Dea Kulumbegashvili should have had the year of her life. At any other time, the Tbilisi-based writer / director would have already traveled to Cannes, Toronto and San Sebastián to show her new film to the festival audience. A remarkable achievement for anyone, let alone a young director with a first feature, the success of Beginning was a strange, bittersweet ride instead. In the absence of sold-out screenings and sponsored after-parties, the 2020 festival experience has given way to far less glamorous rituals: zoom Q & As, geographically blocked streaming links, and the solitary act of viewing from home. For Kulumbegashvili, 34, the process felt surreal: until today she has not seen her film any Audience, festival or otherwise.
BeginningUnfortunately, he asks to be seen with others, if for no other reason than to underline the communal terror of his opening scene. The film takes place in a small Georgian town where a Jehovah's Witness community is attacked by a mysterious extremist group. The attack puts Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), the wife of the community leader, on an emotional and sometimes violent tailspin. Kulumbegashvili films her story in threatening, static long shots. Images expand in elastic infinity and the danger of violence stays off the screen forever. In Kulumbegashvili's hands, a long shot can signal calm or terror, an ambiguity she plays with to create the film's uncomfortable tone.
If Cannes had taken place this year, it would have been her third visit to the festival. Kulumbegashvili checked her shorts Invisible spaces and Lethé there in 2014 and 2016. She spoke with filmmakers from Paris before BeginningWill be screened at the New York Film Festival, where it will be screened October 5-10 – and before the film won four prizes in San Sebastián, including the grand prize, the Golden Shell. (Full Disclosure: Kulumbegashvili is a graduate of Columbia University's MFA Film Program where I manage events and screenings.)
In the following we discuss our mutual disdain for CG fire and the approach of “One Perfect Shot” to the appreciation of films, Kulumbegashvili's high appreciation for Michael Haneke's films and the weird portrayal of sexual assault in her film.
Filmmakers: Beginning was shown at festivals around the world this year. There's a lot going on right now but I wonder how you feel as a first-time feature film director who would have had a very big year without Covid-19.
Kulumbegashvili: It's a very strange moment. For me it is very important to feel how the audience reacts to the film. I really enjoy being in the audience. It's important to have a dialogue even when you're not speaking to the audience. If you are just there you will feel how people react to the movie. It's so weird. I didn't see my film with anyone other than two people.
Filmmakers: I imagine it could be particularly surreal with this movie, as you don't yet know how the more shocking moments of the movie play out with an audience.
Kulumbegashvili: It's very surreal, but then again, I didn't want to wait for the next year. I believe films are made to be seen by the audience. Especially in this moment when people are at home, I think it's important to give the film to the audience. It is also important for me to keep going.
Filmmakers: Your graduation film in Columbia, Lethé, consisted of five long takes over a period of 15 minutes. Long shots are pretty prominent in Beginning also. What do you like about this approach?
Kulumbegashvili: It's not a style choice because I don't really believe in style. For me it is important to think about time and how people move in rooms. When I think about the structure of the narrative, I keep asking myself, “What is narration? What is drama? Is it just something that happens instantly that makes us react in a moment, or is it something that works on a much deeper level that you experience and that accumulates in the film in an hour or later? “Because of this, by working with long shots, I can actually work with time and think about time as an element of narrative and drama.
Filmmakers: However, your short film was defined by the camera in some ways Move. Beginning It's very different in that respect – I've counted less than five camera movements throughout the film. When you wrote the film, did you know that you wanted this very static camera?
Kulumbegashvili: Yes. In fact, we had a lot of conversations with the cameraman who is my very close collaborator (Arseni Khachaturan). He was against it during the trial. He always thought, "No, we need a more dynamic camera, more movement," but I thought that would be distracting. This film is about looking – an experience that accumulates through looking. My short film was more about floating through something. This film is about always being invested in the moment. I think as the film progresses, I hope that viewers are more invested right now. So I tried to remove everything unnecessary in order to have only the essentials that are necessary at a given moment.
Filmmakers: I think the first camera movement comes in a moment of intense discomfort about 40 minutes into the movie. Was it part of the thinking to restrict movement enough that the camera would shock the viewer when it moves?
Kulumbegashvili: Yes. This is actually the second step. The first time it drives at a bus stop in the park. It's an occasional move. It is important that you think this was your first time. My intention was to move the camera for the first time (in the park) but almost forget it for the audience.
Filmmakers: I forgot (laughs).
Kulumbegashvili: Because it doesn't matter! But the second time it moves, it really does affect the viewer. I'm not trying to think about the technique of filmmaking or directing. It's an emotional response. When I directed the scene and we rehearsed it a lot before we started filming, I thought that somehow she had no choice. you will move and sit with him. Something makes her sit down with him, and it's the camera. For me as a director, it's interesting to see how the minimal things you can do with the camera can create a greater emotional impact than if you had done 15 different things in one scene.
Filmmakers: I wanted to talk about the fire sequence. Had you shot anything of this magnitude up to this point in your career?
Kulumbegashvili: It's the biggest shoot I've ever had. This is where the technique of directing comes in because you really have to work with so many people to be prepared. We built this construction twice. When we first built it, there wasn't enough space to let the air circulate, so we had to make it bigger. 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 wasn't. After I understood how all the elements worked together and we rehearsed so often – with the whole crew, the firefighters, the stunt men – we only made one recording.
Filmmakers: Is it true that there is no CG in this scene?
Kulumbegashvili: At one point you could see the remains of the fire material that I was trying to remove. But the fire is real and the Molotov cocktails are real. Not "real" – they're made specifically for a movie – but it's a real fire.
Filmmakers: As someone who can't stand CG fire, I was horrified by the scene, but also kind of excited to see a real fire in the movie. It seems to have been a while since I've seen a fire that didn't look computerized in any way. Have you ever thought about CG?
Kulumbegashvili: I mean, we took everything into account in the preparation. I believed the fire must be real because I've seen it so many times in an unconvincing way. We improved a bit in the back and I worked with an incredibly talented VFX artist in Mexico (Diego Vazquez Lozano), but even he didn't want to create artificial fire. He said, "We will take an element that is existing fire and work with it." We sat in his studio for maybe 45 days just for these little things.
Filmmakers: When you open a movie with such an intense shock it creates a lingering sense of terror that haunts the viewer throughout the movie, as if another shock might break out at any moment. In this way I felt traces of horror Beginning. Do you see BeginningPartly as a horror film?
Kulumbegashvili: I don't know, but I think there are elements. At Columbia we talked a lot about horror and how it works on the internal level or the emotional level of the viewer. I think there is something like that in the film. Even the way I worked on the staging of some scenes – where it only goes on the street, for example – I think there are elements of a genre in those moments.
Filmmakers: I was particularly thinking of the scene with Yana on the bus. You see a disembodied hand behind you. If there hadn't been a scene with severe shock earlier, I probably wouldn't have thought of it, but because I know what you're capable of as a director, I saw that hand and got nervous.
Kulumbegashvili: Well what is horror? What is a good horror movie? It's not someone who just jumps to scare you. It's something that works subconsciously, emotionally, and sensory. Again I would say that cinema is an accumulation. Cinema is never an attitude. So when people say, "Oh, have you seen that movie? There's this spectacular setting …" I don't care about cinema in that sense.
Filmmakers: I suppose you are not a one. Perfect. Shot. Kind of director?
Kulumbegashvili: No, no (laughs). Actually, it really irritates me. I really believe that everything is together. All elements together. Nothing is more important than something else. Every little detail is just as important as anything else.
Filmmakers: There is a scene of very intense attacks in the film that was photographed in a way that I have never seen before. It was shot from a kind of distant angle. What inspired you to capture this terrible moment from such a distant perspective?
Kulumbegashvili: I didn't want to create a spectacle in a way that would have been shocking, just work on that one level. I wanted to understand what was happening to the character at that moment. I thought that in some ways we can't fully understand it. It's such a difficult and complex experience that, as a director, I thought I needed the distance. I had to move the camera far enough so that if someone comes by, this will be the closest they can get. If you got any closer, you would be too close and would have to intervene. Also, I didn't want to highlight a specific moment for the audience. I didn't even want to hear her voice because it would evoke more emotion, and that's too much for me. There was a lot of conversation because people on the team were concerned it was too dark or you might need to see more, but no. I think it is enough to fully understand what is happening and beyond that my involvement was unnecessary.
Filmmakers: Stylistically, I'm curious to see whether there were films or filmmakers that you used for the film.
Kulumbegashvili: I was later told that it resonates Jeanne Dielman, especially the scene in the kitchen, and yes it does. I don't know if it's a tribute or my love for Chantal Akerman, but yes, this scene is specifically consistent with her work. I was in New York most of the time I wrote and went to Dia: Beacon and many galleries to check out contemporary art. For me, it was important to see how cinema clings to what has already been done and how other areas of art explore issues more boldly.
Filmmakers: I also wanted to ask about Michael Haneke.
Kulumbegashvili: I love Haneke's work. For me he is one of the most important directors in contemporary cinema. I always think about them Think behind his films. I think it would be good if he did more interviews.
Filmmakers: The only thing I can think of is that surreal group interview with him and a number of mainstream American filmmakers including Judd Apatow and John Krasinski.
Kulumbegashvili: Oh my god, I saw it (laughs). I think he's an incredible source of inspiration for me. Even if it's not in his movies, it's his thinking. It's really strange how daring and in touch with the state of mind of today's society is, perhaps more so than directors in their twenties. I think he's an example of courage and responsibility on the part of the director. When we talk about "Do we have a responsibility when we make films?" To be able to speak. Perhaps it is our responsibility to keep in touch with our time.
Filmmakers: I also wanted to ask about Nicolas Jaar. He is considered the composer of Beginning, but there is almost no music in the film.
Kulumbegashvili: I think I have to text Nico and talk to him (laughs). Yes, the film contains Nico's music. It's such a silent movie that people can't tell exactly where it is. It is a sound. I saw the sound of this film as a soundscape. I never thought of only having one score. Within the soundscape there are sounds that were created by Nico. It's very musical. It's mixed up and brought to a level I believe – and one day I hope people can see this movie in a real theater – people are going to feel Nicolas Jaar's music.
Filmmakers: In a way, it's part of the sound design.
Kulumbegashvili: Yes, it is. I think people expected it to be more melodic what Nico would create for this movie, but no. It's just a completely different way of working. I don't know what to call it, but I call it music.