Director: Dea Kulumbegashvili
Stars: Ia Sukhitashvili, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvil
A communal space – a place of worship – lies empty. Gradually it fills with people and then, mid-sermon, it is dramatically emptied again, as Molotovs are thrown inside. The place burns and it descends into chaos. All of this happens without a cut and without a camera move. Dea Kulumbegashvili and her cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan fix us in place for minutes on end and take us sternly through the scene’s manifold turns. One simple shot, but so much change.
Set in her native Georgia, Beginning chronicles a Jehovah’s Witness community under persecution and the tensions that occur when those that wish to remain encounter those that wish violently for them to be moved. This fealty to long-held static shots extends far beyond the opening scene described above. Often Beginning feels like a film holding its breath, evoking the stoicism it depicts. Sometimes proud, sometimes meek, sometimes deeply embittered.
It’s lead character, teacher Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), is the still centre of its world. We’re asked to wait as she meditates in a darkened room, slouched at a 45 degree angle. When she is interviewed by a bristling, provocative detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili), she sits in fixed position at a dining room chair. She is as inanimate as the figure of Jessie Buckley in Akio Stehrenberger’s poster for I’m thinking of ending things. Yana isn’t heaped with snow, but leave her long enough and she could be.
Or she would be if the scene didn’t take a dark turn toward the sexually abusive…
The rigor of Beginning sometimes feels stifling, severe, but that’s rather the point, as it is in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, for instance. Beginning feels formerly connected to Akerman’s seminal piece, even if its focuses are quite different. The light grain of the 35mm film and the boxy aspect ratio enhance this sense of kinship. Of pictures reaching toward each other through time. Having made interior spaces potentially perilous from her opening scene, Kulumbegashvili maintains that same pressure and unease as the film continues. Deep shadows and open doors lead to disquiet. The threats are outside of the frame. Intruders that exist in potential.
One shot of Yana riding on a bus becomes filled with such pressure when hands rest on the back of her seat. Could she be throttled imminently? We share her paranoia; that permanent sense of being braced for impact. It is followed by a minutes-long shot of Yana resting on the ground, her son close by, distant birdsong in the air, the play of light on her closed eyes. A cherished moment of reprieve and self-care. And yet still, the tension in the sustained shot is almost unbearable. As though a break in her calm must be inevitable.
In a way Beginning is about such anxieties. Is about PTSD. Is about a kind of shattered innocence. The film is classified as a drama, most commonly, but I feel that there’s a strong case to be made for its position in the horror genre. The first nightmare it evokes is that of waiting for something terrible to happen. How draining that is, how encompassing. The weight of waiting. The second nightmare is the realisation that you were right to be worried all that time, and that its maybe even worse than you had feared, when your mind was running on and on. When The Bad Thing comes, Kulumbegashvili remains as detached as ever, making the viewer feel powerless, alone, subjected to similar torment.
These are the feelings of persecution, which is what is happening to Yana and her friends. The process of being ostracised through intimidation and sudden acts of unpredictable violence. Here it is localised to Georgia and a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but its a universal human trait of intolerance that can be applied anywhere. Her film is specific, but it is also sweeping. We recognise its horrors from first, second or third-hand experience. Grim truisms indeed.
All of which makes Beginning a tough and sobering watch. It’s stillness and sense of entrenched trauma reminded me at times of the astonishing bleakness found in Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs. Like that film, this is one that is more accurately endured rather than enjoyed, and return visits will be few and far between. But the experience itself in undeniably powerful; a bold expression of what it is like to feel trapped by circumstance and, for Kulumbegashvili, an incredibly assertive debut feature. The brief bit of copy on MUBI proclaims that the film “marks the revelation of an exciting new voice in cinema”. No kidding.