“I wanted to make a film about a supporting character”: Dea Kulumbegashvili on her enigmatic Beginning

Beginning, an enigmatic portrait of a young Georgian woman who is suffering an existential crisis, is by turns mysterious, shocking and icily reserved. Director Dea Kulumbegashvili talks to Jonathan Romney about religion, violence and ecstatic cinema.

Beginning (2020)

Beginning is available now on Mubi.

Beginning what, exactly? The mesmerising debut feature by Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili never makes it clear – indeed, refuses to make anything too clear.

What is certain is that Beginning is the work of a very singular, independently minded director, and one who has made her mark over the last year, since her film’s inclusion in the official selection of 2020’s ‘phantom’ Cannes and its subsequent exposure in Toronto and San Sebastián, where it won four prizes including Best Film.

Beginning is a slow, contained, reserved film – yet it contains moments that are startling, even shocking. It begins with about as bold a statement of intent as opening shots can be. A congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses file into their Kingdom Hall and sit listening to the community leader preach a sermon on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac – then suddenly, an unseen figure hurls a Molotov cocktail into their midst.

This interview features in Sight & Sound May 2021

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This episode, filmed in one of the long, fixed-camera takes that characterise the film, would ordinarily be the inciting incident that sparks a chain of related events – a story of communal trauma, perhaps, or criminal investigation. But here, the event is acknowledged, then seems to slip out of the picture, almost forgotten while the film explores another path – following Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), the wife of minister David (the film’s co-writer and producer Rati Oneli) and mother of a young boy, Giorgi.

The fire’s immediate consequence is that David goes away on business, while the mysterious Alex (Kakha Kintsurashvili) arrives in town – supposedly a police detective from Tbilisi, but very possibly not. Alex proves a malign figure in Yana’s life – appearing at her house with menacing sexual intent, then committing a horrifying act of violence – in an extended shot all the more unnerving because it takes place amid a beautifully shot, precisely composed nocturnal landscape.

Very little in Beginning – neither its narrative, nor its psychological insights, nor its stylistic rendering – makes conventional sense. That includes an ending that is doubly startling: first when another shocking act is committed with matter-of-fact coolness, then when this seemingly realistic tale crosses into a realm of hallucinatory otherness – an enigmatic sign-off that has some of the same stability-shattering effect as certain moments in the work of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, who is an executive producer on Beginning.

Jonathan Romney: Beginning is a profoundly mysterious film – full of surprises, even shocks, but with very little explained. How did you want viewers to respond?

Dea KulumbegashviliArseni Khachaturan

Dea Kulumbegashvili: I want the audience to somehow be in the world of this woman [Yana] and to experience what she’s experiencing. In general, when thinking about a character, how much do we need to know? In life, how much do we really know about each other? I thought, that’s the power the character has – she doesn’t explain.

We know little about Yana except that she was an actress before she married.

She’s an actress and somehow she’s still performing her part. I feel like in general, we assume a role in life, and taking a responsibility requires some kind of performance. Ia [Sukhitashvili] is an incredible actress – she’s the main actress of a big state dramatic theatre here. When I was doing the casting and talking to her, I understood that she’s just such an actress. Even when she talks to you in the street, that’s who she is – she’s an actress. So I understood that it should be stated in the film that Yana is a former actress. We made this decision together.

You begin with an explosion, but it’s very little mentioned afterwards. Its effect in the narrative is to leave ripples, rather than being the centre of the film.

From the very beginning, I thought that Yana would have been a supporting character in another film. When you start a film with an explosion, you expect that whoever is more active in solving the problem should be the main character. But the film is not about that – I wanted to make a film about a supporting character.

At the same time, this traumatic experience is something usual in these characters’ lives, the presence of violence is banal for them. The next day, they don’t talk about it. I think this is how it happens in life – things happen and we don’t talk about it every day, we just go on living.

The film begins with the story of Abraham and Isaac; later there’s a lesson on Satan. How much did you want us to read the story in these religious terms?

In contemporary Western society, most of us tend to think that we’re not religious at all. But I think European culture is based on the Christian religion, it still cannot exist without it, because there’s so much – our morals, our understanding of good and evil, how we relate to life. At the same time, it’s irrelevant, because there is no one who requires [Yana’s] sacrifice, there is no one who will stop her when she performs the act of sacrifice.

Beginning (2020)

It’s not clear whether Yana herself is really religious.

I didn’t want to make a film about religion. She does believe to a certain degree, but she’s not a believer. She’s more a good wife and a good mother, she’s performing the role that David, her husband, asked her to perform, but she’s not a religious person. I was always doubting whether David is such a believer either. I think they both accepted this way of life and it gives them structure.

We barely meet the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in the film, although we do see some of their practices. Why that religion?

I’d written only one scene, when Yana is sitting at the table at the end of the film. But I didn’t have anything else.

Then I was in New York, and I returned to Georgia to visit my father. There were distant relatives visiting him, and they happened to convert and become Jehovah’s Witnesses. I could see how alienated and estranged they felt because of their choice of religion. I was asking the same question about my own life: I was thinking, “What does it mean to come back home?” I was dealing with the same feelings, but in a different context.

I started to attend the religious services. I’m not a religious person, but meeting them was a very important moment in my life – because I could see that you don’t even need to leave to become an outsider. And that’s how I started to work on the film.

Meeting Jehovah’s Witnesses was an important moment, because I could see that you don’t even need to leave to become an outsider.Dea Kulumbegashvili
Beginning (2020)

The film is shot in Lagodekhi, the town where you grew up, and uses its landscapes vividly.

Yana’s house is maybe 20 minutes’ walk from the house where I grew up, where my family still lives. The river, where the sexual assault happens, is right behind the house. I wanted that authenticity – it doesn’t matter if the audience knows about it, but it was important for me. One morning I went out and I saw these beautiful flowers blooming, and I thought, “It’s incredible – no matter what you do, nature is so indifferent to what’s going on around it.” I decided to shoot the scene there.

This place is very significant for me, because it was always a place of violence – especially in the 90s when I was growing up, there was a civil war. The town is on the border with Azerbaijan, there was a lot of trafficking happening – after 6pm, we were not allowed to play on the river because it was dangerous, and even now it’s not particularly safe.

[That scene] was very difficult to watch on set. That was why I decided to keep the camera further away because I didn’t want to cut the scene – it is what it is, and whatever happens on screen doesn’t require my involvement. I didn’t want to tell the audience how to feel.

One of the boldest things about the film is its use of extremely long takes – like a six-minute close-up of Yana lying in a forest with her eyes closed. When I saw it in San Sebastián, some viewers were visibly restless during that scene, checking their phones, even walking out. You must have known you were taking a risk.

Absolutely. Everybody’s free to do whatever they wish at that moment. Once you disengage and start to check your phone, that’s what the shot is doing to you. When we were filming it, I was looking at Ia and there was light changing on her face – it was almost an ecstatic moment.

To me, this is what cinema is: it’s simple, it’s light, it’s the camera, it’s human, it’s nature, I don’t need anything to happen in terms of action. Everyone was against it – the editor wanted to cut it in half, the producers were calling me – but even if I failed, I believed in it. There are moments when cinema just happens in front of the camera.

To me, this is what cinema is: it’s simple, it’s light, it’s the camera, it’s human, it’s nature, I don’t need anything to happen in terms of action.Dea Kulumbegashvili
Beginning (2020)

The film was originally going to be called ‘Naked Sky’. Its new title is very abstract, it doesn’t give us many clues.

The title ‘Naked Sky’ gave us just one direction in which to read the film, and that bothered me. We don’t know if the beginning of the film is the beginning of something new for Yana, or if it’s actually in the end that something new is going to start for her. I constantly had this line in my head: “In the Beginning was the Word.” This title gives me space to experience the film without really pushing me into one way of understanding it.

A theme that emerges in your Q&A discussion with Luca Guadagnino [showing with the film on Mubi] is that the film isn’t just about a woman’s victimisation versus her empowerment, but about a more complex dynamic.

I’m interested in making films in general about being a woman. What does it mean to be a woman, in your body, in your senses, feelings, your mind? It’s a complex existence. I am curious about female existence, and for me this film is about [Ia’s] existential crisis. I want to be truthful to the people I know, and the people I grew up with in this town – and I happened to grow up surrounded by many women.

How do you locate yourself in regard to Georgian cinema, to its history and its film community now?

Georgia is a very strange country. In one way we’re all related to each other and we constantly socialise. It’s a very small country and Tbilisi is a very small city, so we see each other every day. The beauty of Georgia is that we all do our own thing, but we feel connected in a state of mind.

Of course I am very connected. I love Pirosmani [1969]. I find that film very inspiring. I love the Shengelaia brothers, especially their satire – we call it ‘tragic farce’, it’s its own genre in Georgian cinema. Everything made by Otar Iosseliani is incredibly inspiring. I can be walking in the street and I remember some Georgian film and I think, “OK, this is my response.” That is the nature of Georgian culture in a way – we don’t distance ourselves from the traditions, or the icons, or the great directors.

Further reading

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