Russian Drama ‘Unclenching the Fists’ Takes Top Prize at Cannes Un Certain Regard Awards

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CANNES — At a banner ceremony for female filmmakers, Russian writer-director Kira Kovalenko’s sophomore feature “Unclenching the Fists” won the top prize for best film in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival this evening.

The film, a powerful study of a young woman attempting to assert her independence in a North Ossetian mining town with a bitter legacy of violence, was one of four female-directed features to take awards from a jury headed by British director Andrea Arnold — a Cannes veteran whose first documentary, “Cow,” was unveiled in Cannes Premieres this year.

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Arnold cited the “explosion of originality, physicality and feeling” in Kovalenko’s film as their primary motivation for awarding it the top prize. Shortly after the ceremony, it was announced that Mubi had picked up Kovalenko’s film for distribution in North America, the U.K. and other territories.

Arnold is noted for her straight-talking approach in the film industry, and proved a similarly no-nonsense presence while presiding over a speedy awards ceremony that saw six awards handed out in just 30 minutes. Taking the runner-up Jury Prize was Austrian filmmaker Sebastian Meise for his deeply moving prison drama “Great Freedom,” which charts the evolving relationship between a gay convict and his bigoted cellmate over the course of several decades. Among the biggest critical hits of the section, Meise’s film was scooped up by — again — Mubi for distribution in multiple territories including North America and the U.K.

Another buzzy title, the Icelandic horror-comedy hybrid “Lamb,” received a special jury prize for originality. On the eve of the festival, distributor A24 acquired U.S. rights to the perverse, Noomi Rapace-starring fairytale, about a rural farming couple whose adoption of an unconventional newborn has dark consequences.

The remaining three awards were all presented to female-directed films, with French actor-turned-filmmaker Hafsia Herzi’s Marseille-set family drama “Bonne Mere” winning a prize for best ensemble performance — in lieu of the individual acting prizes usually awarded by the Un Certain Regard jury.

Traditionally, beyond the top two winners, the jury is free to designate awards as they see fit: thus, alongside “Lamb’s” award for originality, Romanian director Teodora Ana Mihai received a special prize for courage for her Mexican-set drama “La Civil,” which chronicles a mother’s search for her daughter after the girl is kidnapped by a criminal cartel.

The subject matter of Mihai’s film overlaps significantly with that of fellow Un Certain Regard title “Prayers for the Stolen”: The first fiction film by Mexican docmaker Tatiana Huezo, it also depicts the everyday terror of women living under the threat of cartel raids in rural Mexico. Huezo’s film, for its part, received a special mention from the jury.

Among the films passed over by Arnold’s jury — which also included filmmakers Mounia Meddour, Daniel Burman and Michael Angelo Covino, as well as French actor Elsa Zylberstein — were two starry U.S. entries, Kogonada’s “After Yang” and Justin Chon’s “Blue Bayou,” and Norwegian director Eskil Vogt’s much-hyped supernatural thriller “The Innocents.” As a co-writer and producer on Joachim Trier’s critically adored Competition title “The Worst Person in the World,” Vogt will be hoping for better luck tomorrow, when Spike Lee’s jury announces the festival’s premier awards.

Full list of Un Certain Regard winners:

Un Certain Regard Award: “Unclenching the Fists,” Kira Kovalenko

Jury Prize: “Great Freedom,” Sebastian Meise

Prize for Ensemble Performance: “Bonne Mere,” Hafsia Herzi

Prize for Courage: “La Civil,” Teodora Ana Mihai

Prize for Originality: “Lamb,” Valdimar Johannsson

Special Mention: “Prayers for the Stolen,” Tatiana Huezo

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