After a series of tragic family events, Zaur moves his family to Mizur, a gritty, treeless mining town on the banks of the River Ardon, in Russia’s Caucasus region of North Ossetia. Now old and ailing, Zaur keeps his two sons on a short leash, but exerts the most hostile authority over his daughter Ada, who lives in chronic pain from a traumatising childhood injury, as Zaur has always refused her treatment. Ada’s older brother, Akim, has run off to Rostov to find work, and only visits Mizur on their father’s birthday. Her younger, teenage brother Dakko, also relies on her, even addresses her as “mom”. Ada longs to escape her asphyxiating reality, but Zaur hides her passport and denies Ada a key to their apartment, only allowing her out of the house to work in a tiny convenience store. There, she flirts with Tamik, a local boy who, with his simple mind and viscerally awkward sexual intentions, hardly gives Ada a chance to escape a male-dominated reality. Oppressed by the unnerving passive-aggressive attitude of her father, which occasionally erupts into brutal violence, Ada has had enough, and longs to escape her parent’s clutches and seize her own destiny in unimaginable ways.
The theme of a young woman attempting to shake parental control abounds in cinema. The title of the film is a reference to Italian director’s Marco Bellocchio’s 1965 debut, Fists in the Pocket, which explores the lives of several generations of a single family living in an enclosed space, from the point of view of its young protagonist, Alessandro. In Unclenching the Fists, Ada finds herself in a similarly claustrophobic tale, heightened by the patriarchal social norms that still rule some families in the North Caucasus. Kovalenko, who is from North Ossetia herself, masterfully brings alive Ada’s claustrophobia in the tiny, crammed locations of the family home, the car interiors, and the convenience store, where most of the story takes place.
Beyond the film’s gripping cinematography, Kovalenko’s screenwriting mastery shines in the nuanced depiction of the characters’ motivations and desires, and how they are often trumped by their weaknesses and inability to break free of the standards they grew up with. For example, when Zaur loses consciousness and is in a critical conditions, Ada tries to convince Akim to abandon their father and run off with her and Dakko. Although Akim, who is aware of his sister’s situation, had promised Ada he would help her go to Rostov, instead of taking the opportunity to get her away, he feels sorry for the father and forces Ada to call an ambulance. When she throws her mobile phone into the sink to avoid doing so, they start a violent argument, at the end of which Ada ends up submitting to her brother. This episode, along with many others, is emblematic of their complex, ambiguous relationship, made up of an affection tainted by the trauma of a shared painful past and disagreements over what is best for themselves, and what is best for their family.
“In families where communication is broken and people don’t know how to speak about their feelings, they express them through tactile movements, they basically touch [each other],” director Kira Kovalenko told The Calvert Journal, also pointing out how difficult it was to work on staging the family’s harsh conflicts: “A month before entering production, we rehearsed the whole film, following the story’s chronological order, like [actors do] in theatre. Every scene was rehearsed at least a couple of times so each actor would know exactly his or her own actions, every gesture, every position of the body. Only minor changes emerged during the rehearsals. Most of the actors’ work was done as scripted.”
“My main character is a prisoner of her family, a prisoner of her body [...] She is trapped in the tight embrace of her relatives. The only thing I really wanted to say with this film is that it’s time to release that embrace”
Bolstering a strong cast of non-professional actors, almost entirely sourced by scouting young talents in local gyms, schools and universities, the Nalchik-born helmer explained how her film sheds light on the bigger issue of family oppression, but also remains grounded on the region’s specific social context: “Milana [Aguzarova, the actor who plays Ada] is a wounded girl. For me, the current situation of women and youth in the Northern Caucasus is very worrying. They suffer from different problems, either physical or psychological. My main character is a prisoner of her family, a prisoner of her body, she can’t be a woman in every sense of this word… She is trapped in the tight embrace of her relatives. The only thing I really wanted to say with this film is that it’s time to release that embrace.”
The narrative arc, brought to a close by a powerful, ambiguous scene made of joy and chaos, depicts a wedding procession accompanied by loud gun shots, as Ada and Akim ride a motorbike and head towards an unknown future. “It was the hardest scene to shoot. Paradoxically, it takes an incredible amount of work to achieve this authenticity. In fact, such a scene is not out of the ordinary. Let’s put it this way, in Northern Caucasus a wedding is not always a celebration for everyone involved,” discloses Kovalenko. While she considers filming “an act of violence” and cameras as “weapons”, she deeply believes in the healing power of cinema and, with this ending, she tried to “preserve her characters” by letting them drive towards a fresh start.