The upper echelons of this year’s edition of Cannes Film Festival had a significant Russian-language presence, with three films in the official selection. And while Andrei Zvyagintsev (with Loveless) and Sergei Loznitsa (with A Gentle Creature) are familiar arthouse names, it was newcomer Kantemir Balagov who made a stir with his debut feature, Closeness, winning the prestigious FIPRESCI award and being hailed as the festival’s biggest surprise by many reviewers. The low-budget coming-of-age drama, which opened in Russia last week, is set in Kabardino-Balkaria, a small republic in the Russian North Caucasus rarely — if ever — seen on screen. The young protagonist, a tomboy named Ilana, lives with her Jewish family in Nalchik, where her people are a tiny minority; she secretly dates a Kabardian man while working at her father’s auto repair shop. The drama is set in motion when Ilana’s brother is kidnapped for ransom that the family cannot pay even with help from the Jewish community.
As Balagov himself asserts, while not based on any particular events, the film is inspired by his experiences growing up in Kabardino-Balkaria in the 1990s. “It is nostalgia of course, but I think very dearly of that time,” says the director when I ask him why he decided to set the film in 1998. “It has a romantic appeal to me — despite the terrible things that were happening, not just in Nalchik but throughout the country.” Balagov’s is an unusual approach in Russia, where the era is usually seen in a negative light; for the 26-year-old director, though, these are childhood memories. Getting a Cannes spot at such a young age is incredibly rare, and Balagov’s is not a privileged background. A few years ago, he was studying accounting and making amateur web series with his friends — until he was invited by the celebrated director Alexander Sokurov to join his filmmaking class at the Kabardino-Balkarian University.
Sokurov, the award-winning director of Russian Ark (2002), widely considered to be among the major European auteurs of our time, came to Kabardino-Balkaria in 2010, invited by the university to design and supervise a film program. The North Caucasus has never had a film industry, let alone a film school. In addition to teaching practical skills, Sokurov made a point of loading the curriculum with classes in literature, history of arts and cinema, and let the students choose their subjects freely. The young filmmakers were asked to refrain only from excessive violence and religion: two extremely sensitive topics in a region which in recent decades has seen more war, ethnic clashes and religious fundamentalism than any other part of Russia.
The North Caucasus has never had a film industry, let alone a film school
Russia still preserves many former colonies as “republics” within its federation. For most people in the country’s centre, the North Caucasus is not just a backwater: it is essentially foreign. The idea of a film school in Nalchik, led by an acclaimed St Petersburg director, seemed impossible; Séance, an influential film magazine, profiled the school in 2014 under the telling headline “Caucasian Dream”. But by then the utopian endeavour had already yielded its first successes: Malika Musaeva and Maryana Kalmykova won national awards for their shorts, and Sokurov’s class at large were profiled at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival. While Sokurov had asked them not to watch his own films while they were in school, his students took from their teacher his acute vision and ability to translate emotions into moving image. Festival programmer Alena Shumakova has termed this ability “fluorographic cinema,” comparing the filmmaker’s vision to an X-ray machine that sees through the objective reality in front of the camera.
Balagov remained faithful to this approach. Closeness is a realist film, but, as is suggested in its title, also a bold attempt to visualise not just an emotion but a condition, a state of being. The title implies lack of space, narrowness, but also a certain sense of intimacy. According to Balagov, the title came first, informing his artistic choices: narrow formatting, close-ups, a cramped composition. For the director, this is the guiding metaphor of his story — the closeness of familial relations, of the Jewish community, of several ethnicities living together in the same space. “It wasn’t my main goal to talk about ethnic tensions, but it’s there because Russia is a multiethnic country and those things do happen,” the director tells me. “But it wasn’t an end in itself. On the contrary, I also wanted to debunk some of the stereotypes that [ethnic] Russians have about Caucasians.” He recalls that, “Sokurov always encouraged us to tell stories of ourselves. He would say: ‘Tell us about your life here.’” The advice also tells in Sofichka, the 2016 debut from Balagov’s fellow alumna Kira Kovalenko, apparently the first ever feature film in the Abkhaz language.
It is paradoxical how little Russian cinema is concerned with issues of ethnic identity. The country is home to more than a hundred ethnic groups; that diversity, however, remains invisible in the country’s film output. Concentrated in Moscow and St Petersburg, the film industry is focused on the stories of ethnic Russians from large urban centres and rarely reaches to remote ethnic enclaves in the North Caucasus, on the Volga or in Siberia. Digital technology has amended the situation somewhat: a small but strong film industry now exists in Yakutia, an enormous, sparsely populated Siberian republic that produces a healthy amount of low-budget films popular among local audiences; the same, on a lesser scale, has happened in Buryatia, another remote region. These two phenomena, combined with individual efforts by filmmakers outside of Russia’s two largest cities (such as Ella Manzheeva’s The Gulls, made in Kalmykia and screened at the Berlinale two years ago), prompted Russian media to coin the term “regional cinema.” Balagov is not fond of the phrase — “It implies amateurishness and provinciality” — and there is certainly a metropolitan arrogance in indiscriminately lumping together distinct situations and approaches.
Closeness renders that kind of language meaningless: a Nalchik-set film by a Kabardian director which has proved to have an outreach broader than most of those made by his “non-regional” colleagues. Balagov has gone beyond the usual Russian fixation on the native likes of Andrey Tarkovsky: when I ask him about his use of colour, he references Italian Luchino Visconti and New York’s Magnum Photos; elsewhere he cites Robert Bresson, Marco Bellochio and the Social Realism of the Dardenne brothers. While the Tarkovsky tradition has become almost an expectation from Russians at European festivals, Balagov has mastered the international art film vernacular.
It is paradoxical how little Russian cinema is concerned with issues of ethnic identity
Closeness tells a very individual story of one family at the country’s margins, twenty years ago — and that story turns out to be one that many can relate to. The sense of “closeness” is, paradoxically for such a vast country, well known for Russians, regardless of their ethnicity or religion; film critic Maria Kuvshinova has noted that the strong family ties portrayed in the film are a reaction to the corruption and disintegration of state institutions, evident in Russia since the 1990s.
“I don’t think it will last long,” Balagov says of the initial Sokurov-school successes. “The North Caucasus still has an exotic appeal for festivals. But as a theme it will exhaust itself in five or six years. And then films will have to be interesting for its story and not just the setting.” About a half of the students in Sokurov’s class have left the Caucasus, for Central Russia or abroad; even Closeness was produced by Petersburg’s Lenfilm, together with Sokurov’s film foundation.
“Unfortunately, there was no way to stay and work there after graduation,” Balagov tells me. “There is no industry, no skilled professionals, no money.” Still, Sokurov’s workshop — which only had one class and will not be repeated — achieved its most important goal: to lend a voice to a generation that had never had the opportunity, and to bring their unique perspective and sensibility into the Russian (and international) film scene. Against all odds, the Caucasian dream has become a reality.