INTERVIEW: "Beanpole" Director Kantemir Balagov

Susan Kouguell interviews the 28-year-old Russian director and co-writer Kantemir Balagov about his award-winning second feature film "Beanpole."
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This is not a story about a historic period: this is a story about the world today. The fact that we live in a world where wars still rage, makes Beanpole a very universal story.

--Kantemir Balagov

 Kantemir Balagov

Kantemir Balagov

During the New York Film Festival, I sat down with the 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov to talk about his second feature film Beanpole, which received the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film and Best Director in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

Born in Nalchik, Russia, in 1991, Beanpole marks his second feature film; his first feature was the multi-award-winning Closeness (2017). Balagov graduated from Alexander Sokurov’s directing workshop at Kabardino-Balkarian State University in 2015. During his studies, he made a number of fiction and documentary films which took part in various domestic and international events.

Beanpole

1945, Leningrad. World War II devastated the city, demolishing its buildings and leaving its citizens in tatters, physically and mentally. Although the siege – one of the worst in history – is finally over, life and death continue their battle in the wreckage that remains. Two young women, Iya and Masha, search for meaning and hope in the struggle to rebuild their lives amongst the ruins.

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KOUGUELL: Let’s start with the meaning of the title Beanpole.

BALAGOV: In Russian it means not only about height, it’s about clumsiness too. So, every character in the film is a beanpole in some way. They feel clumsy, they move clumsy. The way they try to start a new normal life is clumsy.

KOUGUELL: The book The Unwomanly Face of War by the Nobel Laureate Svetlana was your inspiration for this film. How closely did you follow the book when writing the script?

BALAGOV: If we’re talking about the plot of the film, it’s original. If we’re talking about the intonation about female destinies it is close to the book. The most touching was the female side of this because I didn’t know about the role of women in the war. Before I read the book, I thought they were serving only in the medical centers and hospitals, but when I knew more, and the amount of sacrifices that they did, I was just blown away. I knew when I finished reading the book in 2015, that I wanted to make a movie about it.

I wanted to show audiences who are the same age as me, that female side because in modern Russian films no one really shows the female side.

KOUGUELL: Tell me about your writing process and collaboration with your co-writer Alexander Terekhov.

BALAGOV: Terekhov is a great Russian writer. Before we met each other, I split the script into small episodes, like a treatment. I sent it to him, and he didn’t like it. I liked that he didn’t like the treatment and we started from scratch. (Balagov smiles.) It’s a funny thing, we had some fights while we worked on it and he said to me that you want me to talk in whispers and I want you to scream. We tried to figure out this middle. He’s a very talented writer; and he knows almost everything about that era. He was a journalist, and worked a lot with archives, and then he started to write books.

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KOUGUELL: Masha and Iya are layered and complicated characters; they’re at times in psychological opposition to each, but neither is stereotypical; neither is all good or all bad.

BALAGOV: The layers and shades came to me from literature. My professor Alexander Swgurv told us that I should read more books and watch less movies; this is the motto for the director. I always try to understand my characters and for me as a director it’s always interesting to understand the moral actions of my characters; we’re not black and white.

KOUGUELL: You chose not to include any traditional communist symbols from this era.

BALAGOV: Cinema is a tool of immortality and these women and these men who are in the film, I think they are immortal. I think these kinds of (representations of) political characters don’t deserve this immortality in my films at least, that’s why I didn’t include them.

KOUGUELL: There is a stillness about the film when Iya freezes due to her PTSD. It was visually and emotionally striking.

BALAGOV: We had history of cinema lessons with Alexander Sokurov. He showed me that cinema is a visual code and told us that if you want to see the connection between camera, rhythm, and the characters, to watch Fassbinder's films. After I saw some of these films, I understood the connection between character and point of view, and for us, with the DP it was really important because that’s how we try to be closer to them and I want audiences to feel close to them, too. It relies on each other, not just editing cuts, etc.; it should be more than that. It’s all interconnected.

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