Anyone who’s ever scoffed at a company referring to its employees as family will immediately hear alarm bells ringing when Zhanna (Lyudmila Vasilyeva), the matriarch who runs Produkty 24, tells her workers they aren’t just employees, they’re her children. It won’t take long for “Convenience Store” to justify that skepticism and then some: A highlight of the 2022 Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama program, Michael Borodin’s look at an Uzbek immigrant working in the Moscow outskirts is all the more disturbing for the fact that it’s based on a real case of human trafficking.
The marriage of Mukkahabat (a gently devastating Zukhara Sanzysbay) to a fellow worker is our entree into this world, but it’s hardly a storybook wedding. Taking place in a backroom of Produkty 24, it feels more like a forced union than the beginning of happily ever after. Flickering lights and loud music meant to mask whatever might be going on in that and other backrooms belie the store’s clean surface, as do the clerks’ hesitance to let a customer poke around when he hears what sounds like a woman in distress.
We soon come to see Produkty 24 as a kind of prison, one where the second half of its name is as ominous as it is descriptive: Mukhabbat and the others live here, meaning they’re under its roof (and, more to the point, Zhanna’s thrall) 24 hours a day. Mistreatment is the norm, outright abuse not uncommon. “You should watch them better,” a police officer who happens to be Zhanna’s brother says to her upon returning a would-be escapee. That particular employee (if that’s even the word at this point) is brutally punished shortly after, with her fellow captives forced to mete out the sentence.
Movies about how immigrants are treated in their adoptive countries tend not to be especially uplifting, but “Convenience Store” is grim even by the standards of that particular genre — not that Borodin lets it descend into miserablism. Awful as much of it is, the action is presented in a straightforward, unadorned manner that at times brings to mind Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s “The Tribe,” and ultimately the story is more about Mukhabbat finding agency than it is about her suffering. As is often the case, however, this is a vicious cycle — mistreatment tends to beget more mistreatment, and the abused too often become abusers themselves.
With virtually all of the action of the first half taking place in the store, we come to share Mukkhabbat’s sense of confinement. The effect of those sickly bright lights is magnified by cinematographer Ekaterina Smolina’s expert lensing, which often glimpses characters through the other side of ajar doors or even from Smolina’s closed-circuit security footage — there’s a sense that Produkty 24 is too cramped to fit us in addition to the employees and that, even if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be allowed in anyway. Even beyond its doors, Smolina constantly uses vivid colors to offset otherwise dreary surroundings: a crowded train car in one scene, a recently built-up village in another. That contrast is nowhere more evident — or telling — than in a brief exchange between a woman and her husband who help Mukkhabat: “The stars are so high above tonight,” she tells him in what may be the film’s only moment of wonderment; “What stars?” he asks dismissively before telling her it’s time to go home.
Sanzysbay’s performance ranges from doe-eyed to determined, with Mukhabbat refusing to be a victim even as she’s repeatedly wronged — first by Zhanna, then by the bureaucrats whose halfhearted attempts to help her are suffused with judgment. A gust-punch of an ending that recasts your entire perception of Mukhabbat and everything she’s endured will keep you thinking of “Convenience Store” in general and its desperate heroine in particular long after the credits roll, especially because you’ll know that her story — and her pain — are far from over.