The Oscars select and Luca Guadagnino-approved debut feature from Dea Kulumbegashvili follows the wife of a Jehovah’s Witness leader in the aftermath of an extremist attack
There’s a Bulgakovian quality to Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s debut feature, Beginning. The protagonist Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) is the wife of a Jehovah’s Witness leader whose world is literally set ablaze, when an extremist group sets fire to their Kingdom Hall. But this is just the genesis of a devastating, striking film. When an unnamed detective visits her home, Yana, who’s already experiencing a crisis of faith, is plunged further into a state of shock and disbelief. In this provocative examination of trauma, religious conflict, and intolerance, the polarities of good and evil are called into question. Kulumbegashvili’s film might be a slow burner, but the devil’s in the details.
The film debuted back in September at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI international critics prize, and scooped awards for best film, best director, best screenplay, and best actress at the San Sebastián International Film Festival. Jury president Luca Guadagnino called it “a revelation, a moment of authentic cinema that fills the screen with flames”. Cannes selected it as part of its Official Selection in 2020, before it was cancelled due to the pandemic, while in April, Beginning will compete for best international feature at the Oscars – Georgia’s second-ever submission in the category.
From the opening moments, Kulumbegashvili uses long, painterly shots as we glimpse into Yana’s inner world. The film begins in the prayer house, where Yana’s husband David (Rati Oneli) is reading a sermon about Abraham and Isaac. When a succession of Molotov cocktails come crashing through the windows, it sparks a chain of events that form the ‘beginning’ of Yana’s descent.
“When we think about characters in cinema, it’s seductive to have these big external conflicts that you can follow, to talk about the bigger ideas or ideologies. But for me, it’s more interesting to talk about internal conflict,” Kulumbegashvili tells me over Zoom call. Where Kulumbegashvili could’ve focused on the high-stakes action of the extremist group, or followed David on his mission to build a new prayer house, she instead chooses to focus on Yana, who spends most of the film confined to the areas around her home.
A claustrophobic 1:33 frame is used to amplify her isolation, quite literally boxing her off from the action taking place around her. Sometimes this is paired with off-camera dialogue, or fixed camera positions in which the relevant action can be happening very far away. Locked in its rectangular grip, you find yourself caught in the crossfire between anticipating what’s outside the frame and worrying for the woman inside it.
A former actor, Yana has given up her career to support her husband in a small town at the foot of the Caucasus mountains. Stuck in between religious and patriarchal forces, any efforts to establish her autonomy are ignored by husband, despite the sacrifices she made to be with him. Their one-sided narrative is captured early-on when Yana insists that she doesn’t recognise herself in the mirror anymore, saying, “life goes by as if I weren’t there”, to which David replies, “You knew you couldn’t be an actress and my wife at the same time”.
“I wanted to examine the power structures and power dynamics within society, and then, within the microcosm of the family,” says Kulumbegashvili. “This woman already lives in a marginalised community, but what is the power dynamics within this group?”
“When we think about characters in cinema, it’s seductive to have these big external conflicts that you can follow, to talk about the bigger ideas or ideologies” – Dea Kulumbegashvili
Early scenes like this are enough to make you feel suffocated, but the arrival of an unnamed detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili) pushes this to the extreme. In one of the film’s many harrowing tableaux, the man interrogates Yana in her living room, mocking her status as both a woman and a cultural minority with invasive questions such as, “Does (your husband) prefer blowjobs or fucking you in the ass?” Even when her husband’s gone, Yana can’t escape the dominating patriarchal forces at work. “She’s perceived by both of the men as just the accessory in the power struggle that’s going on between them,” Kulumbegashvili explains. “I think neither of them really give her enough attention to know who she really is.”
While themes of faith and gender serve as necessary context to the film, neither is the central subject. Kulumbegashvili adopts a ‘show not tell’ approach that forensically studies Yana at a deliberately stifling and languorous pace – a technique that only exacerbates her growing discontent, leaving the audience to come to their own conclusions. The camera entraps Yana in its rectangular gaze, sometimes for minutes at a time. In one restrained study, she lies down on the forest floor for six minutes, her face so still that she could be dead. Kulumbegashvili challenges the viewer to look beyond the immediate action and into the mind of her subject, forcing you to interrogate for yourself the impact of external forces on Yana’s unravelling psyche.
“I wanted to bring everything down to essential and really try to contain time in the shot,” she says. “I wanted to create an image that’s an invitation to the audience to look at what's in front of you, because we see so many images every day, I'm not sure we’re really looking at them.”
Kulumbegashvili shot the film in her hometown Lagodekhi, at the foot of the Caucasus mountains. Most of the locations were filmed no more than 20 minutes away from where she grew up, while the characters are inspired by the sort of people she grew up around. “I grew up in a time of a civil war and really severe economic crisis so we never had electricity, like, quite literally never,” she says. “So I spent a lot of time outside in the streets and playing with other children. But it was not very safe. It was a secluded world of childhood, but there was a lot of violence around us.”
In the film’s climax, Yana encounters the detective by the river near her home in the dead of night, where he proceeds to violently rape her. The scene, which has already cause intense discussion in film circles, could easily be seen as exploitative. Watching it first, I physically shuddered. But the fixed camera, set at a predatory two-thirds distance that only intensifies the horror, leaves you questioning your role as the voyeur. “It was an absolute necessity for this scene to be in a film because we follow her life with such precision and in such mundane, everyday routines that I couldn’t walk away from this moment,” Kulumbegashvili explains. If this could be seen as a test of viewer endurance, it’s also devoid of any sensationalism. “I saw that I needed to take the distance, because what's happening in front of the camera, it doesn’t need anymore dramatisation.”
“I wanted to create an image that’s an invitation to the audience to look at what's in front of you, because we see so many images every day, I'm not sure we’re really looking at them” – Dea Kulumbegashvili
“I grew up like 20 minutes away from there,” she adds. “This river and the forest is really beautiful but at the same time, and especially in the 90s, it was a place where horrific things happened. During the day, it was beautiful, and we would go there to play as children. But we all knew that after 8PM, it wasn’t very safe for us to go there. Even now, it’s not very safe, unfortunately.”
What about the character of the detective, I ask Kulumbegashvili, is he pure evil? “He is evil by his nature and what he brings into the life of this woman, but I think that the system that he serves is a bigger evil, maybe who also somehow uses this person in a way,” she responds. He reminds me of Woland (the devil) in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, I tell her, in the way in which he appears in this woman’s life and sends her life into a tailspin.
“I was also thinking about Master and Margarita at some point,” she quips, before quoting the book’s opening extract, a quote by Faust that reads: “Who are you, then? / I am part of that power / which eternally wills evil / and eternally works good.”
In a way, Beginning can be seen as an extension of this philosophy. In the film’s mystifying coda, the detective lies down on the river bed until his body turns to stone, literally enmeshing itself with the surrounding nature. Just as with beginnings and endings, Kulumbegashvili blurs notions of good and evil together until they’re one and the same.
Beginning is available to watch on Mubi now