A version of this story about “Beginning” first appeared in the International Film Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
First-time director Dea Kulumbegashvili began her film career making short films at the New School and Columbia University in New York City, but for her first feature, she returned to the small town in Georgia (the country, not the state) where she grew up. The film, “Beginning,” is set in a rural community at the feet of the Caucasus Mountains, and follows a former actress who gave up her career to be with her Jehovah’s Witness husband.
In the film, which plays out in long tableaux with minimal editing, the lead character faces ostracization from the community, including a firebombing of the church, and abuse at the hands of a police detective who mocks, fondles and later rapes her. “Beginning” was chosen for the official selection at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, although the festival itself did not take place, and was later chosen as Georgia’s entry in the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category.
The style of the film is very distinctive, with the camera setting up in one spot and observing the action for long stretches without moving or cutting.
When I was writing the script, it was really important to decide: What am I trying to create, what are the spaces, how do the characters live? I wanted to grasp the essence of each moment of life of this woman. I didn’t think about it as a style — it was mostly a way to create a tableau, to invite the audience to look. I said to my cinematographer, “I want to make a film that invites people to really look at what is on the screen.”
What led you to this particular story?
I had been away from Georgia for a long time, because I studied in New York. And when I went back there at one point, there were people I saw that were relatives, but everyone was treating them like they were strangers. They had become Jehovah’s Witnesses, which they had not been when I lived there – and because of the choice of their religion, they were no longer accepted in the community that had been their home. It made me think about isolation and alienation, and I knew it could be a film.
Both in the religion and in the community, the main character has very little agency in her own life. Was that your experience growing up in Georgia?
Yes, but it’s not just Georgia, or not just this town. It’s very important to me to explore the so-called traditional narrative of cinema, where all the women are secondary characters. And growing up in this town, in school we were told, very straightforward, what the role of a woman was. I thought it was so extreme. And when I went to New York, I realized that women all over the world are dealing with the same problems to a certain degree. It’s not just the pain that women in my own country are going through.
The scenes in which she is harassed and then abused by a policeman are hard to watch, but the abuse scene, in particular, is filmed in a beautiful, bucolic setting and from a distance.
I always knew the assault would be filmed in real-time, but at the same time, I knew it would be shot from a distance. I didn’t want to cut it and emphasize anything. If the camera was closer, where do I position the audience? I wanted to create a distance, and I didn’t want to cut or emphasize anything. With what is happening on-screen, I hope that everyone can feel the terror of this moment, and I thought as a director I don’t need to emphasize anything. The audience knows what it’s watching.