A woman lies on a leaf-strewn patch of grass, shaded by trees, as dappled sunlight warms her face. Her eyes are closed, tranquil, and for the six or so minutes that director Dea Kulumbegashvili fixes the camera on her, she appears to sink deeper into a restful state, so peaceful and so still it could almost resemble death. In an otherwise isolating world, this character, Yana, finds a moment of solitude that allows her to embrace the beauty and sensuality of her surroundings. In her everyday life she is a wife and mother, reining in her desires to be anything more. When she opens her eyes again, it is as if a new day has begun.
In Beginning (2020), there is the possibility of starting again for a woman like Yana. Kulumbegashvili navigates conflict in a quiet, provincial town for both the local Jehovah’s Witness community as a whole and Yana individually, who struggles with her personal discontent in the face of societal pressures. When the religious group is attacked by those who see them as outcasts, a detective with little desire to help them arrives to investigate. The arrival of the detective is a critical rupture point for Yana; his intrusion invites an erotic tension into her life that swiftly transforms into something more dangerous. His interrogation of Yana is at once intimate and invasive as he probes her relationship with her husband and she contends with her conflicting feelings towards his predatory nature. Throughout the film, forces of love and violence, both in familial, sexual and societal circumstances, are held in constant balance.
Kulumbegashvili pairs visual beauty on screen with formal techniques that illustrate the abrupt nature of brutality. All static frames and vast landscapes, sweeping skies and granular details of the earth, Beginning is a beautifully constructed tale of coarseness and sorrow in the life of a woman desperate to explore her own desires and embrace the sensual. The world Yana occupies is harsh and unforgiving, but she must find a way out. What does it mean to be a woman who longs for everything she has been denied? How drastic and dangerous her actions could be in order to claim it all back?
Caitlin Quinlan: In Beginning, I feel that there is an erotic tension and ambiguity between Yana and the subsequently dangerous detective early on in the film. Do you feel the erotic plays an important role in this film?
Dea Kulumbegashvili: The film cer-tainly does have a subtext of the erotic or eroticism, or at least of a desire that’s not fully known to the main character. Yana is confronting her own desires and for the first time in her life, she feels a strong yearning and she doesn’t know what to make of it. It’s strange because when I was working on the production of the film, I was in Mexico and the women assisting in the editing process were really commenting on how attractive the detective was, when watching the rough cuts. I found that troubling because, obviously, what he does is not attractive in any way. I think that any sexual relationship relates to a fantasy and eroticism has to do with all the fantasies each viewer convokes simultaneously. After this film, I started to become more and more interested in the subject of attraction and the erotic. I’m currently working on something which explores desire and the senses more profoundly. The question, to me, is: what do we want? And how can we really know our desires? Because once we know them, they are not a fantasy nor a desire anymore.
Caitlin: That idea of the sensory is definitely present in Beginning in lots of ways, particularly in the visual language of the film, the textures of the landscape, the colours of the sky.
Dea: I don’t like to think about symbolism and I always refuse to focus on a symbol because it’s almost like a reduction of what it stands for. I would rather just look at what is in front of me. On the other hand, an image is a space, always. An image in our mind is a space because it leads us to another space or to something else which already exists in our mind. So, I think cinema has a very strange relationship with the viewer because it’s not just moving images, and it’s not as concrete as we like to think it is. It’s much more abstract. And I’m talking about cinema which is more author driven, I’m not talking about cinema where everything is only what it is seen and even there, our relationship with what is on screen is a connection to our fantasies or with something that already exists in our own mind or you know, a world. In that regard, when people tell me that my film is very controlled, I find it funny because I think the attempt to control an image is a way to create space, which would then lead to something which I can’t control at all. And I would not want to control it! Because it’s also about the space of the viewer, and I mean to respect that space. I believe everyone who watches the film has their own personal relationship with images. Nature … it is what it is! Because, you know, everyone gives a meaning coming from their own personal experiences and who they are. If I would give it a meaning, it would lose a purpose and its meaning, immediately.
Caitlin: Yes, so much of the so-called ‘meaning’ in Beginning cannot be found in the film itself. It’s buried in the off-screen moments or in what is missing from the images. The dynamic between Yana and her husband, for example, feels defined by lack, particularly a lack of eroticism or romance. Their son sleeps in their bed and we only learn about their sex life through the detective’s interrogation.
Dea: When I was creating the couple in Beginning, I thought that they do love each other and that love mostly comes from their place of isolation from the rest of society. They’re two really lonely people trying to hold on to each other. That’s why that love is so suffocating and tragic because I have always been convinced that these two people love each other in whatever way that they can. I think the subject of love, even though it’s not always directly related to the subject of eroticism, is interesting because I don’t see love as something necessarily delightful. Love is a much more complex subject. When we were working on the film, I was asking my actors: what do you think about this couple? Do they have sex? And they were convinced that yes, they do. They find the place and the time for it. I think cinema, in many ways, creates a false image of life. In mainstream cinema, the biggest problem for me is that love is not necessarily related to happiness, as it is often depicted. Love is not thoroughly something delightful, kind, or something that brings good to everyone, and intimacy doesn’t mean that people go to bed and have sex at night. I mean, we’re adults and we know that this representation of love and intimacy has nothing to do with life.
…I think violence is random and even when it’s planned it comes in as random to the lives of those who experience those attacks…
Caitlin: I wanted to ask about the use of violence as a vehicle in Beginning, both in terms of the sexual violence that occurs and also in relation to the formal techniques of the film. The static images of the film are interrupted by violent acts that arrive, again, from off-screen.
Dea: It’s part of the fabric because I was thinking about the subject of violence and it doesn’t need a set-up for me. I don’t need to set up an act of violence because again, going back to life, nobody thinks that ‘Okay, I need an introduction and then, I need to do this and then, I’m going to throw a fireball into the house.’ I think violence is random and even when it’s planned, it comes randomly into the lives of those who experience those attacks. That randomness is part of what constitutes the violence. We do live with violence in our everyday life and I think that, perhaps, we don’t really pay that much attention to it. Then the subject of violence is so deep, like love, so complex. Education is a form of violence and love is a form of violence to me too. Then, how do you distinguish and separate them? Which one is more important? We really don’t know because I think, in life, we can only talk and make sense of certain events in retrospect. If we look back, we can make sense of things, but we can’t really make sense of those things while they’re happening, so that was my aim in the film. I wanted things to happen and to accumulate. Because I think that when you’re present and engaged while watching a film, things accumulate and perhaps, you start to make sense of a film looking back, once it’s over. Not everything is explained and given to the viewer. It’s not an illustration, a movie just happens.
I grew up in the town where the film was made and I still spend a lot of time there. At least half the year I live there and my family lives there too. In the 90s, when I was a child and then, when I was a teenager, it was a place of extreme violence. It’s on the border with Azerbaijan and a lot of drug trafficking was going through this town. As a child, I did see and hear many acts of violence and they were always so … They didn’t make any sense. I don’t think anyone could ever be prepared. Even us, knowing that we were so exposed to violence, and that it was so dangerous to go out after 6, we still never felt prepared. You could never expect it. Something really bad happened after I finished working on the film, a sexual assault, which happened in the area of this river in the forest. It was very difficult for me because I started to think that I just finished shooting this film here because I know those things happen exactly in this place. So, cinema cannot really prevent or warn of anything. Things just happen and you feel really powerless and at the same time, you understand that there is nothing. I don’t have any grandiose views of my film because I don’t think I can change much or prevent anything.
Caitlin: What you describe seems to be quite an isolating experience, and it is very present in the film: to be surrounded by what you can’t change or prepare for.
Dea: Yes, and being isolated is also a form of violence. When I was finishing the post-production of the film, the entire world was under so many restrictions, so we could not go out and there was curfew everywhere. So, I started to think about isolation as a form of violence. It was strange because I did not really think that much about it while I was making the film. That’s a set-up for the main character because Yana is willing and ready to accept more because she lives in everyday acts of violence, which society directs towards her.
Caitlin: How do you view Yana’s relationship to guilt? Perhaps there’s a more religious suggestion there, for women who are destined to inherit a legacy of guilt for their actions. Yana seems eager to reject this, particularly at the end of the film when she commits a violent act that she is solely responsible for and therefore creates a guilt that is entirely her own.
Dea: Thematically, the film deals a lot with the subject of our culture, which is really influenced by religion, and especially by Christianity. We might not really be religious now, but the culture itself is based and heavily influenced by it. I don’t criticise religion because I think it should be a matter of choice, but I did grow up with a sense of guilt, that’s certain. When I went to live in New York, I made friends who are Jewish or Muslim, all the brilliant women who studied with me at Columbia University, were constantly dealing with a sense of guilt. At that time, I started to understand that maybe with Abrahamic religions somehow, it’s in our DNA.
As a contemporary woman, when you talk about the subject of emancipation and empowerment, you do deal with these external processes like equal pay or our legal rights. But internal processes are separate and we can’t just wake up tomorrow and say that: starting today, I’m getting rid of the sense of guilt and I don’t feel guilty anymore for being successful. I always come back to Georgia because I can’t make films without it.
The relationship I have to my country is still unresolved and really complex. As a successful woman, you deal with isolation because you feel guilty for who you are because it goes against who you should be. And in that regard, I’m really blessed for having huge support from my family, which consists of mostly women by the way.
To come back to the subject of sexuality and eroticism, you’re guilty for being a woman, of course, because you’re the one who seduces and you’re the one who’s guilty of being raped, and you cannot argue about it because it’s not going to change anything. I hope we can start to include younger women in the process of working and seeing that you can be someone on your own, be beautiful and have your own life and not be ashamed of your desires. That’s how things can truly change!
Caitlin: Do you consider your short films that came before Beginning to be thematically linked with the film? In your first short, Invisible Spaces (2014), a mother deals with the psychological costs of patriarchal oppression and your second short, Lethe (2016), explores the connection between love and violence for children at an early age.
Dea: Both of my short films are thematically about the same thing and I think my new film is going to be about the same thing again, which is ‘I don’t know how to deal with this.’ What does that say about me as a director? I am concerned about the subject of desire and the question of what do we want? I think what we want is usually quite simple. In Invisible Spaces, a woman wants to have a job. It’s as simple as that. And for me, those simple things need to be listened to because: how can you have any desires more profound and complex, when the simple, necessary things you want are always prohibited? You cannot really want anything. So, then you suppress. I think that the life of a woman can sometimes be a one long process of self-suppression, which can involve suppressing everything that you might want to do intuitively, that’s your personality. I think it’s the most tragic thing you can experience. Even in New York, my friends also experience this painful process: to start to get to know yourself and to accept this dreadful sense of desiring something because it’s dreadful for so many women to want something.
Caitlin: I’m curious about your work with children in Lethe and your thoughts on such a suppression beginning in youth?
Dea: That’s specifically what makes me feel the most powerless and the most useless at the same time. When I look at children and I see things which I wish to be able to prevent. When I am casting children, they’re not actors and all come from the villages where we’re filming. I always want to work with people who come from these villages, and I go from one school to another with special permission from the Ministry of Education so I can enter each class of the age group and really talk to the children for maybe fifteen minutes. For the movie Lethe, I went to thirty-seven schools, and saw maybe hundreds of children. There is something tragic when I witness how innocence is lost. For example, when a boy commits an act of violence in the film, I think it’s tragic because there is no way to go back to what he could have been. He’s not guilty of it because he is not aware of what he has done, the act of violence, and he doesn’t know what would have been if he had not done it. When the children come to work with me, I start to rewrite the scenes while working with them because I want it to be based on improvisation and based on how they talk to me. And it’s always really based on each child in a film, how they are and I can see how they lie. They lie and they try to be what they think is good, and it’s already buried so deeply in everything they learn, and you cannot do anything. Like what can I do? That creates a lot of guilt also for me.
Caitlin: How did you work with Nicolás Jaar on the Beginning score? His blend of orchestral and electronic compositions adds such a sense of looming threat and an ominous atmosphere.
Dea: Nico is a friend and I’m very inspired by his work. He’s very demanding to himself and he’s always engaged in a thought process, he’s always thinking. For me, what really matters is the possibility to include someone in the process and to become part of the process of this person, as well. He was really involved in Georgia and in Mexico in the process of production. He was one of the first people who joined the film. He was in Georgia one year before I even started to shoot so we were already researching some things for the film in terms of sound. Nico is an incredibly successful person and he has no problem redoing everything a hundred times. By redoing, I mean doing something new again. First, when we created a score, we created a lot of sound which was more musical for the entire film and then, he said, ‘No, you should not use it.’ We did a lot on the creation of textures and then, for the scene in the forest, when Yana lies down. When we talk about sound, specifically, because it’s so intangible, I don’t know what’s real and what’s not real. Regarding the image, everything is real, as much as it is not real when it’s in the film already.
Caitlin: Where did the title Beginning come from?
Dea: When I was in the process of production of the film, I was constantly going back to this phrase from the Bible: ‘In the beginning there was a Word and the Word was God.’ I didn’t know why I was so obsessed with this sentence. Every day, I was going to my cinematographer and telling him that I think there is a title in this phrase but I just don’t know what it is. He said, ‘I think so too.’ And then he said, ‘Okay this film is called Beginning.’ The questions were: is it a beginning or is it an end for Yana? Where is the real beginning for her? Is it when the film starts or when it ends? It also goes into the larger perspective of who are we as humans? I think we’re always in the process of beginning, and it’s always the beginning of something which is an ending at the same time. You know, the naivest question I had as a child popped up when I was taken to the church. I would always ask a teacher: ‘Who was the wife of a priest?’ ‘What was before the beginning?’ That was such a naive question which no one could ever really answer but I do remember that I was always obsessed by this because it felt like a lie. To me, everything was a lie if nobody knew what was before.