Kantemir Balagov is repping Russia for the International Feature Film Oscar for the first time, with his second film, Beanpole. The story of the plight of two women in a devastated post-WWII Leningrad brought Balagov a Best Director win in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section this year. He visited with Deadline at the festival back in May, and we recently caught up to discuss his journey since, the reasons why he has tended to focus on female stories and what the future holds.
Balagov’s inspiration for Beanpole came from Svetlana Alexievich’s book The Unwomanly Face Of War, and centers on Iya and Masha as they search for meaning and hope in the struggle to rebuild their lives amongst the ruins.
The film has a notable palette. Balagov credits his DP, Kseniya Sereda, with finding the look of Beanpole. The pair discussed extensively how Balagov envisioned it, and “after a couple days of shooting, when I saw the material, I realized that she is not just a cinematographer. I saw her for the first time as my soulmate and I started to trust her more and told her ‘Shoot it like you see it.’”
This is the director’s second film in a row that tells a woman’s story and was important, “because no one has shown in Russian modern cinema the face of the women after the war.”
The director also explains that after his first film, FIPRESCI Prize winner Closeness, he realized that focusing on female protagonists was born out of having spent most of his childhood with his mother and sister following his parents’ divorce. “In many ways this affected me, and to this day I am much more comfortable with female characters. In literature and film, I’m more interested in that.” Balagov says he also took a key lesson from Russian master Alexander Sokurov who “taught everyone that the director has to be gender neutral. This is something that has stayed with me.”
Balagov has been busy traveling with Beanpole, meeting diverse audiences around the world and finding positive reactions. In Russia, however, the response has been 50-50 since the topic of WWII is touchy. Through a translator, he said, “There are people who took (the movie) literally and saw it as a same-sex love story and they thought that it was unseemly.” In Cannes, Balagov noted that filmmaking in contemporary Russia comes with its obstacles. “The only source for young people to get money for film is the Ministry of Culture, so if they don’t like something, it’s easy: you don’t get the money.” But the director also recently added he doesn’t intend to let this affect his ideas of the art form. And he’s had great feedback in the myriad countries he’s visited with Beanpole since the film’s debut.
He will however, switch things up a bit the next time around. A new project he’s working on will have a male protagonist and a contemporary setting in the North Caucuses. “I want to tell something about me and try to understand something,” he concludes.