Savina Petkova talks to Kantemir Balagov about his film Beanpole, the irrelevance of age, and advice from Alexander Sokurov.
At the ripe age of 27, Kantemir Balagov is already a sensation at the European festival circuit. For his debut feature Closeness (Russian: Tesnota, 2017), the director tackled the predicaments of his hometown, Nalchik (Kabardino-Balkar Republic in North Causasia), and took home the Un Certain Regard FIPRESCI prize as a result. A film attentive to its characters without judgement or verdict, Closeness explores the strands and tides of familial and societal relationships, as well as the struggles of growing up on the border with Chechnya replete with political and ethnic tension. Schooled by Russian master Alexander Sokurov, Balagov has inherited the same precision and strive towards truthfulness in creating a story that never falls short of empathy and attentiveness for its characters.
His second feature, Beanpole (Russian: Dylda, 2019), is according to our own review, “a raw portrait of conflicting emotions that roots deeply into one’s psyche”, making use of a string of tragic events that spiral down into an abyss of post-war Leningrad society. Bringing together the unusually tall Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) with Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who fought together in World War II, the film follows their intense but affectionate relationship, pivoting around the central role of childbirth and motherhood.
The film begins with Iya as a dedicated caretaker of a boy named Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), who becomes nothing short of the favourite of the whole hospital ward, where Iya attends to wounded soldiers. As the narrative progresses, the PTSD condition forces Iya to make tough choices, and Masha becomes obsessed with bearing a child. Beanpole is a film of visual delight, it is also one of bitter agonies. Uncompromising in his representation of moral difficulties, Balagov proves to be a bold voice with a distinctive style. After winning the Un Certain Regard Best Director Award at Festival de Cannes, Beanpole came to the 63rd BFI London Film Festival, where we had a chat with the director about his approach to filmmaking, life and death, and literature.
electric ghost: Your film is inspired by the book The Unwomanly Face of War  by Svetlana Alexievich. In linking words to images, how did the creative process begin for you?
Kantemir Balagov: This wasn’t actually an adaptation; the film was only inspired by the book. When working on the script, I already have a picture in mind—an image. I can’t write something that I’m not envisioning in my mind already, therefore for me there is no distinction, or an intermediary stage, like first writing the script and then visualising it. My script-writing is visual.
To latch on that, I think it’s important to ask about the film’s colour palette of green, red, and ochre. Did you also envision them while writing the script?
That came a bit later, when we were doing the research and preparing for the shoot. There were actually a lot of reasons why the film had to be that kind of colour palette and so dense and saturated. The first thing I learnt from my research of the historical setting was that people were trying to get rid of that greyness around them by using colours. The second reason was that a person with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) sees the world in that way. The third important reason for choosing these colours and saturation was that after a war, the world is, kind of, created anew from scratch. It starts from zero, and so the colour palette and saturation is also being created after the war. It is possible to choose just one of these elements of this palette, or invent your own.
“It’s like God’s point of view, in a place where God has left them in some way after the war and especially during the war. He watches over them and yet doesn’t interfere.”
I found the colours both quite intimate and distancing, as if something was slowly draining out the colour. But at the same time, it feels like something else was infusing it with new life. For example, in the brilliant sequence with the green paint all over the wallpapers in Iya’s apartment—it was a great visual metaphor.
There was this one thing that struck me: that the camera frames Pashka from above in the bathtub first, and later frames Stepan in the hospital with his wife Tanya beside him, almost on his deathbed. The similarity in framing brings life and death together, and I felt like the whole film stitches them together in a profound way. The boundaries between being dead and alive in a post-war situation seeming blurred. Is this something that informed your work on the film?
That’s a great point because not a lot of people saw that and, yes, you are absolutely right! And there is a third point of view when they are trying to impregnate Iya, when all three of them are in the bed. And yes… these kinds of shots reference each other, and yes, birth and death are together! I also wanted that to be an allusion to the fact that Pashka, as the film progresses, is going to die, that he’s not going to live. It’s like God’s point of view, in a place where God has left them in some way after the war and especially during the war. He watches over them and yet doesn’t interfere.
What about the role of women and motherhood at large? Would you say that these emotionally complex but barren women tell a bigger story of the whole society at that time, or it’s more important to focus on their personal importance as characters?
I’m not sure we can say that about the whole society, but from my research and from what I’ve read, I know that, basically, because of emaciation, a lot of women simply couldn’t have children. And then there were also mental barriers because, as some people were worried that there may be another war soon, they didn’t want to have children in the meanwhile. And some people, like Masha, on the contrary, wanted to have a child, to get rid of the feeling of death that was surrounding them. So it was all very personal for each individual back then, so we can’t really speak of the whole society in a general way.
“When you’re telling a story in a certain way and you unfold it, and within that story your characters are behaving, let’s say, not quite morally, you actually are trying to understand and justify them.”
I was also curious about the place of history in this. What is, to you, the role of the filmmaker now in regard to the painful past?
I don’t relate to that time as such but I do relate to individuals, people who lived there at that time. I’m not trying, in this case—and generally in life as I am—to analyse history in an abstract way. I’m interested in an individual in that context.
So would you agree that the filmmaker’s task is to tell the individual stories as truthful as they are, or maybe bring something new with empathy to fictional characters that we wouldn’t know in real life?
I think both. For example, when you’re telling a story in a certain way and you unfold it, and within that story your characters are behaving, let’s say, not quite morally, you actually are trying to understand and justify them.
Back to the title of the film and the titular character, Iya. Together with the opening sequence, the title (Beanpole) suggests that we, the audience, are going to focus on Iya through her height and out-of-place-ness. How important was the physical dimension of bodies in the performance of Viktoria Miroshnichenko?
The physical dimension of the body is extremely important because it’s a whole new language which I find very interesting. I agree that often body language can tell you much more about the character than what she actually says. Even through the way the character moves, the audience can sometimes deduct his/her life story.
“This was the advice from Alexander Sokurov, who said you should read more books and watch less movies. I think literature has a lot of impact on directors and it doesn’t depend on your age at all.”
I agree that this is absolutely true regarding the character of Iya. The performances at large are well-crafted and marvellous. I want to comment on the fact that both Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina have their debut in your film, which is only your second, and your DoP [Ksenia Sereda] is about the same age as them and yourself. Do you think age was something important in making this particular film?
To be honest, I don’t think so. I mean, you can be an old man at the age of eighteen, mentally or physically. It doesn’t matter that much if you don’t have a passion for life, or something like that. So, maybe in my old age I will say something different, but for now I think that age means… I don’t want to say it means nothing, but it doesn’t mean a lot to me. Because everything that I’ve experienced and I’m talking about, inner experiences—of my soul—everything came from literature. I lived in someone’s life on the page. I experienced someone else’s experience and I think literature is the main source for me. And this was the advice from Alexander Sokurov [his mentor and teacher], who said you should read more books and watch less movies. [Laughs] I think literature has a lot of impact on directors and it doesn’t depend on your age at all.
I’d agree with you! What do you think is the most important thing that films can do for you?
It’s a hard question for me because now I don’t believe that cinema could change something in a big way. I mean, in my region, for example. I made Closeness, now Beanpole, and the Sokurov students, they’re making their first, second feature films and still, we don’t have any cinema organisation or business that would assist us. I think that my region could handle at least one film in two years, you know, but no one wants it. But cinema for me is a visual experience that is so strong—when you see something and it just sticks with you. It opens in you something that you didn’t know about yourself before. For example, I recently watched Wanda  by Barbara Loden, have you seen it? It’s an amazing movie, her first feature film, and her only one, as she died at the age of 48 from cancer. But that film opened for me something new about myself, it showed me something new about myself, about acting as well… I don’t know, it’s like it opened new layers of my soul, of my mind, and it doesn’t happen quite often to me. It’s funny. It often happens to me when I see films with female characters. It happened to me with Breaking the Waves , with Mouchette , with Rosetta , and now with Wanda. It happened as well with Fists In The Pocket . It’s like treasures. If you find your treasure, the reward is so, so, so meaningful.
You can read our review of Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole here.