Kantemir Balagov comes from Kabardino-Balkaria, a region in the Russian Caucasus that is very poor and has a high level of youth unemployment. Balagov studied under Russian director Alexander Sokurov for three years, and made his debut feature with “Closeness,” which was in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2017, and won the Fipresci prize. “Beanpole,” his second feature, plays in Un Certain Regard this year. Set in 1945 in Leningrad, which was devastated in World War II, the film centers on two young women, Iya and Masha, who are struggling to rebuild their lives.
What impact did Alexander Sokurov have on you as a filmmaker?
Other than giving me an understanding of the profession of the director, he helped me to achieve self-consciousness and taught me how to love literature. To me these two things are interconnected, because consciousness feeds on literature.
How do you describe your approach to directing?
I am not interested in how a person thinks but how they feel. For me cinema is a place of feelings rather than thoughts.
Which films have influenced you most?
“Fists in the Pocket” by Marco Bellocchio, “My Friend Ivan Lapshin” by Alexei German, “The Cranes Are Flying” by Mikhail Kalatozov, “Rosetta” by the Dardenne brothers, “Breathless” by Jean-Luc Godard, “Rome, Open City” by Roberto Rossellini, “Rocco and His Brothers” by Luchino Visconti and every film by Marcel Carne.
Why is your film called “Beanpole”?
The obvious answer is that one of the lead characters is very tall. But the Russian title, “Dylda,” suggests clumsiness, awkwardness, gracelessness. The two heroines feel clumsy because they are experiencing serious difficulties in learning how to live again after the war.
What led you to choose this time (1945) and place (Leningrad) as the setting for the film?
My main inspiration was the book “The Unwomanly Face of War” by Svetlana Alexievich, which opened up a whole new world for me. I came to realize how little I knew about the war and about women in the conflict. This led me to another thought: What would happen to a woman after the war, when there is a tectonic shift in her mind, her nature?
Leningrad survived a horrible siege and the consequences of that were an important part of the film. It was important for me to feel this space and background in the film, and you can feel this even now in today’s Leningrad.
How would you describe the psychological state of the two central female characters?
The best way to describe their interior state is to say it is in ruins.
The synopsis describes the city as looking like a “terminally ill person.” How is the aftermath of war portrayed in the film?
You can see the aftermath of war in the space where the action takes place, and the color palette of the film, but most importantly in the faces of our heroines. It was important to show the consequences of war in their faces and eyes, not just through abandoned or destroyed buildings.
Does the film find a modern-day resonance in recent conflicts?
Yes I believe so but only generally speaking because the nuances of this story are different. One of the things that makes this film valuable as a piece of art is that it takes place specifically in the 1940s.
Your last film “Closeness” had a distinct color palette. Do we see something similar in “Beanpole”?
This is my second film and I am still searching for my style. The role and importance of the color palette is different to “Closeness” but it still plays a major role because of the atmosphere of the film. I would describe the palette as rusty — the rust of life.