In a side storyline in Lerd (A Man of Integrity), a prize-winner at Cannes Film Festival 2017, a girl is expelled from the only school in an Iranian village. Despite her mother’s desperate pleas, the headmistress, the protagonists’ wife Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee), sticks to the state directives to admit Muslims only. The girl’s exclusion from public life leads to a tragedy.
Coincidentally, on Friday, nine women were arrested at Cannes for planning to sunbathe in burkinis. The women came down from Paris to protest the ban on the swimwear — a prohibition that effectively excludes Muslim women from public beaches — first introduced in Cannes in 2016, and since repealed by the national supreme court. The difference between “authoritarian” and “liberal” exclusion policies on gender and religion seems slight.
The French could learn how to recognize unjust official authority from political films honored at the festival. Lerd, a drama about a farmer’s struggle against local corruption in Iran, received the main “Un Certain Regard” prize on Saturday. An International Critics’ FIPRESCI prize went, among others, to Tesnota (Closeness), another Un Certain Regard entry exploring relations between Muslims and Jews in the North Caucasus. In both films, protagonists resist local and state authority.
Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), the protagonist of Lerd, is an alter ego of the dissident director Mohammad Rasoulof, who spent six years in prison for filming without a permit. Reza escaped Tehran to a northern province to avoid politics, but ended up in a village ruled by the police on-the-take and a ruthless “Company”. We eventually learn that he was expelled from university for advocating for workers’ rights. His best friend is now in jail for sedition. Oppression is not just local, but is endemic in state policies.
True to his radical roots, Reza initially refuses to negotiate with criminals. His convictions only make things worse. The company wants Reza’s land. When company henchman Abbas cuts off his farm’s water, Reza confronts him. A fight ensues. Abbas demands payment for a broken hand that is not really broken — Abbas bribed a doctor to produce proof. It gets worse after that, as money runs out, bankers and policemen demand bribes, his son gets in trouble for fighting at school, and his wife resents him for choosing principles over family survival.
Ashkan Ashkani’s camera spies beauty in the failing farm and the dingy small town. Color and movement interrupt and enliven brown and grey desolate landscapes. Red watermelon moonshine flows into a transparent bottle. Reza soaks in milky water in a secret cave, contemplating his next move. Tall trees move gracefully in the wind as he waits for a corrupt prison guard to arrive. A house, set on fire in retaliation, burns in the night: a dark frame of a building in a flaming blaze.
Rasoulof keeps the action apace, but his characters never explain or narrate. A Western viewer must piece together town relationships as a puzzle. We never know the exact religion of the expelled girl’s family, nor learn whether her subsequent fate affected Hadis in any way. When Reza’s integrity begins to strain under pressure, his movements become swift and cryptic, all the way up to a surprising outcome.
Ilana (Darya Zhovner) in Tesnota (Closeness)
Kantemir Balagov chooses a more straightforward, unadorned way to tell a true story in Tesnota. The title was translated for Cannes as Closeness, but in Russian it, actually means “cramped surroundings”, The film, in both Russian and Kabardian languages, is set in a tiny Jewish community in historically Muslim Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkarian Federal Republic of Russia, in North Caucasus.
In 1998, during the war in Chechnya, Kabardians kidnap two Jewish teenagers who just got engaged. The small community can only collect enough money for the girl’s ransom. As they sell, beg, and compromise for the ransom, the boy’s family faces several dilemmas, including sacrificing their daughter’s independence to save their son. Ila, at 24-years-old (Darya Zhovner, first-time actress) fixes cars, dresses like a tomboy, and has a Kabardian boyfriend (Nazir Zhukov) — all things frowned upon by her family and neighbors. When parents demand her obedience, she fiercely resists. Zhovner excels as Ila, whose defiance, against all odds, drives the film forward.
Tesnota represents a new “postcolonial” wave in Russian cinema. Balagov, who is Kabardian born in Nalchik, is only 26-years-old and a student of Alexander Sokurov, the director famous for a Hermitage-set one-take Russians Ark (2002). Balagov is one of several graduates of Sokurov’s film school in Kabardino-Balkar State University. He credited the “Example of Intonation” fund, founded in Saint Petersburg by Sokurov, as well as Russian producer Nikolay Yankin, for making it possible to complete the film.
Yet Balagov’ visual style is distinct from Sokurov’s — less poetic, more jagged. He doesn’t look for beauty in everyday life, but rather seeks to convey the lack of comfort and security in a particular historical time. Some scenes are naturalistic, such as a controversial several-minute take of a TV showing a real video of Chechens killing a Russian soldier. Others are abstract, as when despairing Ila dances to electronic music. Her movements, lit by a pulsating light of a Nalchik discotheque, create an impression of an avant-garde art video.
Tesnota does not offer explicit moral lessons, but its matter-of-fact narrative still conveys a sense of claustrophobia and dread in a racially divided city. The Un Certain Regard program, by design, presents films more diverse in aesthetics and geography than the main competition at Cannes. Lerd and, especially, Tesnota show why those criteria for selection are rewarding.