Waiting for the Miracle: Dea Kulumbegashvili Discusses "Beginning"

The Georgian director discusses her award-winning feature film debut, about a Jehovah’s Witness in Georgia beset on all sides of her life.
Daniel Kasman
Above: Beginning.
One of the most fulfilling experiences a moviegoer can have at a festival is encountering a new voice in cinema. This encounter produces an electricity and a hope: Cinema continues onward, on new paths. Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili definitely inspires that hope. Beginning, her feature debut which was selected for Cannes and shown at the Toronto and New York film festivals, is, in fact, immediately startling: Its first shot, a long-take of the gradual gathering of a Bible study group, is interrupted by a firebombing. Kulumbegashvili holds the image and the scene uncomfortably long, as we watch the congregation struggle to extinguish flames and exit the building. The film’s second shot underscores the latent tension and unease that from here on permeates the small-town countryside of the film. Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), one of the group’s leaders, stands alone by a tree, and off-camera we continue to hear the fire roar. Did everyone escape? What happened between the first and second shot, and why is Yana so unruffled? As the fire burns into the night, and kids run to and fro from the blaze, a police detective (Kakha Kintsurashvil) observes the violence with a wry comment, and the camera’s focus on the flames goes blurry. What follows is an oblique drama of a woman’s isolation and subtle repression, and one composed, as this opening is, with a haunting unease.
Subsequent scenes lend exposition to this fraught event and its surprisingly off-kilter visualization. Yana, her husband, David (Rati Oneli, who wrote the film with Kulumbegashvili and is one of its producers), and their son are Jehovah’s Witnesses in the predominantly Orthodox Georgia, and whose presence in this town is being anonymously repulsed. We learn from David, who seems a passionate missionary, that this persecution is not uncommon, and in fact the couple and their young boy have been unrooted and traveling a great deal. This town, despite happening to be Yana’s childhood home, seems no different. The corrupt local police have no interest in pursuing the firebombing investigation, Yana feels unsafe in the streets, and she expresses the stifling nature of her husband’s vocation. The wider world for Yana appears to be her fellow church members. The woman’s unhappiness is definite but also ambiguous: Her commitment to her religion seems professional rather than personal, her allegiance to her patriarchal and conservative but devoted husband is frustrated, and she laments of having no time to be alone. In fact, two shots of Yana finding a moment to herself to recline at her dinner table, the evening swathing her in cozy evening light, evoke a restorative solitude that speaks beyond the screenplay’s tentative definition of the woman’s existential crisis. Beginning is gorgeously shot by Arseni Khachaturan in a 35mm palette of greatly subtle color, and Kulumbegashvili frames her actors mostly in medium-shot long takes, isolating the family in the community, and isolating Yana in her family.
This crisis is brought to a head when the detective visits Yana while her husband is away petitioning the church for new funds. The visit reveals another layer of another repressive structure: The insidious personal application of power to a vulnerable woman. The detective verbally rapes Yana, in a presage of further local violence and isolation. Both this brutal first scene and an even more horrendous one that follows is conjured in an unsettling use of suggestive off-camera space: Yana seems to sense the man’s presence before he shows up in two different instances. Kulumbegashvili’s long takes and precisely focused storytelling point of view, rather than give the film a dryness in its austerity, subtly lends a fantastical and spiritual side to Yana’s story, one which is emphasized by Beginning’s opening scene ominously telling the story of Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son. A brief episode of escape, when mother and son get off their city bus early to walk through the woods, is evoked in a long-held shot of Yana simply lying amid fallen leaves, the sound of the forest and the wind and her look of utter release a deep breath for her and the audience in an otherwise grim film. Visiting her mother and her younger sister, a teenage single mother, to find some feminine solace after her assault, and hearing of the sister’s single motherhood and her own mother’s impossibility for divorce, we see that for Yana the world for women is naught but dead-ends, thwarted hopes, and stymied freedom. David’s reference to her past profession as an actress and him saving her suggest another world and life that it nearly is impossible to imagine in the film’s stifling version of Yana’s existence. It is that evocation of her experience, more so than the film’s spartan screenplay, that is Beginning’s triumph.
A honed perspective, a careful consideration of texture and pacing, and the flash-points when a life touches grace and touches horror—these are done by Kulumbegashvili very well indeed.

NOTEBOOK: Your film begins and ends with a really heinous violent act, in the beginning a public violent act and at the end, possibly, a very private violent act. I’m curious which end of this story was the beginning for you?
DEA KULUMBEGASHVILI: I think that it’s both. In the beginning of the film clearly something actually begins for the main character, but in the end of the film something ends, and something new begins also, again. So it has this cycle. I personally think there are two beginnings for her, for Yana. One at the beginning of the film, and another one at the end.
NOTEBOOK: For this story did you always want to focus it specifically on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia, or was it more generally for you a story of persecution?
KULUMBEGASHVILI: Well, on the one hand it was obviously the story of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia, but I was clearly not only focused on that. I was thinking about this theme of alienation, how you can feel totally foreign and not belong in the place where you grew up, which you consider your home. At the same time, I am interested in the religious structures of the society, and the groups, because I think it’s very clearly and very obviously a patriarchal system of a society, where you can look at the life of this woman and examine it. It’s both, but I was mostly thinking in the larger scope about it, rather than just focusing on the religious aspect.
NOTEBOOK: The film opens with the story of Abraham sacrificing his son, and from there on, the story rides a fine edge between something realistic and something more allegorical, or fantastic. I’m curious how you maintain this line, and where you wanted to depart from the normal world.
KULUMBEGASHVILI: For myself, I usually call it “one step elevated from reality.” It’s just one step up. It’s not that far. I don’t look for symbolism usually, because I think that, for me, it would be pointless to put something which would represent something that would not be something on its own. For me, everything I look at is just what it is. The purpose, for me, of looking through the camera at anything is just to really see the nature of things. But how can a physical presence or the physical action manifest with the nature of things? So it’s always this search for… Can something happen in front of the camera? In a way, for me it’s always waiting for the miracle, trusting some gut feeling that something will start to happen in front of the camera. Because when you look at things in real life, you know, a tree is just a tree. But then you frame it and it is still just a tree, but it starts to also become something else, I do believe, for every single person in the audience. Because of time: How long do you look? Where do you put the camera, and what’s the relationship with the object or a subject? And I always try to find that, and sometimes I achieve it and sometimes I can’t. And most of the times when I reshoot the scenes it’s because of that, because it’s good technically and everything’s perfect, but then nothing’s really happening in front of the camera. It’s just a technical exercise, and I’m not interested in that. I’m always really looking for something which is not just directed by me, but something that starts to appear or happen from the juxtaposition of different elements.
NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting you put so much emphasis on what is in front of the camera because I feel that, for this film, equal emphasis was on what you were leaving outside of the frame. You narrow the point of view of the story to such a degree that what exists outside this frame is really imaginative. It can be oppressive, it can be scary, it can be mysterious. I’m curious to know how you make the decision of what you want to remove from the visual world, and what you want to retain.
KULUMBEGASHVILI: Usually it’s just I want to find the essence of... what do I look at? And everything else is outside of the frame, and I really trust the audience on that. But the decision comes from just distilling it to absolute necessity or distilling it to the absolute essence of what we look at. I think that’s the most important part, because if you just look at one thing your mind starts to create connections with what’s outside of the frame. And this film for me is about looking, in a very direct way and also indirectly, in a more metaphorical way, about looking. Our ability, or maybe our inability sometimes, to see another—or see the world around us or what’s in front of us, really. I wanted to make it really minimal, what’s in the frame, so that we could really look and try and focus on what we look at.
NOTEBOOK: How did you come to the decision of shooting on 35mm?
KULUMBEGASHVILI: My cinematographer, Arseni [Khachaturan], he’s my very close collaborator, and we also shot a short film before on 35mm, which was really a learning experience for me because I started to see that it’s not just the color, texture, but you can really work on light, such details that I don’t think that digital really gives you this ability. Especially since we almost had almost no film lighting on this film, we tried to just keep it to practicals and keep it to natural light, and I had huge creative arguments about how much dark you could film. Because using film stock is such an incredible opportunity to really work with an image, and to really try to grasp what’s in front of you without much manipulation. When we were looking at the footage, in some of the scenes you could see every single dust particle, and it was incredible how much you can really work on light when you work with film instead of in post-production.
Above: Beginning.
NOTEBOOK: The way you film the sexual assault is incredibly confrontational, in its distance and literalness, and the camera’s unblinking eye. Can you talk about how you came to the decision of staging it in that manner?
KULUMBEGASHVILI: It was actually written exactly in the same way, and I kept thinking about it for a long time, because it was a big decision, for me, to decide to include it in the film, and to film it. It’s something which is extremely violent and emotionally violent for the audience, and it was really a hard decision for me to take. Because we follow this woman in the tiniest nuances of her life, I always thought I just cannot, cannot not show this. Because it would be like looking away from something which is so big for the character, and I just could not leave it out of the film. I was also thinking that it’s something we choose not to talk about, as a society, and I could not give myself the right to exclude it from the film.
But then, when I was thinking about how to shoot it, I thought that the camera needs to be at a distance where maybe an accidental passerby could be, and not any closer than that, because if it would have been closer, I would think: who is the one who is watching? And then, why is the audience so passive? Why am I keeping the audience in one place? Then, I would have needed to cut the scene and maybe have more conventional editing, which I didn’t want to do, because I didn’t want to emphasize anything. Honestly speaking, I did not know what to emphasize, because what’s the most important part of it? I don’t know. What would I have the right to cut out? I don’t know. So I thought that this is just what happens in front of the camera, but I need to have this distance because being closer than this would make me involved as a person, as a viewer, and I didn’t want to do that. 
We were rehearsing it, but mostly just going through the scene, especially because of the location it was not really possible to rehearse it that much. And I just knew that I could not have takes, because I did not want to ask the actors to do many takes. It was so physically and emotionally demanding for her, and for him too—I think for him it was a very important moment, because it was the first time as an actor he was really starting to think about what women who experience such an assault go through, and it was a very important moment for him to think about it from the inside of the character. 
NOTEBOOK: For me, the decision to shoot that scene that way was almost as important as what you decide to take Yana next in her journey, which is a visit home. The world she exists in is so small, and so contained, and suddenly she gets to seemingly step out to visit her family who we haven’t seen up until that point. But then what she encounters is another closed world, another closed bubble. Why was it important for her to return home at this moment, after this assault?
KULUMBEGASHVILI: I was really researching about what do women go through after such an assault, and I was thinking that it’s so difficult to immediately react or so difficult to call someone, or talk about it. But as a human, you gravitate towards somebody you don’t really need to talk to, maybe, but who can embrace you and bring some comfort into your life—and I was thinking that this is the mother. Like it’s almost an instinctual reaction to go to the mother. But then she can’t talk to the mother. She ends up, and it’s true, in another bubble. I was calling it this “world of women,” and they would just sit in this room and there are children breathing, asleep, and she just can’t talk about it. And especially when her mother starts to inquire and ask her questions, and all the questions are wrong—because how could you imagine something like this? I was always thinking that if the mother hints towards something which she went through, then she would talk about it. But because that doesn’t happen, she’s unable to open up and talk.
NOTEBOOK: I’m curious to know what your perspective is on Yana’s relationship to her faith or her husband’s religion. The film is quite ambiguous in this regard.
KULUMBEGASHVILI: I think her relationship with this religious group is mostly a commitment to her husband and her family. I was never thinking that she was really a believer, but I think that she assumes and takes the responsibility, and takes this role. Even if she believes, she is questioning, and that’s why I was always thinking about the story of Adam and Eve in Paradise, when Eve starts to question. So even if she knows, or even if she wants to believe, there is still this question of how much can the religion give her and how can she really feel fulfilled in her life, even if she believes in God.  It’s a delicate subject for me because I didn’t want to make a film about a woman who is very religious and then she starts to question, because then it would be a film about a religious conflict. I think this film is about her, and about her inner conflict, and her trying to find her identity, which is more important for me. Maybe she wants to believe, because in the scene with her son where she’s teaching him, she wants to believe, but at the same time she doesn’t want to live in this fantasy world.
NOTEBOOK: Do you see her final action at the end of the film as a question, or a gesture that’s related to faith? Or is it outside that construct?
KULUMBEGASHVILI: I do believe that it is related to faith. The story of Abraham and Isaac is, for me, a paradox. I was going for this paradox in the film as well. I was thinking that it is testing God, her action: it’s to test God or to confront if there is such an entity to confront it. And also at the same time it is in a way an act of love. Clearly she will start to move towards something at the end of the film, and it’s not just the punishment, which would be just legal, but I think it’s another kind of a conscious existence for her. This does start in the beginning of the film for her—but here she accepts it and she moves towards it. For me, it’s a realization of a dread: when you feel it and you don’t know what it is, then you start to understand what it is but you don’t want to accept it, and then finally she accepts, she acts on it, and something new will begin for her eventually because of this. It’s inevitable, but she consciously makes this decision at the end of the film.
NOTEBOOK: I was surprised when the credits rolled to see that your soundtrack was by Nicolás Jaar. And also because I didn’t remember there being much music in the film at all, until the credits! What was that collaboration like?
KULUMBEGASHVILI: Actually there is music… I mean, we call it “music,” made by Nico in some of the scenes, but it’s mixed in the soundscape. But he created a lot of sound which is musical. I always thought that this film was pretty silent. There’s almost this grandiose silence around this woman. Because of that, for the final credits this is where I wanted Nico’s music to be, because for me it’s very visual and cinematic. It’s something like a new chapter opening up, which maybe allows the audience to breathe, to imagine what would happen in the film after.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve made several short films and now this is your first feature. Was there something about this experience of making a feature-length film that was surprising to you, that you didn’t expect?
KULUMBEGASHVILI: Well, yes… [laughs] I guess it’s such a long process and I think that at some point during the shoot I understood that I really, really needed to pace myself, physically, because mentally I was so involved, and emotionally… but then I understood that no, I really needed to take care of myself, because this is going to be a very long process. There’s no such thing as a day off, you just wake up and you’re constantly focused on one thing, you’re always involved. It’s very important to function and be sharp, every day, and maybe one thing I really learned in this process, is that next time I’ll have more days off! [laughs]


NYFFNYFF 2020Festival CoverageInterviewsDea Kulumbegashvili
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