Michael Borodin uncovers Russia’s heart of darkness in slavery drama Convenience Store

Zukhara Sanzysbay in Convenience Store (dir. Michael Borodin, 2022)

One of the most urgent debuts to emerge from Russia in the past decade, Michael Borodin’s Convenience Store is based on a shocking real-life criminal case. In 2012 in the Moscow suburb of Golyanovo, a group of Uzbek migrants were found living in conditions of slavery inside the 24-hour grocery store where they worked. In Borodin’s semi-fictionalised account, Mukhabbat (Zukhara Sanzysbay) is one of a group of Uzbek migrants being held against their will by their sadistic “employer” Zhanna (Lyudmila Vasilieva). When Mukhabbat’s newborn child is stolen from her, she resolves to break free – but her journey is only just beginning. In telling this story, the first-time director eschews the sensationalism of true crime, but also the restrictions of naturalism. The uncanny world of the store that never closes – and which its inhabitants can never leave – is captured in off-kilter framing, sickly neon lighting, and bursts of surrealistic expressionism.

From the cramped back rooms of the store to the sun-drenched cotton fields of Uzbekistan, Borodin’s film depicts life on the margins of the post-Soviet world as a battle for survival. For non-Russian audiences, Convenience Store brings to light the often-harsh reality for the millions of Central Asian migrant workers who grease the wheels of Russia’s economic stability; as Russian nationalism ramps up in wartime, the situation on the ground is growing ever more fearful for this precarious population.

To mark the arrival of Convenience Store into the Klassiki Library, we spoke to Borodin about adapting this harrowing true crime material for the screen, his stylistic approach, and how his own experiences as a precarious migrant in Russia informed his work. This is an abridged version of the interview; Klassiki subscribers can watch in full here.

Zukhara Sanzysbay in Convenience Store (dir. Michael Borodin, 2022)

Could you tell us how you learned about the real story behind this film, and how you how you approached the process of adaptation?

Yes, the film is based on real events. In 2012, in the Moscow suburb of Golyanovo, a group of activists literally dragged people out of a store. There were men, women, children. They had spent years in this shop, working as slaves, without pay. They lived there as well, gave birth, were subjected to violence. From that point on, the story became well-known. Journalists and TV cameras showed up. The activists had also filmed the events themselves. The case is still ongoing to this day. There has been no justice, no one has been punished. The store is still running and still belongs to the same people who have been running it for 20 or so years.

As for the process of adaptation, it was complicated. There were many different stories. There was enough material there to make several seasons of a TV show, but we had to turn it into a film. So, we chose the stories of two particular women and combined them. There were similarities: both came looking for work and were subjected to slavery. Both of them have children. And one of these women returned to the store in order to be close to their child. That choice presented to biggest challenge: how to focus on a single story and tell it sequentially. We didn’t want to use flashbacks or flashforwards, we wanted to tell it sequentially, with events unfolding in the present.

 

Did you meet these two women, the victims, while you were preparing the film?

It’s a bit of a complex story. I met with one of these women, Bakiya Kasymova, and together we went to see the other woman – I don’t want to give her name, because her situation is complicated as regards the owner of the store. We spent a long time speaking with her. She explained that she had returned to the store to continue working there. That’s where the stories diverged. One of the women, Bakiya, is still fighting to this day against this injustice; the other made a choice to return, which I can’t offer a judgement on.

several women who came to the casting said that they knew this store and that they’d been invited to work there. Among migrants it was a pretty well-known place. They got lucky

I’m sure people will be interested: the real women, the real victims, where are they now? You say that no one has been punished, that the case was never concluded.

Everything is still pretty bad. Bakiya gave birth in the store, and one of her children has developmental issues. After she was freed, she had another two children. Now they’re in a panic, they need to raise money to feed them, and the family situation is also pretty difficult: she has a lot of relatives, who don’t really have anywhere to live. Right now, she’s back in Uzbekistan trying to get the documents together so that she can get an apartment. But she can’t earn the money to sort her own life out. Her situation hasn’t changed: in a sense, she’s still in slavery. As for the other woman, I don’t know.

 

I’ve read that your approach to this material was informed by personal experience. You yourself are from Uzbekistan, and while you never experienced what these women went through, in interviews you’ve talked about how, when you moved to Russia, you were also forced to work in precarious conditions: basically, that you were discriminated against because of your Uzbek passport. Could you tell us a little about that?

My situation wasn’t as terrible, of course. I graduated from university in Uzbekistan before I went to Russia; I speak Russian, and I look like a Russian as well. It should have been easy for me to get into university in Russia, but I couldn’t. I wanted to find work connected with film shoots, but I was turned away everywhere. Something as banal as renting an apartment was impossible: people won’t rent to migrants. In adverts they even write: “Slavs Only”. That would be on almost every advert on the site. I found some work: preparing apartments for remodelling, physical work like that. Then a classmate and I found work as delivery riders. I drove around different markets with big bags full of SIM cards. At the same time, I was trying to shoot short clips, at parties and so on, to earn a little money. That went on for three or four years.

I wouldn’t compare it with the situation that our heroines experienced. My life was a lot simpler than theirs. What’s interesting is that we did street casting for the film, and when we called up people who we thought might suit the roles – there aren’t many Uzbek actors in Moscow – several women who came to the casting said that they knew this store and that they’d been invited to work there. Among migrants it was a pretty well-known place. They got lucky.

Convenience Store (dir. Michael Borodin, 2022)

I wanted to ask you about your work with Ekaterina Smolina, the cinematographer. One of the most striking things about your film is that it’s based in this harsh realism, but through the strange, artificial world of the store, this realism becomes almost surreal. Could you talk about how you worked with the Ekaterina, and how you found ways to shoot this very small, claustrophobic space?

First of all, I’d say that we were working as a trio: me, Katya, and Vlad Ogai, the production designer. He had a big influence on that atmosphere. We decided that we needed to shoot in a real store. We got lucky: we found a place where the owner had left but their replacement hadn’t yet moved in. So, we shot in that store. The atmosphere was genuine. It was close to the real space, in terms of the layout. The walls of the store restricted our placement and movement of the camera. The space allowed us to align the reality with our ideas. So, the “artificial” decorations were created around the reality. Some elements we left as they were, some we hid, some we exaggerated.

At first, I planned to shoot in a realist style, almost like a documentary, with the camera close to the protagonist. But the story itself was so brutal that it would have been impossible to watch if it had been filmed in that documentary style. So, we decided to distance ourselves – the story tells itself, and we observe events from the outside. That allowed us to work with all that neon, with that very compressed light. We also chose an unusual aspect ratio – 1.55:1, a little wider that 4:3. That allowed us to capture as much space as possible. That distance from the action allowed us to add those surrealist elements. So, thanks to Katya and Vlad, we were able to find that balance between reality and our artistic vision, to help the viewer to observe the story from without and within at the same time.

The root of the problem is that the system in Russia is set up to exploit people. When you arrive in Russia, almost immediately you enter into a world in which you have no rights

There are three sequences – including the very last shot of the film – where the viewer enters inside the dreamworld of Mukhabbat. Why did you want to include these moments?

As I already mentioned, the story is so terrible, and also true. So, I thought that we needed to allow for some space for the heroine to exist outside of that reality, to escape from it. It’s as though the dream sequences lead to that final shot. And they aren’t pleasant dreams that she has, they represent her fears. But we wanted to give her the chance to escape from that reality, even if only in dreams.

 

It’s been two years since you finished this film. We all know what’s been happening in Russia during those two years, and the way in which Central Asian migrants have been involved in the war. And we’ve seen since the recent terrorist attack in Moscow an increase in racism and persecution towards Central Asian migrants. How do you think that audiences should understand your film in this context?

The root of the problem is that the system in Russia is set up to exploit people. When you arrive in Russia, almost immediately you enter into a world in which you have no rights. Straight away. That’s how the system is set up. It’s advantageous for everyone: for the government, for employers who don’t have to pay taxes, for the country, since migrants pay themselves for the right to work. These are people without rights, so you can do what you want with them. That’s the system. You can exploit people who haven’t broken the law. They arrive legally, without the need for a visa, by plane – but at that moment, they become illegal as far as the system is concerned. People who work in construction, people who work in stores, they don’t have rights, they have no way of lodging a complaint, they’re poorly paid, they live in appalling conditions – and that suits everyone. At the same time, people need to work somewhere, and there’s no work in their homeland. So, they make the choice to move and to accept the terms of this system. And then it’s also advantageous for people [in Russia] to have a negative attitude towards these migrants. It’s not comfortable otherwise.

I don’t believe the film can influence this: I don’t think that’s how cinema works. But I hope that it helps people to understand that you can claim your human rights: as a migrant, as someone who’s come here to work. That’s my fantasy, like Mukhabbat’s dream – that the film could help to give a sense that it’s possible for these people to make demands. In reality, people are confronted by the same injustices that existed before the full-scale invasion, and which will probably continue to exist in the future, because it’s profitable for the people who exploit this slave and low-wage labour. The film can’t influence that, but it can explain what’s going on.

Watch Convenience Store on Klassiki now.