Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Tesnota / Closeness

Kantemir Balagov: Tesnota / Closeness (2017) starring Darya Zhovner as Ilana "Ila" Koft.

    RU © 2017 Nekommertsestki fond podderzhki kinematografa "Primer Intonatsii" (Fond Aleksandra Sokurova). © 2017 Olo "Kinostudija Lenfilm". P: Eduard Pichugin, Aleksandr Sokurov, Nikolai Yankin. Supervisor: Aleksandr Sokurov. Director of Lenfilm: Eduard Pichugin. Director of the fund Primer Intonatsii: Nikolai Yankin. Khudozhestvennyi rukovoditel filma: Aleksandr Sokurov.
    D: Kantemir Balagov. SC: Anton Yarush, Kantemir Balagov. Cin: Artem Emelianov – negative: 35 mm. PD: Aleksei Paderin. Cost: Lidia Kryukova. Makeup: Elena Grigorieva. S: Andrei Nikitin. ED: Kantemir Balagov. With: Anatoli Berdyugin. Casting: Vladimir Golov.
    Musical themes: State Anthem of Kabardino-Balkaria "Adyjge Nyse". Zhy: "Psykhag". Mr. Credo: "Mama Aziya". Tatyana Bulanova: "Ne Plach". Virus: "Ty menya ne ishchi". Timur Muchuraev: "Jerusalem".
    C: Darya Zhovner (Ila / Ilana Koft), Olga Dragunova (Mother / Adina Koft), Artem Cipin (Father / Avi Koft), Nazir Zhukov (Zalim), Benjamin Katz (David Koft), Anna Levit (Lea).
    Loc (exteriors): Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Caucasus, Russia. – Bolshaya Khoralnaya Synagoga Sankt-Peterburga. Mostly shot in St. Petersburg.
    Languages: Russian, Kabardian.
    118 min
    Festival premiere: 24 May 2017 Cannes Film Festival: Un certain regard (winner of the FIPRESCI prize).
    Russian premiere: 3 Aug 2017.
    YouTube link with English subtitles provided by a friend.
    Viewed on a 4K television screen in Helsinki at home, 8 April 2020.

Larry Gross (Telluride Film Festival 2017): "Ila (Darya Zhovner), a twenty-something tomboy, works alongside her dad (Artem Cipin) in his auto repair shop. She teases David (Benjamin Katz), her about-to-be married brother, and resents Dina (Olga Dragunova), her domineering mother. It’s a tight-knit Jewish family that’s found a way to coexist in Nalchik, a dismal Muslim city in Russia’s Northern Caucasus region in 1998, the time of the Chechen war. When disaster strikes, Ila explodes in a drug-and-sex fueled rebellion that exposes the emotional secrets and lies that religious doctrine and family loyalties have suppressed. The 25-year-old old writer-director-editor Kantemir Balagov grew up in Nalchik, where a similar true story happened. Balagov’s talent for observing emotional violence and in shaping Zhovner’s utterly riveting performance made TESNOTA a winner at Cannes, and an unforgettable debut. The Russian master and past Telluride tributee Alexander Sokurov, Balagov’s mentor, serves as executive producer." – Larry Gross (Telluride Film Festival 2017)

"Only a close person can really hurt you" (Kantemir Balagov on Closeness in Yuri Dud's YouTube interview).

AA:  These are my first impressions of the first Kantemir Balagov film I have seen. By coincidence the previous film that I had seen was a Thaw era film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's The Cossacks, set in Chechenia, an account of the Caucasian War in 1817–1864, this particular dramatization ignoring the war and emphasizing the brotherhood of peoples.

Balagov's film takes place in 1998, between the Chechen wars (1994–1996, 1999–2009). In a turning-point of the film a group of Kabardian friends watch video footage of Russian atrocities against Chechens. In the narrative itself there is little overt violence, but a sense of threat is ubiquitous.

One of the Kabardian friends is Zalim, the boyfriend of the protagonist Ilana who is told to remember this: "you are Kabardian". But she is Jewish, a member of a closely knit Jewish family and community. They are living in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, a hotbed of Islamist fanaticism and extremism. An expression of this is Timur Muchuraev's apocalyptic music video "Jerusalem", an incantation of blood and thunder in a mission to destroy Jews.

A kidnapping of Ilana's brother David and his fiancée Lea brings to an end the family's precarious existence in Nalchik. To pay the ransom they have to give up everything, including the beloved car repair shop in which Ilana has developed into a wizard as a car mechanic. It becomes too dangerous to stay. The utmost insult is an arranged marriage plan for Ilana which the young woman immediately sabotages.

As soon as David and Ilana start to grow roots and become a part of a milieu in which they live they are asked by their parents to move. "We are guests everywhere". Nowhere at home. "When do we stop moving around?" "Your tribe turned its ass on you. I won't belong to that tribe". But with Ilana they stay together.

There is a personal spirit, a special intensity, and a rare intimacy in Tesnota. Ilana's Bildungsroman is unique and unusual. She is a young woman who does not hide her masculine dimensions. In the family, David is the softer of the siblings. Ilana and David are not shy in their mutual tenderness, but their relationship is not transgressive. The parents, Adina and Avi, are overwhelmed in the circumstances of brutality and discrimination, and now their children are growing out of their reach. "They are not ours any longer".

The visual concept is intensive. Artem Emelianov has shot the film on 35 mm. The narrative is dark, but the images are lush, vibrant and full of life: the bustle at the car repair shop, the warmth of the meals of the family and the Jewish community, the wild energy of the parties of the young ones.

The cinematography is eloquent in many ways. The warm light has a painterly quality. The studies of faces, often in close-up or extreme close-up, are vivid. There is a feeling of desolation in many city milieux. At night, the party gets wilder, under hard drugs, and psychedelic lights convey altered states of consciousness. We move to the dimension of experimental cinema. Parts of the film belong to the cinema of duration, even longueurs.

In the morning we return to everyday consciousness. The protagonists appear as silhouettes at dawn. The final escape takes us to a mountain road in the Caucasus. The car breaks down, and it is getting cold. A sublime waterfall is thundering from a source or lake above. "I don't know what happened to these people thereafter".


1998, Nalchik, the North Caucasus, Russia. 24-year-old Ilana works in her father’s garage to help him make ends meet. One evening, her extended family and friends gather to celebrate the engagement of her younger brother David. Later that night, the young couple is kidnapped, and a ransom demand delivered. In this close-knit Jewish enclave, involving the police is out of the question. How will the family raise the money to save David? Ilana and her parents, each in their own way, will go as far as necessary, whatever the risks to themselves…


Interview with Kantemir Balagov
1998, in the north of Russian Caucasus. A young man and his fiancée are kidnapped and their freedom is subject to payment of a ransom. Tesnota (Closeness) is Kantemir Balagov's first film and is based on a true story; it questions family ties.

What inspired you to begin work on this film?
First of all, I wanted to show what the North Caucasus is, since this territory has hardly been explored in cinema. Second, the central storyline of the film is based on a true story. The main issues in this story are human relations in a family, cultural differences and interpersonal relations. While working on the story and characters, I questioned the main perceived truth in family relations: the need for self-sacrifice.

Please share a few words about your actors…
I was adamant that the Jewish character should be played by a Jewish actor, and the Kabardian parts by Kabardians. It was a question of credibility, of narrative truth. I had a casting director who worked tirelessly looking for actors in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. We found Daria Jovner in Moscow; she had just completed her studies at Moscow Art Theatre. Her parents are theatre actors from Saint Petersburg. The kidnapped brother is a cook, not a professional actor – even though he has appeared in a film by Aleksey German. Jr. Zalim, the Kabardian boyfriend, is a professional actor who studied at the famous Shchukin Theatre Institute in Moscow. We brought him and his fellow actors from Nalchik to Saint Petersburg.

What did you learn during the course of making this film?
Cinema is about movement: inside and outside. The movement of a story,  and its characters… the movement of sound and image. This movement is about absolutely all its components, and it should never stop. Everything should keep moving to let the film take its course. This is the most important thing I learned during this work.

What are your views on the state of the film industry in your country?
Unfortunately, it's very difficult for young directors to make films in Russia, and almost impossible to make films in the Caucasus. The entire film industry is concentrated either on already famous filmmakers or on commercial projects; there is no room for the debuts of young directors. The only exception is the "Example of Intonation" fund, founded in Saint Petersburg by director Alexander Sokurov. Without his assistance, as well as that of the producer Nikolay Yankin, my film would never have materialised. I will always be grateful to these people, and I hope that the participation of "Tesnota" in the "Un certain regard" programme of the Cannes Film Festival will help to birth a national cinema in Caucasus, home to a number of very talented young actors.

Can you tell us about your next project?
I’m working on another script, also based on a true story. For the moment, I’m writing alone.

Written by Benoit Pavan

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