• Golden Globe Awards

Beginning (Georgia/France) – interview with Dea Kulumbegashvili

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s debut eludes definitive characterizations. For each thought or feeling that may be generated by it, there will be another to counteract it. On the outside, one can say that this is a film about religious persecution as experienced by a Jehovah’s Witness community in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Yet, the viewer will quickly find out that external events are just the backdrop for the internal drama of a woman who feels on the precipice of change, as she puts it: “It’s as if I’m waiting for something to start, or to end”. Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) is David’s wife, the community leader played by co-writer Rati Oneli, and Georgi’s (Saba Gogichaishvili) loving mother. While her husband is looking for a new home for the community after a firebomb attack, she encounters an abusive man who poses as a police detective. Her conflicted emotions unleash the forces of silent chaos within her, eventually leading her to unfathomable actions. Yet, the film never plunges into the nitty-grittiness of realism but maintains a translucent surface throughout. Thus, even a horrific ending will be filled with the possibility of a new beginning.
There are some really still moments in the film when for example Yana sleeps in the forest and there is a single ray of the sun crossing his body. These moments connect us to something ineffable. Was this your intention?
The shot of Yana in the forest was planned differently but I was unable to grasp it. Then I was just walking around, looking at the light and how it was changing. I understood that this was what I needed to film. I just needed her to lay down and wait for the light to change on her face… In nature, the light and sound change, and in these moments the director needs to step back to allow for something that’s intangible to happen on the screen. I don’t know what my participation was in that moment. I was just there… But when I saw it in the footage, I understood that it was a transformative moment for the character.
In what way?
The audience connects with (the heroine) through the story, but eventually, the story becomes irrelevant. Then, the audience has the chance to go into their thoughts and allow the character to go into her thoughts. I don’t need to say specifically what transforms in her, but (the moment in the forest) gives the audience the space to interpret what’s happening in the character. I think in those moments audiences are more active.
I felt very strongly that your film was about the sacredness and the violation of sacredness. We see the violation of one’s faith, of womanhood and of motherhood as well.
I was always convinced that this (film) is not a portrait but about the life of this woman. When you look at life, it is holistic, it is everything at the same time. When we think of sacredness, we think of something divine that is not from our life… To me, it’s all material. It’s how we live in the material world, and maybe that is the beauty of life. The value of life is… life itself. And perhaps that’s what we’re missing out on… we don’t fully emotionally connect. Maybe this is the purpose of cinema, to grasp the moments which we are unable to grasp in life somehow… Sacredness cannot exist without the violation of it and its constant journey to the point of no return. And I think that’s how life is. It’s not about one point that changes everything.
The places in your film, the river, the flowers that grow there, and the forest, seem to have special meaning.
(The film was shot) in the town where I grew up. The house where the character lives is literally a 3-minute walk from the house where I grew up. And this is the forest where we used to go almost every day as children. It’s an incredibly beautiful place – every day the landscape is different – and, at the same time, it is a place of violence, especially during the civil war (1988-1992). You’d hear that something horrible happened, but then the next day you went for a walk, and nature was as beautiful as it was yesterday. I just knew it was all part of one thing.
The film is about Jehovah’s Witnesses. Are you part of this community?
No, I’m not part of it, but I know some people who are related to my family and who have converted to the faith. It’s a very delicate subject in Georgia because they do live in a hostile environment. But I, as a director, could not idealize it at the same time. It could be any community really.
Did you feel that your heroine is torn between her place in that community and perhaps a visceral attraction to the perpetrator of violence? The question came to me when I saw the character going out to meet him.
Even while I was writing the script, everyone had this question. I felt this connection to the character and knew that she was going to go out on her own. I knew that (her action) was connected to some instinctual desire, some need within her. I was questioning why she was doing this. When we talk about who we are, perhaps we need to consider where we come from and what choices we think we have … And I knew that this was the hopeless, painful journey of this woman, which I needed to capture. I needed to capture her truthful experience.
The film has a very drastic end, with a criminal action by your character. Why did you choose it?
I started (the script) by writing the end. While I was writing there was a court case of a woman in Georgia who committed the same crime as in the film. I was following the hearings very closely. She could not explain why she did what she did. Talking about this woman was painful because she was like all of us. She grew up in a small town, she was committed to her family, but then she did something that completely wiped out who she thought she was. Perhaps it was for her a moment or reinvention. And it was an epic moment for me to witness (what I was writing about) in real life. You cannot explain it. There are crimes that you cannot explain. And I knew I would not be able to rationalize it, but had to convey the life of this woman.
Why did you use the very still visual style and 4×3 square aspect ratio to tell this story?
I wanted to create this box through which I would ask the audience to look. I wanted to direct the audience’s attention so that they would really look at what is in front of them. And to ask the audience for patience. In the world we live, with all the audiovisual materials around us, do we really see? So, I wanted to create these tableaus that were meant for the big screen especially. Also, I wanted to capture the time of this woman’s life. We spent a lot of time in the town with the cinematographer because I wanted him to grasp how the time flows there.