I don’t know why, but before I met the Russian director Kantemir Balagov, I imagined a gloomy, intense old sage with a long beard and, maybe, a robe — not an awkward 20-something with “Hakuna Matata” tattooed on his forearm. It was at Cannes, right after the world premiere of his second feature film, Beanpole, a soul-crushingly powerful and exquisitely mounted historical drama about two female veterans trying to reconnect with life in postwar St. Petersburg. Two years earlier, I had been downright scarred at the same festival by Balagov’s first feature, Closeness, about a young woman trying to deal with her brother’s kidnapping in the Caucasian city of Nalchik, in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic (which is where Balagov himself is from). That film was unshakably tense, cinematically rich, and — in its use of documentary footage of terrorist beheadings — too much for some in the audience.
In a couple of quick years, Balagov has become one of the great young hopes of international cinema — a director who can tell complex, resonant stories and who has the stylistic dexterity of a master. Beanpole won Best Director from the Un Certain Regard jury at Cannes, and it was Russia’s submission for the Oscars this year (though, shockingly, it did not get a nomination). Balagov, who is 28 but looks even younger, seemed uncomfortable with the attention at Cannes, letting his translator do most of the talking. By the time I saw him again, this time in an office in New York last fall, he had somehow become mostly fluent in English, and far chattier. We talked about what he was trying to accomplish with Beanpole, the morality of images, and how he went from being a kid in love with Tarantino and horror movies to being one of today’s most promising auteurs.
Beanpole is quite a departure from your first film, Closeness. What were the origins of this story?
The most important thing, when it comes to the origins of Beanpole, is the book by Svetlana Alexievich [The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II]. Not only did it inspire me, but after reading it, I realized how little I know about the war and about the role of women in the war. I also realized that no one in contemporary Russian cinema is addressing this issue. The only way that war is addressed in films in Russia right now is by glorifying it; people make certain types of pseudo-patriotic films. This is wrong, and this story should be told — but furthermore, I think someone from my generation should tell it, so that younger viewers will see it and understand this period. Because right now, they don’t know about the aftermath of war, or about the role of women in the war.
I was also inspired by a woman who said that she wanted to give birth so bad, to get rid of the death that surrounded her and the world. I was curious about what happens with a person like her — this biological shift, mental shift and physical shift.
Beanpole takes place immediately after the war, and yet in the film people talk about the war as if it’s still going on. That was a little confusing to me at first, because in American movies there’s always a very specific war/post-war division. There’s obviously something symbolic about how you present it here, since the war will never leave these people. Did this come out of your research?
When I read personal diaries of people who lived then at the time, I came to a realization that war is never over. War doesn’t end when the fighting ends. More than that, I believe that post-war life is even harder than life during wartime. Because in one of the diaries, the diary of a soldier, I read this fascinating idea: That it’s easier during war, because you have only one goal, which is to survive. And when the war is over, everything is much more complicated.
I remember when Closeness screened at Cannes, some people felt you were going too far including documentary footage of real beheadings. Were you aware of that controversy? Was this something you were worried about when you first made the film?
I was surprised when I heard that [Un Certain Regard jury president] Uma Thurman refused to give us an award because of the execution scene. But I was sure that this execution footage should be in the movie because it was really meaningful for me. It was my own experience, and it shows the context of the territory and the time — and it shows what could happen with the boy who was kidnapped in the film. I was sure about that. But I was afraid, because when you mix documentary and fiction, documentaries always win. I was afraid that after this execution scene, our audience would [realize] they are watching actors [in subsequent scenes], not real people.
With Beanpole, as grim as it sometimes is, you’re very careful to cut around some of the more harrowing things that happen. Did you reflect on these choices at all after making the first film?
I thought about it. In Closeness, the most brutal pain that was in that film was the layer of documentary in it. Those were documentary images. That is absent in Beanpole, because I wanted to respect the personal spaces of my characters more, so sometimes I kept my distance from them. But I want to push the limits — for myself. I want to understand my borders, my ethical borders. It’s like recreating morality — and I’m trying to make it with the help of my characters because trust me, I do suffer when I make it, and I don’t feel comfortable when I make these kind of things. If we shoot something and I don’t feel comfortable, there’s a good chance that the scene is decent. Because when there is no inner reflection on the set — especially if it’s a tragic scene — it becomes a scene with no meaning.
What’s the most disturbing image you’ve seen on film?
The documentary footage I put in Closeness. In fiction, I really have a strong stomach, you know? But have you seen Kira Muratova’s Asthenic Syndrome? There’s a scene with dogs and it just … [Shakes head.]
Are there moments when you’re in doubt about what you’re showing?
When you don’t have doubt you’re an idiot, you’re a complete idiot. And you should have doubts during the whole process. You should doubt in yourself 24/7.
When did you first become interested in film?
I remember my first VHS cassette. It was Pulp Fiction. I was maybe 12, 13. I was in shock. After that, I just watched lots of movies — shitty movies and not-shitty movies. Nightmare on the Elm Street, the original. Scream. That was my favorite — one of the greatest horror movies … not just horror, one of the greatest movies. Ace Ventura. Leslie Nielsen films. The Naked Gun. Then Iñárritu. Amores Perros, Babel, 21 Grams. Christopher Nolan’s films. I remember my father, when he was at the market, he always bought a VHS when there was an Oscar statue [on the cover]. Because he thought that if there is an Oscar sign, this is a good movie. That’s how I saw Saving Private Ryan. Amazing. I was so shocked. And Chocolat with Johnny Depp. And Steven Spielberg’s A.I.
Did you watch any Russian films at the time?
No, I don’t think so. I watched Brother 2 by [Alexei] Balabanov, but I was already 16, maybe 15 by that time. I never knew that I wanted to be a director, to be honest. It came spontaneously. My father bought me a DSLR camera with a video function, and I just started to make YouTube series with my friends. About 10 minutes each. It took me one year of my life, and after that I decided I wanted something new. A friend of mine advised me to write to Alexander Sokurov [the acclaimed Russian director who runs a prestigious film school]. I didn’t know anything about him. I sent him the links and he took me on the third year.
Is that series still on YouTube?
No, I deleted it!
What was it like?
It was like Tarantino. It was violent. A lot of blood. It was so bad. The acting’s so bad. The directing’s so bad.
Was Sokurov’s film school where your cinematic tastes expanded?
While we were studying I saw a lot of movies. Like Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, M. Fritz Lang, Bresson. When I saw the French New Wave, especially Godard, I was blown away. And the old Godard, not the latest. Breathless made a lot of impact on me.
What are your favorite films and filmmakers now?
Marcel Carné, Visconti, Bicycle Thieves. All the classics. Among recent ones, I was truly inspired by Alice Rohrwacher’s last film, Lazzaro Felice. Also, Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White I found really moving. The greatest experience I had recently was when I saw Wanda directed by Barbara Loden. I think this is my favorite female character right now, besides maybe Breaking the Waves.
What’s the Russian film industry like nowadays?
For now, it’s all about Moscow. It’s very centralized. Sokurov wanted to show the Moscow people that they have so many interesting stories in the small regions. I think that’s why I had some difficulties with Closeness. Everybody read the script, they said, “This is a great script, but I don’t think that I will be able to find the money on it, because it’s the Caucasus, it’s 1998, and the audience won’t spend the money to see this film.”
What did it mean for you to be able to put that area, your homeland, on film?
It means a lot. It came when I was on the set of another film that was shooting in North Ossetia — it’s like a neighbor of Nalchik — and I just saw the faces of the people living there. And I was like, No, I have to make a film about my homeland, and I have to put this region on the map. You know, I have an ambition to one day make a film in English language for an English language star. But step-by-step. I don’t have the right to leave my region now.
With two acclaimed films under your belt, is it getting easier to make films for you?
I’m a lucky guy. And because of the Cannes prize for Beanpole, and that kind of thing, I feel more grounded. I didn’t feel that it would be easier to make my next one because of these prestige festivals. I just got lucky, and I really appreciate that Beanpole had no government money. I was 90 percent sure we wouldn’t get government money because of the script.
If you got government money, what do you think would have happened?
I don’t know … I always look back and try to understand what they’re going to say. Will they want me to cut some scenes? Censorship is not a bad thing when it comes from yourself. But when it comes from the government, it’s not a great idea.
Speaking of the government, there is a scene near the end of Beanpole when Masha, Beanpole’s close friend, who has returned from the war, goes to meet the family of her fiancee, Sasha. The mother, who’s a party official, seems to disdain Masha’s wartime service at first. Here, not only is the power dynamic shifting between the mother, Masha, and Sasha, but the texture of their exchange at times veers towards the absurd.
My screenwriting partner and I tried to achieve a number of goals with this scene. The first was obviously Masha’s monologue [in which, in response to the mother’s cutting remarks, she talks about all the men she had to sleep with on the front]: She tells a story about the fate of many women during the war. Because really, again, the people of my generation and people who’ve never tried to study this particular topic, they don’t know anything about it. And at the same time, I wanted there to be a certain duality to this scene, so that the audience would never realize fully whether Masha is kidding, whether she’s trolling this woman, or whether she’s serious. But another goal for us was simply that, today, it is very easy and popular to make films and judge the people in power at that time; we set out not to judge anyone — because we’re convinced that even among these party officials there were decent people.