UNCLENCHING THE FISTS is a quietly powerful film that explores the struggles of a young woman named Ada, trapped in a life of oppression and abuse in North Ossetia. Directed by Kira Kovalenko, the film serves as a portrayal of the impact of patriarchal structures – societal and familial – on the women within.
Ada (Milana Aguzarova) lives with her father and younger brother, Dakko (Khetag Bibilov). Her father (Alik Karaev) is overbearingly protective to the point of abusive behaviour. Against a backdrop of the return of her older brother, Akim (Soslan Khugaev) from Rostov, and naive romantic interest from Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov), Kovalenko’s film illustrates the competing influence of all the men in Ada’s life and the stifling confinement they impose upon her.
The setting of North Ossetia is an effective backdrop for the story, creating a sense of isolation within a contemporary (if deprived) urban environment. The classic clash which stories such as Ada’s typically portray – tensions between traditional values and modern aspirations – is therefore present, but places the world Ada is being denied that bit closer than total physical isolation would.
“The film’s opening half hour or so consists almost entirely of men telling Ada what to do: get in the car, go for a ride, go out with me.”
The film’s opening half hour or so consists almost entirely of men telling Ada what to do: get in the car, go for a ride, go out with me. Her father and younger brother are also both overbearing in different ways. Her father is overprotective, but Dakko has an unhealthy, almost incestuous, attachment to his sister. His pawing at her in the car and forced embraces are an intelligent addition to Kovalenko and her cowriters’ script. These interactions serve the dual purpose of demonstrating not only the effect of this emotional confinement on Dakko but also the knock-on effect on Ada in addition to her direct experience of it. When others suffer or are stunted, it further impacts Ada.
Ada is entitled to mere existence (under the guise of ‘safety’) and nothing more. “She survived. She’s alive,” her father says when discussing a chronic medical issue of Ada’s with her brother Akim, “What more do you want?” Ada’s empty and unfulfilling role in her family is seen as all she is entitled to by her father or even something she should be grateful for. Even Akim, who wants to spirit her away, defines that hypothetical future in the context of patriarchal concerns: “We’ll get you married”. Many scenes are shot in close-up, emphasising Ada’s physical and emotional confinement. The camera lingers on her face, capturing her pain and frustration at being trapped in a life she did not choose.
“Although their North Ossetian town is hardly painted as a warm place […], the character interactions are skilfully pitched to create an oppressive atmosphere derived from the people in Ada’s life rather than where she leads it.”
Although their North Ossetian town is hardly painted as a warm place (an imposing wall by the side of a highway is a frequent recurring sight), the character interactions are skilfully pitched to create an oppressive atmosphere derived from the people in Ada’s life rather than where she leads it. Her stressed demeanour contrasts with that of Tamik, even if his affections further worry Ada and present another threat on the paths she finds herself navigating daily. Despite his ‘saviour’ type positioning, Akim is carefully shown as far from being an enlightened white knight: he has the same solemn stare as his father. He seems to have escaped the prison but still bears the mental scars and embedded prejudices about the extent of the life Ada should lead.
There are elements of dark humour, such as when her father suffers a seizure and literally cannot physically let go of Ada, but UNCLENCHING THE FIST’s strength lies in the way all characters are used to emphasise Ada’s lack of agency without seeming to be simply empty devices. No role is redundant, and Milana Aguzarova’s layered and subtle performance blends those naturalistic interactions into an engaging character drama.