A bold based-on-real-life debut feature about modern-day slavery in a Russian convenience store

Convenience Store

Source: LLC Metrafilms

‘Convenience Store’

Dir/scr: Michael Borodin. Russia/Slovenia/Turkey. 2022. 106 mins.

Awash with lurid yellow, Michael Borodin’s feature debut casts a visual stain across its protagonist and her misery working in a 24-hour convenience store. Silent, hunched over and with her spirit broken, Mukhabbat (played with perfect restraint by newcomer Zukhara Sanzysbay) is an Uzbek migrant in Moscow. She is pregnant, paperless and enslaved. Based on true events from the early 2000s, where a woman was arrested in Moscow for entrapping immigrants from Central Asia to work in her store, Borodin’s brilliant but brutal Convenience Store is an unflinching depiction of a woman’s stoic fight for her freedom and the eternal cost of being poor.

An unflinching depiction of a woman’s stoic fight for her freedom and the eternal cost of being poor. 

Though far from autobiographical, the story is personal for Borodin, who came to Russia from Uzbekistan in the early 2010s and felt immediately deprived of his civil rights. Unable to obtain a resident permit, mistrusted for holding an Uzbek passport and turned away from official employment, his story is one of systemic socio-economic discrimination. Every actor in Convenience Store embodies this weighty injustice - there are countless minor characters who could star in their own dramatic episodes (Borodin’s extensive research almost led to a series instead of a film). Offering the promise of more to come, this talented filmmaker’s bold debut would play well in European arthouse venues and should garner word of mouth through further festival play. 

When we first meet Mukhabbat, her head is bowed, shrouded in thick cloth, for her marriage ceremony. It’s only when Ekaterina Smolina’s camera slowly zooms out that we realise she is kneeling, pregnant, on the floor of a convenience storeroom, surrounded by sacks and boxes of perishables. The man she marries may or may not be the father of her child. Once the ceremony is complete, the mullah who married them leaves and Mukhabbat swaps her headscarf for an apron, returning to her duties, restocking crates of vodka. Her pallid expression, and the garish yellow lighting do not change for the first 45 minutes of the film. Borodin sits with the relentlessness of the ugly inside world of the convenience store - its broken floor tiles, the sorting of rotten tomatoes, a bored employee filling a ‘quiet’ moment, swatting at a fly.

When Mukhabbat is ripped off by an old Russian drunk, the view switches to one of surveillance. In-store cameras reveal Mukhabbat’s failure to reclaim the funds and she is beckoned to the back room at store owner Zhanna’s request (an absolutely chilling performance by Lyudmila Vasilyev). Borodin cuts to an affluent woman being served, the sounds of Mukhabbat’s beating audible, but never interrupting business as usual. Smolina’s camera pans from the well-to-do woman’s indifference.

A far worse fate befalls one of the younger girls in the store, Mavlyuda (Asel Tyutyubaeva), who is sexually assaulted by Zhanna’s friends and then beaten with sticks wrapped in cling film after corrupt police bring her back from an attempted escape. Smolina’s camera is unflinching (although audiences may be less stoic) as a nail is hammered into Mavlyuda’s foot, punishment for daring to step outside of the grim prison Zhanna has made.

After Mukhabbat gives birth to a baby boy, Zhanna takes him away. From here, Mukhabbat resolves to recover her dignity and freedom. Finding help in the form of one of the residents from the brutalist apartment block above the convenience store, Mukhabbat and several of the others are freed from the store and sent home to Uzbekistan, where further trials await. Reality, is, after all, bleak. Although 12 people were freed from the real store in Golyanovo, and despite intense media attention, a criminal case was never initiated, and the shop continues to operate.

Production company: Metrafilms, Perfo Production Karma Films

International sales: Heretic, info@heretic.gr

Producers: Artem Vasiljev, Aleš, Pavlin, Andrej Štritof, Diloy Gülün

Cinematography: Ekaterina Smolina

Editing: Alexandra Putsyato

Music: Aleksey Polyakov

Main cast: Zukhara Sanzysbay, Lyudmila Vasilyeva, Tolibzhon Suleimanov, Asel Tyutyubaeva, Zukhra Ashurova