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‘Beginning’ Touches On a Sense of Spiritual and Uniquely Feminine Isolation

February 5, 2021
4 min read time

Georgian filmmaker Déa Kulumbegashvili's debut film thematically connects to current life for many: The feeling of isolation in your own home. The movie follows a Jehovah’s Witness whose faith is brought into question after a remote church is attacked and set ablaze in the Georgian countryside, a striking image that opens the film. 

The isolation Kulumbegashvili felt upon returning to her home country after years of living in New York City was the inspiration to make the film. She witnessed the Jevoah’s community in a small town her sister lives in, and was taken with the idea of a woman living a secondary life in the background. “I wanted to examine her internal conflict,” states Kulumbegashvili.

Beginning centers on that woman, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) a former actress now deeply entrenched in life as a minister’s wife in the Jehovah’s Witness faith. It’s clear Yana is already living a life of longing before the explosion at her church — it’s a matter of figuring out what Yana is longing for, or if she even knows the answer herself. 

Kulumbegashvili explains it’s easy to feel ostracized in the type of community Yana is living in, as Christinaity is the dominant religion in Georgia. “Christianity is part of the Georgian identity. Not to be a believer, or to convert, you become an outsider. These communities are ostracized and isolated. There’s a question of judgement and danger involved as well with these communities, and the government will claim it’s just one extremist group that’s responsible and no one is ever caught or arrested. I’ve even had incidents where I was attacked and known for sure who it was who was responsible — but no one is ever caught. It’s not a question.” 

This reality leads to an unsettling life for Yana in her small town of Lagodekhi. When her overbearing husband pleads for Yana to come on a trip with him, she opts to stay, longing for what feels like a lost voice...or lost life. This is where it feels things will take a turn for Yana, for better or worse. She encounters a sadistic man, Alex, (Kakha Kintsurashvili) who poses as an inspector to interview her about the events that took place at her church. Under the guise as someone there to help, Alex instead uses his power to attempt to control Yana, and even in the absence of her husband (or because of it), Yana is still surrounded by controlling patriarchal power. 

When asked if Yana ever thought of making a break from her community, Kulumbegashvili had an interesting answer: “Of course there is a demand to write more positive and motivating stories,” she muses. “But the process of emancipation, especially in a place like Georgia, is painful. I do understand for some people it would be more interesting to see her leaving, but I wanted to be faithful to her truth, and I know women like that in this town, and I cannot dismiss their existence and pain. I wanted to make a film about this town and this place and that’s her life.”

Because Yana’s life so accurately reflects the real lives of those that inspired her journey, do not expect a traditional story arc here. Kulumbegashvili’s long shots make one feel like a fly on the wall, sometimes welcome, sometimes an intruder, sometimes just as uncomfortable as the subject herself. Kulumbegashvili said it was the movie itself that dictated the shots.

“I tried to grasp how time flows for this woman. I wanted to tell her story, not just illustrate it, and the long shots show how time flows for her, and how people live in this town.” In a moment of pain, pleasure and a huge wave of emotion (and a turning point of the film) Kulumbegashviil holds on Yana’s face as she lays in a beautiful bed of flowers and grass for nearly seven minutes. It’s breathtaking — and will likely be one of the most written about shots of the year. 

The device is beyond effective in conveying an authentic experience of Yana’s life. Kulumbegashvili also interspersed people of the town with her more seasoned actors from stage and screen. Yana, who is responsible with prepping the younger members of her congregation for baptism, interviews the youngsters about their idea of heaven and hell. Kulumbegashvili went into local classrooms to shoot the segment, getting permission from Georgia’s Minister of Education to do so. “They are of different religions, but all equally influenced by religion and beliefs. I cannot say who belongs to what religion, but when I asked them, ‘what do you think of the soul?’ there was a lot of curiosity and you can see them wanting to give the right answers.”

The youngsters do seem more convinced in their views than Yana herself, who seems much more adrift, only determined in atonement. It does feel that Yana is a woman who has resigned herself to punishment whether physical, emotional or spiritual. Kulumbegashvili puts it much more poetically: “It’s not about losing or gaining… Every moment of life is about losing and gaining — every decision for a woman to get and be married is up to every single individual to deal with the loss of gaining. It might be a social role that is assigned to us, or we might be in a society that it is our primary social role, and never really having that choice. It’s not only like that in Georgia. I know many women from all around the U.S. that feel that way. I think that despite how much we talk about equality, we carry those values that were instilled within us — we are fighting with preconceived ideas —in what we think we should be (what we were taught as kids) what we should be. There’s a sense of guilt and shame and doubt connected to our needs and wants and desires. And it’s a very difficult internal fight to overcome what’s instilled within us.” 

Kulumbegashvili’s filmmaking magic may be that she’s achieved showing that internal fight on screen with beauty, grace, frustration and pain. Georgia agrees, as Beginning is the country’s selection for Best International Feature Film at the Academy® Awards. Kulumbegashvili stresses that while religion is a heavy backdrop of the movie, ultimately, her commentary is much more than that: “My aim was not to make a film about religion, or judge what’s good and bad, but rather about people and the choices that we make; the struggle to understand that the choices Yana made were truly her own. We all deal with that, and I think that no matter how indoctrinated people might be, I never intended to judge, but to ask questions about how we as humans perceive religion and beliefs of any faith or religion, and how we make choices in our everyday life.”

Beginning is currently available on Mubi.

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