When she was growing up in Nalchik, the capital of Russia’s remote Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, Kira Kovalenko wasn’t particularly interested in cinema. She can cite few films that inspired her as a girl. “In all honesty, I never wanted to be a director,” she tells Variety.
The 31-year-old filmmaker has traveled a long way since, as she prepares to bow her second feature, “Unclenching the Fists,” in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. Produced by two-time Oscar nominee Alexander Rodnyansky (“Leviathan,” “Loveless”), her sophomore effort marks her as a rising talent in a country with a venerable tradition of arthouse auteurs.
Sitting in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, Nalchik is far from Russia’s cultural lode stars in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It’s a city that likely would never have produced a single filmmaker to walk the red carpet in Cannes — let alone two — were it not for Alexander Sokurov, the celebrated director of Venice Golden Lion winner “Faust,” who established a directing workshop there in 2015.
Kovalenko was one of 12 students invited to take part; among her classmates was Kantemir Balagov, who would achieve breakout success with his 2019 Cannes sensation “Beanpole.” Several years later, she compares her time in the workshop to “a ball of wool I’m only beginning to unravel.”
“Sokurov was demanding, he was strict, and it was hard for us sometimes to meet his demands,” she says. “He always told us that we need to show him more about ourselves. Show us how you love, show us how you live, how you treat each other, what’s going on in your families. This was always the most important task for me.”
Sokurov’s insistence that his students show the world around them wasn’t incidental, but part of a conscious effort he made when setting up his workshop to put the North Caucasus “on the cinematic map of the world,” says Kovalenko. The director considers it a “privilege” to have grown up there, adding, “Everything that was going on around me, I soaked it in.”
That influence is vividly on display in her second film. Set in a former mining town in Russia’s North Ossetia region, “Unclenching the Fists” is the story of a young woman, played by Milana Aguzarova, who struggles to escape the stifling hold of the family she both loves and rejects. Buried beneath the surface is a lingering trauma, one which Kovalenko patiently reveals over the course of the film.
Treading around sensitive issues, the director was reluctant to share too many details during production. “We were very cautious. No one really knew what the film was about,” she says. The only actor to read the entire script was Aguzarova; the rest of the cast were only given enough to learn their parts. “I didn’t want there to be any kind of prejudice inside of the film that would come from them knowing the whole story from beginning to end,” the director says.
Kovalenko has not shied away from such challenges; her first feature, “Sofichka,” was filmed in Abkhazia, a conservative, predominantly Muslim territory on the coast of the Black Sea — a difficult and “complicated” task for a female filmmaker, she says.
But she remains committed to depicting the place that shaped her, even if that means confronting difficult truths. “I don’t think there’s anything I cannot say, as a film director,” she says. “Northern Caucasus is a place where people really do not like to talk about their problems. The issues I dissect in my film, they might be problematic. But I feel that I really love this place — this is my motherland, and I feel comfortable talking about the problems as well.”