AFM: Dea Kulumbegashvili on Her Bold, Feminist Debut 'Beginning'

Wild Bunch

Ia Sukhitashvili in 'Beginning'

The story of a woman's struggles in an insular Jehovah's Witness community in rural Georgia won a Golden Shell for best film in San Sebastian and is Georgia's Oscar hopeful

Dea Kulumbegashvili, who grew up in the remote Caucasus Mountains of the newly-independent nation of Georgia, must be getting used to being a trail-blazer.

In 2016, she became the first Georgian director to have a film accepted in Cannes — her stunning minimalist short Invisible Spaces. In 2020, her feature debut, Beginning, would have been the first Georgian feature to premiere on the Croisette, if COVID-19 hadn't shut Cannes down. Instead, Kulumbegashvili took the drama to Toronto and San Sebastian. The movie is a stark vision of Yana [Ia Sukhitashvili], a woman who has married into an insular Jehovah's Witness community and feels alienated from both her new community and ostracized from her old one — Georgia's strict Orthodox Christian society.

Shot in the boxy 1:33 aspect ratio, with a fixed camera and long takes, Beginning is a bold debut and, in San Sebastian, it became the first Georgian film to win the Golden Shell for best film, also picking up the best director and best actress honors and best screenplay for Kulumbegashvili and co-writer Rati Oneli, who also plays Yana's Jehovah's Witness husband David. Unsurprisingly, Georgia picked Beginning to represent the country in next year's Oscar race.

If it gets nominated for the best international feature award, it will be another first for Kulumbegashvili, as there has never been a Georgian Oscar nominee.

Kulumbegashvili spoke to The Hollywood Reporter from Cannes, where Beginning had a belated gala premiere as part of Cannes' Special 3-day mini-festival in late October. Wild Bunch is handling international sales of Beginning at the American Film Market.

What fascinated you about the Jehovah's Witnesses community in Georgia that you wanted to set your film among them?

I wrote the script with Rati Oneli and we were both very familiar with this community. Many of our relatives have become Jehovah's Witnesses, and because of that they have become ostracized from society. Of course, I did a lot of research but I was familiar with them since my childhood because I had classmates in my middle school who were Jehovah's Witnesses and I could see how much they were ostracized from their society because of their faith. I think I am generally interested in communities that are under a religious structure because it is a real microcosm of society. Here I was also interested in looking at this community within the Georgian society, which is also a very religious society and very [Orthodox] Christian as well. Because I was interested to explore these themes of alienation and the feeling of not belonging to the place where you were born and where you have spent your entire life. And then because of the choices you have made, you become a stranger.

It seems the main character Yana — played by Ia Sukhitashvili — feels a stranger in her own body. Even when she is brutally raped by an outsider, she appears detached from the whole experience.

I think she is struggling with a crisis in her life, the crisis you have when you realize you don't fit into your life, that the choices you made were maybe not really yours. And I think that is the case with Yana. She does not belong to her family anymore. But she also cannot go back to her mother's family, because she doesn't belong there either. She is a stranger to these people. Because even when her husband says [after Yana is raped] 'I want to forgive you' it is a question: what does he want to forgive? Does he really love her for who she is? Because the concept of forgiveness creates this kind of power dynamic. Who has the power to forgive?

I don't want to label the film but do you see it as a feminist movie?

I think it is a feminist movie, and a feminine movie, too because to me the film stands for the experience of being a woman. And it is feminist, of course too. But I hope it also goes beyond just one point of view and that even those who are not feminists, who do not understand feminism, can watch the film and really connect with it because I think that the main interest for me in making films is to create dialog and to engage the audience.

There have been a number of films recently — such as Portrait of a Lady on Fire or Ammonite — which take a very deliberate female point of view and focus. Do you think there is a new openness to this type of storytelling?

I think it's not openness, I think it's the need of specifically female directors to tell the stories from our point of view and to really bring to the screen the experiences that we have. Some of the scenes in my film I call the world of women, or the bubble of women because no men have ever belonged in that space, at least not in this specific context in Georgia. I think it is a need that female directors have. I don't know how much openness there is from the audience to really engage with this point of view, the female point of view, but for me, it is very important to put forward the experiences that I had, or my sisters had, or my mother and grandmother. I grew up in a family that consisted of many women. I can only tell stories that are personal to me. Not necessarily autobiographical. But I need to make them personal. I need to have a personal connection. And this is the world I have a personal connection to.

You make a lot of bold choices in the film, including using the 1:33 aspect ratio and shooting even very brutal scenes — like the rape scene or the firebombing attack on the Kingdom Hall at the beginning of the movie, in long uncut takes. What's behind those aesthetic decisions?

For me, this film is about looking. I struggled a lot with creating this very elaborate soundscape. Because I really wanted to invite the audience to look. Even in the most confronting, or uncomfortable moments of the film. I really wanted the audience to look at what is happening in front of them. I think that is the most challenging aspect for me as a director, how much do we really know, or really see, of what is really happening in front of us, without constantly intellectualizing or framing to try to explain it but to first look and to see and maybe to think about it later.

Why did you choose the 1:33 aspect ratio, which boxes your characters into the frame?

I did the framing to center and to direct the viewer's point of view. Especially in the mise en scene, how the characters always move around the camera. But of course, it also creates a claustrophobic sense, it locks you in the frame. And, especially because the camera almost never moves in the film, I knew it would not be very comfortable for the audience to watch all the shots, but I thought it would succeed. And I'm very happy to see the audience able to engage and really go along with the film. But the most important thing for me was to direct the attention of the audience within each scene.

But did you also want to use it to reflect the world Yana lives in, because she's also...

Trapped? In a way, yes. But I think I could have shown that without this aspect ratio. Of course, everything works in different layers. And cinema is never one thing: I would never say 'look at this frame, this is what I want to say with it.' I would prefer to have more openness with how we look at it. Honestly speaking, I don't really want to talk too much about it, because I think when we talk about cinema or talk about the media in general, we need to consider how much the audience's ability to look, or the ways of perception, has changed with the new media, with Instagram, Facebook, everything around us. I think we don't think enough about what affects all these images are having on how people look, or how people see. For me it is interesting.

For this film I was really thinking: how do I create an image where the audience, their eye, will wander and where the eye will also be directed to something different? I always wanted to leave the freedom to the audience to explore what's happening. That's also maybe the perspective of the main character too. Because she is so trapped in her world, she is also exploring, and trying to understand, what is happening around her.

Theaters are closed or are closing again, in much of the world. How do you feel that most people likely won't see your first feature in theaters but on the small screens of computers or mobile phones?

I accept that this is how it is going to be. I think for now it is very important for me for the film to be seen in one way or another. And I think now as we go again into lockdown, we need movies, we need stories to watch. And sooner or later theaters will reopen. I don't make films to be watched only now, right? I hope that the time will come when people will also be able to see Beginning on a big screen, but for now, it's fine. I'm very happy that people will be able to watch this film in their homes.