“I Have Not Seen My Film with Anyone Other than Two People”: Dea Kulumbegashvili on Beginning
Dea Kulumbegashvili should have had the year of her life. At any other moment, the Tbilisi-based writer/director would have already travelled to Cannes, Toronto and San Sebastián to screen her new film for festival audiences. A remarkable accomplishment for anyone, let alone a young director with a first feature, the success of Beginning has instead been a strange, bittersweet ride. In the absence of sold-out screenings and sponsored afterparties, the festival experience in 2020 has given way to far less glamorous rituals: Zoom Q&As, geo-locked streaming links and the solitary act of viewing from home. For Kulumbegashvili, 34, the process has felt surreal: To date, she has yet to see her film with any audience, festival or otherwise.
Beginning, alas, begs to be seen with others, if for no other reason than to underscore the communal terror of its opening scene. The film takes place in a small Georgian town, where a Jehovah’s Witness community comes under attack by a mysterious extremist group. The attack sends Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), the community leader’s wife, into an emotional and at times violent tailspin. Kulumbegashvili films her story in ominous, static long takes. Images stretch in elastic endlessness, the threat of violence forever lingering off screen. In Kulumbegashvili’s hands, a long take can signal tranquility or terror, an ambiguity she plays with to craft the film’s uneasy tone.
Had Cannes taken place this year, it would have marked her third visit to the festival. Kulumbegashvili screened her shorts Invisible Spaces and Léthé there in 2014 and 2016, respectively. She spoke with Filmmaker from Paris ahead of Beginning’s run at the New York Film Festival, where it will stream October 5 through 10—and before the film won four awards at San Sebastián, including the top prize, the Golden Shell. [Full disclosure: Kulumbegashvili is a graduate of Columbia University’s MFA Film Program, where I manage events and screenings.]
Below we discuss our mutual disdain for CG fire and the “One Perfect Shot” approach to film appreciation, Kulumbegashvili’s high regard for the films of Michael Haneke, and her film’s oblique depiction of sexual assault.
Filmmaker: Beginning was set to screen at festivals worldwide this year. There’s a lot going on right now, but I’m wondering how you’re feeling as a first-time feature director who would have had a very big year had it not been for Covid-19.
Kulumbegashvili: It’s a very strange moment. For me, it’s very important to feel how the audience reacts to the film. I really like to be in the audience. It is important to have a dialogue, even if you don’t talk to the audience. Just being there, you feel how people react to the film. It’s so strange. I have not seen my film with anyone other than two people.
Filmmaker: I imagine it might be particularly surreal with this film, given that you don’t yet know how the film’s more shocking moments play with an audience.
Kulumbegashvili: It is very surreal, but on the other hand I did not want to wait for next year. I do believe that films are made to be watched by the audience. Especially in this moment when people are in their homes, I think it’s important to give the film to the audience. For me, it’s also important to move on.
Filmmaker: Your thesis film at Columbia, Léthé, consisted of five long takes over the course of 15 minutes. Long takes are quite prominent in Beginning as well. What attracts you to this approach?
Kulumbegashvili: It’s not a stylistic choice because I don’t really believe in style. It’s important for me to think about time and how people move in spaces. Thinking about the structure of the narrative, I constantly question “What is narrative? What is drama? Is it just something which happens instantly that makes us react in a moment, or is it something that works on a much deeper level, that you experience and starts to accumulate in one hour or later on in the film?” Because of that, working with long takes allows me to actually work with time and think about time as an element of narrative and drama.
Filmmaker: Your short, however, was in a way defined by camera movement. Beginning in this regard is very different—I counted fewer than five camera moves in the entire film. When you were writing the film, did you know you wanted that very static camera?
Kulumbegashvili: Yes. Actually, we had many discussions with the cinematographer, who is my very close collaborator [Arseni Khachaturan]. He was against it during the process. He always thought “No, we need a more dynamic camera, more movement,” but I thought it would be distracting. This film is about looking—experience that accumulates through looking. My short film was more about being floated through something, this film is about being always invested in the moment. I think as the film progresses, my hope is that viewers will find themselves more invested in the moment. So, I was trying to remove everything that was unnecessary, to have just the essentials of what is necessary in a particular moment.
Filmmaker: I believe the first camera move happens about 40 minutes into the film, during a moment of intense unease. Was part of the thinking to limit movement to such a degree that, when the camera does move, it shocks the viewer?
Kulumbegashvili: Yes. That’s the second move, actually. The first time it moves at a bus stop at the park. It’s a casual move. It’s important that you think that this was the first time. My intention was to move the camera the first time [at the park], but for the audience to almost forget.
Filmmaker: I did forget [laughs].
Kulumbegashvili: Because it’s not important! But then the second time it moves, it really has an impact on the viewer. I try not to think about the technicality of filmmaking or directing. It’s an emotional reaction. When I was staging the scene, and we rehearsed it a lot before we started to shoot, I was thinking that, somehow, she doesn’t have a choice. She will move and sit with him. Something drives her to sit with him, and it’s the camera. It’s interesting for me as a director to see how the minimal things you can do with the camera can create a bigger emotional impact than if you did 15 different things in one scene.
Filmmaker: I wanted to talk about the fire sequence. Had you filmed anything on that scale up to this point in your career?
Kulumbegashvili: That’s the biggest shoot I’ve had. That’s where the technicality of directing comes in, because you really need to work with so many people to be prepared. We built this construction twice. The first time when we built it, there was not enough space to allow air to circulate, so we needed to enlarge it. Everything made such a difference, even the trajectory of the wind. Because we prepared so much, it was one of the easiest things to shoot. Everyone was nervous, but I was not. Once I understood how all the elements worked together, and we rehearsed so many times—with all the crew, the firemen, the stuntmen—we only did one take.
Filmmaker: Am I correct that there is no CG in that scene?
Kulumbegashvili: In one place, you could see the leftovers of the fire material, which I did want to remove. But the fire is real, and the molotov cocktails are real. Not “real”—they are especially made for a film—but it’s a real fire.
Filmmaker: As someone who can’t stand CG fire, I was horrified by the scene but also kind of thrilled to see a real fire on film. It feels like it’s been a while since I’ve seen a fire that did not look computerized in any sort of way. Did you ever consider CG?
Kulumbegashvili: No. I mean, we considered everything in the preparation. I did believe that the fire needed to be real because I have seen it done so many times in not a convincing way. We did enhance something in the back, and I worked with an incredibly talented VFX artist in Mexico [Diego Vazquez Lozano], but even he did not want to create artificial fire. He said “We will take an element, which is existing fire, and work with it.” We spent maybe 45 days, sitting in his studio, just for these little things.
Filmmaker: When you open a film with such an intense shock, I find it creates a lingering sense of terror that trails the viewer throughout the movie, as if at any moment another shock could erupt. In this way I felt traces of horror in Beginning. Do you see Beginning, in part, as a horror film?
Kulumbegashvili: I don’t, but I think there are elements. At Columbia we talked a lot about horror and how it works on an internal level or the emotional level of the viewer. I do believe that something like that is present in the film. Even the way I was working on the staging of some of the scenes—where she just walks, for example, in the street—I think in those moments there are elements of some sort of genre.
Filmmaker: I was thinking in particular of the scene with Yana on the bus. You see a disembodied hand behind her. Had there not been a scene of intense shock earlier, I probably would have thought nothing of it, but because I know what you’re capable of as a director, I saw that hand and got nervous.
Kulumbegashvili: Well yes, what is horror? What’s a good horror film? It’s not somebody just jumping to scare you. It’s something that works on a subconscious, emotional, and sensorial way. Again, I would say that cinema is an accumulation. Cinema is never one shot. That’s why when people talk like, “Oh, have you seen this film? There is this spectacular shot…” I don’t care about cinema in that sense.
Filmmaker: So I take it you’re not a One. Perfect. Shot. kind of director?
Kulumbegashvili: No, no [laughs]. Actually it really irritates me. I really believe that it’s everything together. All the elements together. Nothing is more important than something else. Every tiny detail is as important as everything else.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene of very intense assault in the film that’s photographed in a way that I’ve never quite seen before. It’s shot from a sort of distanced vantage point. What inspired you to capture this horrific moment from such a detached perspective?
Kulumbegashvili: I did not want to create a spectacle in a way, which would have been shocking but only worked on that one level. I wanted to understand what’s happening in that moment for the character. I thought that, in a certain way, it’s not fully possible for us to understand. It’s such a difficult and complex experience that as a director I believed that I needed the distance. I needed to put the camera so far away that if somebody were to be passing by, this is the closest they could get. If you would get closer, then you would be too close and you would need to intervene. Also, I did not want to emphasize any particular moment for the audience. I didn’t even want to hear her voice, because it would add more emotion, and that’s too much for me. There was a lot of conversation because people on the team were concerned that it was too dark or maybe you need to see more, but no. I think it’s enough to fully understand what’s happening, and my involvement was unnecessary beyond that.
Filmmaker: Stylistically, I’m curious if there were any films or filmmakers you drew on for the film.
Kulumbegashvili: I was told later that it resonates with Jeanne Dielman, especially the scene in the kitchen, and yes, it does. I don’t know if it’s an homage of some sort or my love toward Chantal Akerman, but yes that scene specifically resonates with her work. I was in New York for most of the time when I was writing, and I used to go to Dia:Beacon and a lot of galleries to look at contemporary art. It was important for me to see what are the ways cinema hangs on to what’s already been done, and what are the ways other fields of art explore issues more bravely.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about Michael Haneke as well.
Kulumbegashvili: I love Haneke’s work. He is for me one of the most important directors of contemporary cinema. I always think about the thinking behind his films. I think it’d be good if he gave more interviews.
Filmmaker: The only one I can think of is that surreal group interview with him and a bunch of very mainstream American filmmakers like Judd Apatow and John Krasinski.
Kulumbegashvili: Oh my god, I have seen it [laughs]. I think he is an incredible source of inspiration for me. Even if it’s not in his films, it’s his thinking. It’s really strange how he’s so daring and in touch with the state of mind of contemporary society, maybe more so than directors who are in their 20s. I think he’s an example of courage and what the responsibility of the director really is. If we can talk about “Do we have a responsibility when we make films?” Maybe that’s the responsibility we have—to be in touch with our time.
Filmmaker: I also wanted to ask about Nicolas Jaar. He’s credited as the composer of Beginning, but there’s next to no music in the film.
Kulumbegashvili: I think I need to text Nico and talk to him [laughs]. Yes, there is Nico’s music in the film. It’s such a silent film that people cannot pinpoint where exactly it is. It’s a sound. I was looking at the sound of this film as a soundscape. I was never thinking about just having a score. Within the soundscape there are sounds created by Nico. It’s very musical. It’s mixed and it’s brought to a level that I do believe—and one day I hope people can watch this film in a proper theater—people will feel Nicolas Jaar’s music.
Filmmaker: So it’s part of the sound design, in a way.
Kulumbegashvili: Yes, it is. I think that people expected it would be more melodic, what Nico would create for this film, but no. It’s just a totally different way of working. I don’t know what to call it, but I do call it music.