Dea Kulumbegashvili was born and raised in Georgia. She studied Media Studies at The New School in New York, earned an MFA in Film Directing at Columbia University School of the Arts and is currently working towards a PhD degree in Critical Thought and Philosophy at The European Graduate School. Her debut short film “Invisible Spaces” vied for the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes International Film Festival. Her second short film “Lethe” premiered in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Both shorts have played at MoMA, NY as well as numerous film festivals around the world including International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Guanajuato Film Festival, the Zagreb Film Festival and the Thessaloniki Film Festival among many others. In 2015, she co-wrote and co-produced “City of the Sun,” a feature film by Rati Oneli. It premiered in the Forum program of the 67th Berlinale and later won the Award for Best Documentary Film at the Sarajevo Film Festival as well as the FIPRESCI prize and numerous awards at DocumentaMadrid, ZagrebDox, MiradasDoc and Sheffield Doc/Fest.
Tara Karajica talks to Dea Kulumbegashvili about her feature film, “Beginning,” that received the Cannes 2020 Label, premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and subsequently screened in Competition at the San Sebastián Film Festival, where it won the Golden Shell for Best Film, the Silver Shell for Best Director and Best Actress and the Jury Prize for Best Screenplay.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Dea Kulumbegashvili: I grew up in the small town where Beginning was shot. I lived there with my grandparents while my parents mostly lived and worked in the capital. My childhood and teenage years were during the civil war, political and economic crisis in the country. There were constant electricity blackouts and, honestly, I did not really see a film from start to end, until I was about sixteen. But then, at some point, I was sent to stay with my father in the capital for a winter break. And there, there were more days where we had electricity. We spent the winter break watching films. My father was a huge fan of Anna Magnani. He had video cassettes and, over the course of the winter break, for a couple of weeks, we would watch Mamma Roma, Rome Open City, over and over again. I think this is when I really discovered Cinema and it was something like an explosion to me. But I did not know what could I do in films, what my job would be. I had no idea how films were made. But I started to write as a teenager and thought I would be a novelist. Then, I moved to New York City to study. In New York, I met my closest collaborators and my dearest friends. These people encouraged me to try and make a short film. They supported me on my journey of finding my way to Cinema. Gradually, I came to the decision to study Film Directing.
How did Beginning come about?
D.K.: I was visiting my father in a village where my family is from. He told me that there was a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the village and the surrounding area. Some people from the community relate to my family. My father said that he used to give them a lift every week to their Prayer House as nobody else wanted to help out. Because these people, by converting to a new faith and by making a choice in their lives, became outsiders in the place that was their home and where they grew up. This was a familiar feeling to me. Perhaps because I had left my home and traveled and lived in New York, and through my experiences, I as well became an outsider in the place where I grew up. Exploring the theme of alienation was very interesting to me. At the same time, I was thinking that I wanted to make a film about a woman, who in a so-called traditional narrative structure, would be a supporting character. I had an image of this woman for a long time, and I wrote sketches for her character… This is how I started to explore the character of Yana, the themes of alienation, religion, the place of women in a patriarchal community.
Yana departs from the world of logic and goes into the world of sense. Can you talk about that and her journey as a heroine?
D.K.: Yana is a woman who cannot fit into the world that is familiar to her anymore, but she does not know yet what is outside of it … She gradually becomes aware of her frustration. As the sense of dread accumulates in her life, she first rejects it. Because she has everything to be happy … All the elements that in a world that Yana knows add up to the happy life of a woman. What else would a woman want? But then, she accepts the sense of dread that overshadows her existence and acts on it. I think Yana transforms herself into something that she is responsible for. Far too long has she lived deprived of the right of choice. Over the course of the film, Yana starts to make choices. She embarks on the path into the unknown.
How do you see her?
D.K.: I see Yana as someone who maybe challenges the very idea of the God. It is a tragic story of a woman who struggles to make sense of her desires, her wants and her needs… A woman who is not seen even by those who are the closest to her.
You touch upon themes of revenge, religion, marginalization. Can you comment on that and on how these are perceived in the Georgian society?
D.K.: In Georgia, the Church is very powerful. The majority of the population is of Eastern Orthodox faith. The idea of religious tolerance is understood as just a will of the majority to allow the minority to exist. There is no real sense of equality and respect of the freedom of choice. But I think that these themes are universally important. I do believe that even in the developed democratic countries, these concepts are still challenged and not fully rationalized and understood.
You also show us what horrors we face when were at the mercy of God. Can you elaborate on that?
D.K.: This would be difficult for me to elaborate on. I do have my opinion and my vision of the given question. However, I would like the audience to draw their own, individual conclusions.
Can you talk about the title?
D.K.: It is related to the biblical verse “In the beginning there was a word, and the word was God.” I had this line in mind, but could not really understand why it was so connected to the film for me. But when we finished editing the film, there were days where I would watch the film several times a day and I realized that the film is the point of the beginning of something new, for all of the characters, especially for Yana. Maybe where the film starts is a sort of a beginning of its own, and certainly where it ends as well.
Beginning is a co-production between France and Georgia. Can you talk about that aspect of the film and, subsequently, the shooting process of the film?
D.K.: The Georgian film industry, if we can call it an industry, is extremely small. We have ten film theaters in the entire country. But we love Cinema and we do have an incredible cinematic tradition. I think there are young Georgian directors who push the boundaries and do their best in order to make films. Even for no money at all. I had an international team, French and Georgian mostly. My D.o.P. is from Belarus. My producers are French. For me, it is incredibly important to work with people from around the world. It is very important to look at the film, at the experiences through the eyes of my collaborators. This film is a co-production in a financial sense. For me, it is incredibly important that this project brought together people from different origins and backgrounds to collaborate and create a film together. When you make a film, it is not only the end result that is the goal, but it is the process that is the most important. In the process, we do not only work, but we also live in certain places, we communicate and go through experiences. It is always important for me to bring my collaborators from different places to Georgia. They bring their experiences with them, and hopefully take something meaningful with them as well.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
D.K.: I do consider myself a feminist. I think otherwise it is impossible for a woman to make films in Georgia. The main interest for me is to explore a woman’s place in particular settings and in the world in general. To explore and question the existential crisis of a woman. I do consider my film to have a feminist point of view. And I do think it is a feminine film in general.
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in film in the past almost three years. What is your opinion on the matter? How is it in Georgia?
D.K.: I think that despite the discussion, not much has changed for women working in film. There has, of course, been some positive change. However, we still struggle to establish ourselves and to have an equal ground for working and for doing what we want to do. In Georgia, as I think in many other places, a woman’s choice to make films is questioned and taken with suspicion by the society. Even on my set, I had people explaining to me that as a woman I need to be more flexible, to find a way to work with more opinionated men. This is sad. I do not need to be reminded that I am a woman. I am well aware of who I am. It was not always easy to find a way to work with some of the crew members who simply are not used to working with the female directors; the very idea of a woman leading the team was not something comfortable for them.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker? And a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
D.K.: I love works created by Larisa Shepitko, Chantal Akerman, Kira Muratova… I cannot name just one film. It is impossible for me to just choose one.
I know times are uncertain now, but do you have something in the pipeline for when the future is brighter?
D.K.: Yes of course. I am always working on something. I believe in hard work and just waking up every morning and working is necessary for me.
Photo credits: Arseni Khachaturan.
This interview was conducted during the 2020 (virtual) Toronto International Film Festival.