stroke-induced silence.

Inter-family conflict is often framed less through dialogue than sporadic glances, pointed silence, a touch of a hand that overstays. Aguzarova’s performance in this regard is versatile, playing Ada as a cipher with a meticulously slow burning fuse. Introduced with her eyes shyly downcast, she appears for all intents and purposes as a loving daughter. In time, her placid smile and compliant demeanor begin to crack, exposing flashes of grim, otherworldly determination to the audience. Karayev on the other hand portrays Zaur as a once formidable patriarch in crisis. Reeling from his eldest son Akim’s (Soslan Khugayev) recent departure, he ratchets up his grip over his diminished household. Never resorting to overt violence in the film’s first half, he mulls his commands in a measured simper that would liken them to kind suggestions, if not for the steely edge undercutting every word. Soon, Ada and her younger brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov) find themselves under house arrest, unable to leave the cramped apartment without their father’s permission, who hides the sole key. Moving through a world grown so small as to render it asphyxiating, Ada appears caught in a transitional limbo with no end in sight. Eventually, as is often the case with the Bildung genre, the seemingly immutable proves surprisingly pliant and stasis gives way to an explosive storm of activity — Akim mysteriously returns, a patricide is attempted, a girl comes of age. What sets Unclenching the Fists apart is the deft way in which it interweaves questions of the personal, such as filial ties and bodily autonomy, with the fate of the region. The directive to leave one’s father’s house by any means necessary assumes a multivalent resonance.

Composed of Ossetia, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, the North Caucasus has often appeared as a flash point for questions of regional identity, religion, and cultural heritage in the FSU. The history of the North Caucasus is one marked by Russian imperial ambition and cultural parochialism. Fully integrated into the Russian empire in the 19th century, the region has since been subjected to partition, programs of Russification, and large-scale population resettlement. Policies meant to fan inter-ethnic strife — such as the formation of arbitrary regional borders — and foster dependence on the Russian metropole, have sown seeds of conflict that continue to resonate. Filming in Ossetian, Kovalenko overlays geopolitical instability with the common dialogue of familial strife. While Unclenching’s script is lean and effective, spoken language carries the conflicting connotations of regional separatism and imperial power. Chechen war ballads, white noise, Russian-language communiqués, and Ossetian conversation create a multilayered narrative about trauma and skewed power relations, both public and private. The Russian state (and language) appear as a ghostly, unsettling presence within the film — one of the only scenes where we see and hear Russian is in a public broadcast announcing the recently deceased.

The widespread economic depredations on screen, as well as the subplot featuring Akim departing to work in a Russian industrial town, imply the nature of the relationship between core and periphery is largely extractive. As Putin’s regime seeks to underplay the colonialist nature of the Russian state project, Kovalenko’s sonic cues can be read as a speculative vision of a region united against the parochial state. The key midpoint of the film, which finds the three estranged siblings reconnecting at a school disco after the elder siblings leave their catatonic father for dead in his apartment, is arguably the film’s sole point of catharsis. This touching scene of reunion plays out under the soundtrack of a Chechen love song. Kovalenko’s soundtrack implies if there is restoration and wholeness to be had, it’s not between colony and metropole, but rather between the mutually oppressed peoples of the region.

Shot in a series of lingering close-ups, interspersed with the occasional disengaged cityscapes glimpsed through a car window, Unclenching’s visual landscape bespeaks both closeness and estrangement. The action takes place in the former mining town of Mizur, claustrophobically enclosed on all sides by ragged cliffs. Composed of tenement buildings pockmarked by miniature explosives and winding back alleys, the town is presented awash in a dust bath of faded earth tones and phosphorescent whites. For Kovalenko, red is the color of coerced intimacy, unraveling family ties, and televised funeral announcements. Through lights, clothing, and interior space, the screen flares scarlet whenever she needs to visualize the alienation saturating Ada’s life. Repeatedly, the film highlights intimacy, be it familial, sexual, or the murky space between the two, as a violent means of entanglement and control. Love of all sorts is weaponized, with Kovalenko provocatively blurring the distinction. As the siblings dance to Islam Dzhambekov’s “The City Lights Are Going Out” repeating the lyric “We’re burning up in this love,” the viewer briefly indulges in this moment of seeming affection, before being starkly reminded of the all-encompassing brutality that lurks below its surface.

As intimated in Kovalenko’s insular on-screen family dynamic, the sudden disappearance of the Soviet social net in the ’90s found notions of gender equality abandoned in the face of economic scarcity and austerity politics. With the nuclear family emerging as the sole guarantor of security, Russian society regressed to a patriarchal model that relegated women interchangeably to the roles of caretakers and sex objects. Building on a legal system that preferred to see cases involving violence against women resolved out of court, in 2017 Russia decriminalized domestic abuse for first-time offenders, with the unsaid implication that wives and daughters, once interpellated into the domestic sphere, became property in all but name.

This culture of familial domination, and the young women it victimizes, is addressed in the captive, overlapping relationships between Ada and the film’s male players. The men in Ada’s life — her brothers, her would-be lover Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov), her father — compete not so much for her affection as for authority over her body, love life, and freedom. Her father denies her reconstructive surgery, dresses her like a boy, cuts her hair short, and forbids her to wear perfume; her brother blackmails her to sleep in her bed; her would-be lover coerces her into painful humiliating sex. Extricating herself from unwanted embraces — in one pivotal scene, her father appears to fake a seizure to spend a night in a hospital bed with Ada — she attempts to flee Mizur in order to receive the operation needed to be “whole.” This repeated desire for wholeness is never fully elaborated on, but its implications are clearly tied to Ada’s desire for womanhood. And if Kovalenko’s film stands to be read as a post-Soviet manifesto on gender, and autonomy more broadly, then “womanhood” appears as a question of degree, manifesting in direct proportion to Ada’s control over her body. Yet, Ada is never able to fully untangle herself from her family’s grip, as she still must rely on Akim, the eldest who escaped to live and work in the neighboring industrial town of Rostov. Her desire for wholeness is undercut in the film’s final scene, when given the opportunity to receive the operation, Ada ultimately rejects the possibility in favor of something more complex.

The film’s conclusion, which finds her clutching to Akim on the back of his motorcycle, is the culmination of Kovalenko’s sometimes-mixed metaphor of bodily and regional autonomy. The penultimate line of the film, from Akim — “You’ll be whole again … you’ll forget everything” — is both a salve, and a word of caution, seemingly directed as much to its post-Soviet audience as it is to Ada. The siblings drive through a wedding convoy, with revelers waving the regional coat of arms and flag of North Ossetia-Alania. A bridal doll is tied to the front of one of the cars, delivering one last, if heavy-handed analogy between budding womanhood and statehood. Ada’s final ambiguous gesture of dropping her Russian passport on the road can be read as a rejection of the imperative to overlook one’s wounds, and the past’s atrocities, in the name of “wholeness,” personal or national. In refusing to give us a clear-cut resolution, Kovalenko gestures toward an uncertain future. In these enigmatic final frames, Ada cryptically notes the similarities between Akim and their father, implying a cyclical nature to the injuries she, her brothers, and the region endure.

By straying away from easy resolution, Kovalenko’s film appears to problematize the wholesale erasure of the past ongoing in today's Russia, which has spent the larger part of the last two decades searching for its own vision of “wholeness.” Seeking to wipe away the memories of its repeated “humiliations” like the fall of the Berlin Wall, Balkanization, the failed liberalization of the ’90s, the First Chechen War, etc. — Russia has instituted a campaign of aggressive territorial reexpansion, ethnocentrism, and historical revisionism. Reimposing a monolithic, homogeneous Russian cultural identity onto the rest of the post-Soviet sphere has resulted in a state of profound cultural amnesia, and an all-too-narrow vision of Russian exceptionalism that comes at the expense of the country’s multitudinous peripheries. Returning to the thematic of the siege as a foundational point of rupture, Kovalenko appears to imply that to look away in the pursuit of “wholeness” is to turn away from cultural and collective memory. The Chechen Wars, Beslan, and the brutal military annexations that have followed in its wake were foundational moments, rather than exceptions, in the formation of this new Russian identity. As the push for a monolithic, “whole” Russia continues, Unclenching the Fists draws attention to the wounds that fester within this culture of forgetting, erasure, and neglect.

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Alex Karsavin/a is a Russian-Ukrainian writer, with translations and writings published in Isolarii, VAC-Foundation, The New Inquiry, PEN America, and Columbia Journal. A 2020 ALTA travel fellow, they have presented work at ACLA, ASEES, the University of Hong Kong, Poetry Foundation, and Pushkin House. They are an incoming PhD student at Yale University.

Alex Bliziotis researches and writes on cinema, aesthetics, and culture. She is a PhD student in Communication at Simon Fraser University.