‘As a Filmmaker I Cannot Romanticise Anything, Not Even the Oppressed’

Georgian filmmaker Dea Kulumbegashvili, whose powerful debut, ‘Beginning’, has a universal resonance, says that it is not only about looking at a woman in a marginalised community but also grasping the oppressive power dynamic which puts her on its periphery. 

In the director’s statement for her striking debut feature Beginning, Georgian writer-filmmaker Dea Kulumbegashvili writes about her protagonist: “As the character of Yana developed, I knew that the film would tell her story; not the story of her crime, but of her daily life, her routine, her normality, as well as the differences and nuances in her mundane routine.”

Writer-director Dea Kulumbegashvili. Photo: Arseni Khachaturan

It is these scenes of domesticity and the decay and degeneration lurking in them that would make Kulumbegashvili’s film, set in the small town of Lagodekhi, at the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, resonate anywhere in India. Didn’t we see something similar recently in Jeo Baby’s runaway Malayalam hit The Great Indian Kitchen?

Beginning, though, is several shades darker, more complex and relentlessly harrowing. A shattering tale about the suffocation a woman endures at home in the face of orthodoxy, and the oppression she faces both within her religious group and in the world at large, the film is universal at heart despite its cultural specificity.

Beginning takes a deep dive into the life of Yana, the wife of David, a leader of the religious denomination Jehovah’s Witness. At a time when her community is faced with the intolerance of the more dominant communities, Yana has her own personal demons to confront —thwarted desires and a weariness and discontent arising from her straitjacketed existence. Can she get past the roles of wife and mother that she is saddled with, to become her own person?

Add to this a stranger—Alex—who careens into her life out of nowhere and turns it upside down. So much so that unable to grasp the world around her, Yana questions her own being and her relationships as she faces a grave crisis of identity and faith. Will she be able to steer past the ideas of transgression, guilt and punishment to truly liberate herself from within?

Beginning is a beautifully crafted film that constantly seeks a visual equivalence for its protagonist’s unresolved emotions, seeing it as the appropriate ‘voice’ for the inner workings of her troubled mind. In doing so it demonstrates a rare cinematic eloquence to render Yana’s unfathomable trauma tactile.

Kulumbegashvili juxtaposes images of verdant nature outside with spartan and geometric frames of the interiors within which the film’s protagonist finds herself trapped. Long sequences with minimal dialogue get punctuated with an odd extended conversation. The filmmaker also consciously creates a disconnect between image and sound, frequently keeping the person who happens to be talking outside the frame, making the camera linger on the listener instead.

Kulumbegashvili caps the provocative film with a quietly devastating finale, which is as much about a loss of hope as it is about claiming agency – about taking control of one’s destiny even though one must pay a personal price for it.

Georgia’s official entry to the Oscars this year, Beginning started off on its journey to acclaim as part of Cannes Film Festival’s official selection for 2020, featuring in the competition section of the San Sebastian film festival and at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. It will be accessible to Indian, and global, audiences from today (January 29) when it starts streaming on MUBI. In an exclusive interview to The Wire on the eve of its online release, Dea Kulumbegashvili spoke about the idea behind the film, her craft as a filmmaker, the element of universality in her storytelling; the rise of religion and intolerance in a Georgia that had once been Communist before breaking away from the erstwhile Soviet Union; and what it is like to be branded strangers in your own country – themes that would resonate with Indian viewers as well. Excerpts from the interview: 

Still from the film ‘Beginning’: the contours of a straitjacketed existence.

A woman negotiating home, religion and the world outside – a confrontation at three levels. Was this structure consciously thought through? Does it stem from a real-life experience?

I was examining what it means to be a woman what does the feminine experience really mean in a particular society, with a particular structure? I also wanted to examine the power dynamics in this society. For me, it’s about a woman within a marginalised community [Jehovah’s Witness], but even within it, there is a power dynamic which puts her on the periphery of her own community.

I think cinema is personal. It is not [necessarily] autobiographical, but it is about familiar people, or things I know [about], that I [have] experienced or people I know have experienced.

I also think that we, as humans, deal with universal feelings. Things can be very specific, in a particular moment when they are happening. But how we relate to them emotionally, the feelings we have is a universal experience in a way.

You focus on religiosity in Georgia today. How did God and religion become central in a land that was once Communist?

In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was this sense of uncertainty, which was overwhelming. There was a civil war and an economic crisis, and I think that is when religion became very dominant in society because it provided a sense of hope. Or maybe, it supplemented something missing in society. It supplanted the state which was responsible for everything before that.

It is difficult for an individual to live in a world where you need to take control of your own life. And especially in Georgia in the 1990s, when we never had any electricity, it was difficult for parents to raise their children. So, in a way, the question of responsibility was really something that people struggled with. Now Georgia is very religious 99% of the population is Christian, Eastern Orthodox. The Georgian Christian Orthodox Church is the most popular and powerful institution in the country. More powerful than any political party.

Are you religious yourself? Spiritual? Or are you a non-believer? 

I think I am a spiritual person. But I question my own religious feelings every day because I grew up in the small town of Lagodekhi, where this film was made and, as a teenager, I was religious; I used to go to church almost every day. I even wanted to devote my life to the Church at some point.

When I started [going to] university, when I started to read more secular literature, more theory and theology, I started questioning things. My relationship with religion is complex and I think it will always be [so]. I am not a religious person, but I do have a relationship with religion which, it seems, will stay all my life.

How did you think of setting the film in the ambience of the religious denomination of Jehovah’s Witnesses?

I was studying in New York, in Columbia, and in the summer of 2014, I came back to Georgia to visit my father. My [extended] family was [also] visiting at the same time. And they had converted to Jehovah’s Witness. This is a religion which is very new to Georgia and I could see that the choice these people had made, something they truly believed in, had suddenly made them outsiders in the place they had grown up in. And, unlike me, they had never left the place. I myself was questioning them.

Then there was my own sense of alienation. I was questioning if it was [ever] possible to come back home. What is home? What does it mean to belong?

Somehow, I started to connect with these people. [I] started talking to them, looking at their lives. This group itself is oppressed by the dominant communities around it and they [the members] live in isolation. But when I was looking at the group I realised that as a director I cannot romanticise anything, [not] even the oppressed. I needed to see things for what they are and somehow engage with their power dynamics, no matter what.

What is your process of filmmaking like?

In the process of writing [a script] I like to spend a lot of time in the place I am going to film it [in]. [It’s] because I need to know the people. In my film, there are three professional actors, and the rest are all people from Lagodekhi.

I believe in the viewer. I trust my audience. I believe that people connect with the image or what is happening on screen. It’s really strange – whether you go to India or Georgia or Mexico, somehow, we deal with the same experiences.

How did cinema come to you? Were you interested in it as a child?

I grew up during the civil war. I was [living] in a small town [Lagodekhi] that is close to the border with Azerbaijan. It was a far eastern town of Georgia, so I was in the periphery of even Georgia. Even the war didn’t really reach us in a way. Of course, we never had any electricity, there was no food, there was much hardship [experienced by] society.

And then there was this beautiful forest and the mountains. I believe I had a happy childhood. But I did not see films. I am not sure if I was fully aware about the existence of cinema. It was something that came into my life in glimpses. There would be electricity on new year’s eve and we would watch three-fourths of a film and then there would be a blackout! My relationship with cinema was somehow connected with holidays and celebrations because that’s when we had electricity.

Still from the film ‘Beginning’: the idea of motherhood that defines and constrains

I was, in fact, reading a lot. The town, even then, had an incredible library. We would go there, bring Kafka home. Having human relationships and connections is the most important thing I have experienced. It was what brought me to cinema. Then, when I was around 20, [studying] in university, I started watching films. It was like an explosion in my life because everything started to make sense somehow.

There is lush nature in your film but also a frugality — spartan frames, long sequences without much dialogue. I was also struck by the disconnect between image and sound. How much of your craft is drawn from your life and experiences?

The house of the main character in the film is three minutes away from the house I grew up in. Behind that house is the river and the mountain. As a child, I grew up in the forest. My relationship with nature is not romantic at all even though I grew up so close to it. I can’t live without it but somehow there is this feeling that nature does not care; it is, in fact, indifferent. Nature is beautiful – [but] all this beauty has significance and importance because we see it and appreciate it; nature itself doesn’t intend to be beautiful. It is what it is.

Sonic experiences, our relationship with the image, the relationship between sound and image are very important to me. All the new media and digital media, the audio-visual material we are surrounded with every day, that affects the way we see things or the way we hear things. I am very interested in contemporary art, video art and sound installations.

I also think that image and sound are not always connected. Sometimes the disconnect is more interesting for me. I always question—where is the place of the audience? [If] everything is given – this is what it is, this is what you hear, this is what you see, this is what is really happening – there are no other ways of interpreting [left for the viewer]. [Then] what’s my place as a viewer? It makes the viewer passive. I would rather have a more active viewing experience. I would like the audience to be more involved in the process of experiencing the film.

In the film, you also seem to be hitting at the conventional deification of motherhood.

Motherhood is the most complex notion and the most complex position for a woman to be in. To look at it without romanticising, to look at it for what it is – we don’t always manage to do that. Look at animals. For them, giving birth to a new life is not sacred; it’s a natural process. But we [humans] give it so much importance. It is about recognising you as a woman, yet, at the same time, constraining you in this role forever.

Still from the film ‘Beginning’: Facing the decisive point of no return.

The climax of Beginning is unimaginably tragic for Yana and yet extremely powerful. How did you weave in this duality? 

It is a moment of [complete] transformation for Yana. It is an act of agency as well, about taking responsibility for her own life.

This film, for me, is about the points of no return. Usually, in cinema, we think that there is one point of no return in the [entire] drama but I think in life it is different [where there are] a series of points of no return. Maybe when Yana reaches [the decisive] point, she transforms into someone else or, perhaps, into who she [really] is, who she always was.

Namrata Joshi is an independent writer and well-known film critic. She is the author of Reel India: Cinema Off the Beaten Track (Hachette 2019).