Savina Petkova talks to Dea Kulumbegashvili about her award-winning film Beginning, formalist aesthetics, and the importance of unknowability.
Director Dea Kulumbegashvili grew up in the small, picturesque town of Lagodekhi, Georgia, at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. Her debut feature film, Beginning (Georgian: Dasatskisi), is informed by questions of community, religion, and (not) belonging inspired by this upbringing. It follows the experience of local wife and mother, Yana (a brilliantly restrained Ia Sukhitashvili), as someone tied to a small Georgian village’s socio-political and religious structures.
The film’s executive producer is slow cinema icon, Carlos Reygadas, which establishes certain expectations about what the film is going to look and feel like. Indeed, Kulumbegashvili’s aesthetic perfectionism shines through from the opening sequence; in a 10-minute static shot, we watch Jehovah’s Witnesses gather at the local Kingdom Hall, only for it to be disrupted by a firebomb terrorist attack. With subtle sound work by none other than Nicolas Jaar—a close collaborator of the filmmaker—and controlled camerawork by Arseni Khachaturan, the film entices with its succinct imagery, every long take and respective cut resembling audio-visual gestures opening up towards the viewer.
The film swept last year’s San Sebastian edition, making history as the first Main Competition entry to take home Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress awards in the festival’s 68 year history. As part of the Cannes-2020 labeled films, Beginning made its rounds through TIFF, NYFF, IFFR, and is now part of MUBI UK’s permanent library.
We got the chance to talk to Dea during IFFR, and we spent an hour discussing her approach to filmmaking in the most imaginative (and unexpected) ways. As the conversation progressed, it became easy to recognise the recurring patterns of thought, interlaced: freedom and limits, time and space, and, last but not least, life and cinema.
electric ghost: I want to avoid what most of the interviews have been rehashing: the themes of violence, feminism, and slow cinema. Not because I think they’re less important, but I think your film provides many more ways for approaching important issues. I’m very excited to speak to you about ethics, womanhood, motherhood and more…
Dea Kulumbegashvili: (Laughs) Thank you for that.
I want to start with the question of belonging and a bit of anthropology. I was wondering how one approaches a group that one doesn’t belong to, without being sidelined or marginalised? I feel like there can be some danger in the idea of “objectivity” associated with such an approach.
Well I think, clearly, it’s a complex question when you’re working with a group. But… since I grew up in this town, I do belong to the town in a way. I didn’t want to make a film about religion, or a film that explores religion’s dynamics in a dogmatic way. But I wanted to make a film about people. On that level, I could relate; I do know these people at a human level. I wanted to step back from questioning my moral decisions, or generalising. And from the anthropological side of it… I don’t know. I spend a lot of time in this town, even now, whenever I’m in Georgia. This is where I am, in this town. This is the place where my family lives. So it wasn’t a question of ethics in that sense, it’s more like talking from the insider’s point of view.
I see what you mean about the personal involvement, and I also see the filmmaker’s role as you see it because what you’re describing to me seems like a melding of an observer and a participant. But would you agree that the filmmaker is either an observer or a creator, or maybe another thing?
I think it’s both at the same time. In life, we’re all observers and creators at the same time, no matter what we do. Even when working your everyday job, we’re observers and creators of our own lives, but also of the community and the life around us. At the same time we, as filmmakers, may be something else; maybe our duty consists in allowing something to go through us, in a way. It’s not only our point of view that we transfer; it’s also that of all the people whom we work with. Not just the townspeople, but also all the outsiders I’ve brought in—many of my collaborators are not even Georgian.
That was an important aspect for me because I was interested enough and sensitive enough to also be looking through their eyes, and relating to their experiences, too. We all participate in the process together. For example, when people see a director— especially a female director—go to a place like this (and in Georgia in general, being a director is not an obvious choice, not for a woman at least, especially in small towns, and growing up there, it’s unimaginable)—and I start talking about everything that women can do… I don’t want to take this position, I don’t want to preach. But if I am confronted—it happens on set, or by locals—about the fact that I’m a woman, I don’t avoid the conversation. Even when I know it’s wrong and judgemental, I’ll still engage in conversation because maybe someone next to me needs that. I can’t shy away from that type of conversation because that’s the moment when you’re supposed to take on a superior position and that’s not where I would feel comfortable. But as a director, you’re still mostly a mediator.
“Active viewing, or the active viewer, is very important to me. Because I know that we, as humans, don’t need to know much about each other in order to connect and empathise.”
Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili, 2020, Georgia).
Yes! I think “mediator” is just the right word, and especially with your work, since Beginning encompasses many hidden viewpoints. I’m also curious how all of this is then transposed over the process of narration and telling stories. Since narration in particular can structure spectatorial positions and how we perceive the film—thinking of the criticism classical Hollywood suffered from, and the more disruptive style of arthouse films—how would you describe your approach? I feel it’s a very particular one.
I think cinema, everywhere in the world, has its own codes. It’s almost like a sign language we all relate to. But I don’t believe in it. I feel that it’s just not true, and the moment I start engaging in those codes I can’t relate anymore. It becomes so much of a fiction that there is no space left for me to feel empathy towards the characters. And then we talk about, “Okay, maybe it’s for entertainment”, but I’m not entertained either. If I wanted that, I’d go out for a walk. So what is this then? What is storytelling? Then you question what the story is.
Yesterday, with [a friend], we started to talk about the ways people communicate, I ended up with this idea: so, if you imagine the first humans sitting somewhere in their cave while someone is telling a story, without a vast vocabulary, every word had perhaps many meanings, but every word would also resonate with each person in the cave, like a different image or emotion. So even with a very limited vocabulary, there are always so many fields of meaning belonging to each individual engaged in the process. I do believe that storytelling is not one-way communication; it’s not just the director telling you a story, but you as viewer or listener are actively participating. Because it resonates with you, opening something which is only yours in that given moment. Or it would be just a piece of information, which is not storytelling. I don’t know if this sounds clear now but the more I think about it, I think that active viewing, or the active viewer, is very important to me. Because I know that we, as humans, don’t need to know much about each other in order to connect and empathise. I even think that the more we know, when things become too specific, we can’t fully connect anymore.
This is a great point actually, and it takes me to the question of ethics I wanted to discuss. The philosopher Stanley Cavell conceptualises certain classical Hollywood melodramas as films about the “unknown woman”. Even if Beginning is far off from that genre, I wonder if you would like to comment on that idea?
I had a chance to briefly touch upon this in the NYFF post-screening Q&A. I think that viewers demand the right to know a character—to know everything. It’s almost like the viewers are superior to that which happens on screen, and the character owes us some kind of clarity. But that’s just a wrong perception of the whole relationship. Because, really, even the people we know well, like family members, how much do we really know them? We can’t fully know anyone, so why demand that of a character on screen? We don’t even know ourselves!
My sister called me today, while I was thinking about my next project I’m writing, and I find a lot of things inspiring at the moment. She told me that, since now all my family lives together in my grandmother’s country house because of COVID, when she woke up, our grandmother was sitting in the living room, crying. Everyone got worried, of course, and started asking her why she is crying. And she said: “I’m crying because my arm really hurts because of my arthritis and I was unable to clean the floor.” So was she crying because of pain? Since she was clearly in pain. Was she crying because she was worried she couldn’t clean the floor? Or is it because the moment she’s unable to clean the floor and participate in the daily routines she’d lose her function in life? Somehow for her this would mean giving her life away. So, there are so many reasons, but do we need to know just one to have an answer? Or, the fact of her crying includes something which is even bigger than these three reasons. Just seeing this older woman early in the morning in the living room sitting alone and crying opens up for me such an emotional space, that there is not a single reason that would fully explain why. Maybe yesterday she was in pain because of arthritis but she wasn’t crying. So we don’t fully know. I think the character’s right to opacity— for me—it’s necessary.
Yes, exactly. Yana, the film’s protagonist, resists all the familiar ways to be known or understood, and avoids the more generalised lines of female emancipation.
When I was writing this script, the first thing I wrote was the scene with Yana at the table, saying what she’s done to her son before then turning away. I thought, “Okay, so she turns away, everything else happens off-screen, and we as an audience, because of the language of cinema, we expect that she will turn to face us, we can even demand it.” But no. I think this is precisely where she reclaims her agency, not only in the film, not only in the narrative, but at a larger scale. That’s when cinema becomes something bigger than just a story or a narrative.
“I take equal interest in, I don’t know, reading Heidegger and my grandmother’s morning. It’s all somehow part of one fabric for me.”
Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili, 2020, Georgia). Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili).
In a way, her refusal makes so much more evident that the cinematic codes are constructed, and it’s a bit of a self-reflexive move because all of the knowledge, the narration, everything we work with as viewers, is partial, right? So what your film reveals through its minimalistic means is not enhancing whatever is already there in life, but it rather chisels away to this nature of what cinema can be. People talk about “cinematic language” but I don’t think you would agree on a term like that?
Ah, no, despite the fact that I did study at the film school [Columbia University School of the Arts]. Some of my collaborators would like to use words like “vocabulary” when talking about cinema, or “grammar of the long take.” I don’t believe in any of that. I think there’s no such thing. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what’s a long take, what’s a short one? If there’s a universal standard, yeah, but there isn’t. The purpose of cinema is not to standardise something and then work around it. When everybody talks about narrative structures… I’ve been asked this question so many times, while making a film, about what it is like: is it a drama, or is it a portrait? I’m like, “Really?” It’s so strange that even with my first short film in school, that was the first question I got. Starting from there, and even now I’m being asked the same thing when I don’t think about cinema that way because it cannot be either drama or a portrait. Life itself cannot be drama/portrait/comedy, no. It’s beyond that. It’s everything at the same time.
Also, what is “story”, really? Is it what happens on screen? Is it what people talk about, the action, or an external conflict? I don’t know. I think storytelling is the relationship between the film and the viewer, and cinema is something intangible. You, as a director, at least for me, aim to grasp that intangible thing. I need to put in all the necessary conditions for something to happen. But if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I may not have a shot or a scene—and I cannot force it. I think I have a more free relationship with cinema.
When I started making films, I was constantly thinking about my childhood, since I grew up with grandparents. Our grandfather and my great-grandmother, they were always telling us stories, real stories about real people I knew, but there was always magic realism involved. She’d convince me that somebody turned into a goat, for example. And of course, when I was a child, maybe even twelve years old, I was already questioning that truthfulness. But later I understood that it just didn’t matter—what mattered was the story! And it was true, when she was telling it. I think that the same thing applies to cinema—what you take from it and what you experience with the film, that’s the story.
Your films have been described as formalist, or in relation to rigorous aesthetic formalism, so you do have a coherent sense of aesthetics. But would you agree that’s more on the side of minimalism? Everything you outlined complicates a simplistic notion of “cinematic grammar”, so how do you go about constructing a visual world?
I think every filmmaker has their own reason for any shot and any take. For me, especially with Beginning, I tried to bring everything down to essentials. In a way, that’s also how I function in life, strangely. There’s too much information to be received, and I take equal interest in, I don’t know, reading Heidegger and my grandmother’s morning. It’s all somehow part of one fabric for me. But then, with all the feelings that you’re processing, that has to go down to essentials.
I think we make films because of our relationship with time, at least this is how it is with me. It’s everything. Every moment you lose something, and life is always intangible. It’s also immaterial even when you’re materially present in life, connecting with every moment, it’s still intangible. So you can only feel and reflect on everything in retrospect. Maybe cinema is our outlet, or … I don’t know… it’s like the Holy Grail of containing time. Also of making sense of things, because we can never make sense of everything in the moment. So maybe this is why we make films, to make sense of the moment—of life.
Exactly, captured time within the camera, on the film stock or within the pixels. Can you imagine that Beginning will exist for hundreds of years after we’re gone?
It’s strange because, for me, you can still make sense in the moment. When you’re making a film, you’re in a certain condition, and that’s the point of view from which you make sense of things. But then, when you’ve finished the film, you’ve changed. I think that’s the drive to make your next film, because you understand that, in fact, you know nothing. It’s not only my relationship with my film, it’s the film’s relationship with me, it’s the process, all the people involved. The moment when I finished Beginning, I understood that, no, I don’t know anything.
But that’s such a philosophical position. You embody Socratic wisdom!
(Laughs) No… I don’t know! It’s just … simple! That’s the pleasure of it as well. I need to go into making a film knowing that I don’t know anything, really. Because that’s the only way to keep yourself available for the film to happen to you.
“While walking in the forest, I saw this light, these beautiful rays of light shining through the trees, and I understood what I wanted to see. I want to see this woman in front of the camera, and the light on her face, and the entire world, and life itself, to be contained within this moment somehow.”
Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili, 2020, Georgia). Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili).
So what’s your process like?
You know, I don’t believe that it’s only me as a director. Yes, it may be formalist, it’s very controlled. I know you can see that it’s so aesthetically precise. But in order for that to happen, I need to create some conditions, and then expect and hope, really hope, for some miracle to happen in front of the camera. I always stay close to the camera, I don’t like having a monitor, because I need to feel it all. If I cannot feel this emotionally charged moment and time passing and accumulating, contained within this shot, I cannot fix anything at the editing stage. Even when I hear the word “We can fix it later,” that just kills me. You cannot “fix” the film! I know it’s not an ideal approach, I do understand the limitations, the shortcomings, and compromises involved but… if I need to go to my team several times for wasting their time, I’m going to do it. I always do it, I say “I’m sorry, but it just didn’t happen, we need to shoot again.” When I wasn’t ready or fully available for that shot, that’s on me and it’s fully my responsibility, to see and to feel what’s happening on set. And if something’s not working, most often it’s me who’s not created the right conditions.
Doesn’t that put huge amounts of pressure on you, and your intuitive approach, on top of everything? How do you approach overwhelming circumstances?
I don’t get overwhelmed (Laughs). I’m actually very calm on set! The conditions I’m talking about are not always regarding what’s going to be on screen, but also what’s happening on set in general. I have very calm sets, a no-phone rule, and no screaming. When I show up on set, I never say “OK, let’s do it!” Instead, I say “Let’s do it, slowly.” We take our time but no one procrastinates on my set. There isn’t a single person without specific tasks. I prefer working with a small crew but keeping everyone engaged with their functions. Well, my producers think it’s not that small, but… everybody’s very busy and structured. If you’re not like that, you cannot open up for some unexpected things to happen on set.
Can you give me an example?
Yes, when we were filming in the forest, this shot where Yana lays down on the leaves, it wasn’t planned like that. On set, I asked my team to give me a maximum of half an hour because I needed to walk around, connect with the surroundings, and rest, also. You know, when you’re resting, that’s when you’re actually thinking. While walking in the forest, I saw this light, these beautiful rays of light shining through the trees, and I understood what I wanted to see. I want to see this woman in front of the camera, and the light on her face, and the entire world, and life itself, to be contained within this moment somehow. So we did it! While we were shooting, we were actually waiting for that light to come back, and I didn’t know how long that would be. But waiting was crucial. So, in editing, everyone thought it was impossible for the shot to keep its original length, but I was convinced that it could only be like that. That’s also how you engage the audience.
Do you mean the direct relation of “how it was” and “how it’s seen”, which leaves the most profound mark on the viewer?
I hope so, really. For me, it was a transcendent moment. I would look at the actress in front of the camera, and I couldn’t not believe how beautiful this light was. But it still wasn’t planned like that and if we weren’t prepared and so structured as a team, it wouldn’t have happened like that. If you don’t allow yourself to be open, you couldn’t have found and captured something that wasn’t planned.
This is a great life lesson that, actually, I’m going to take away from our conversation.
Haha, thank you! But I really don’t know anything! What I do know is that in the next film, there will be struggle again, because it’s a very vulnerable process making a film. You need to be vulnerable as a director. Or at least I believe so. I don’t believe in being strong. I believe in being vulnerable.