Beginning is the first feature by young Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili, an artist from whom great things were likely expected. Her first two efforts at short films were showered with award nominations, and Beginning is the first Georgian film to be accepted at the Cannes Film Festival. It premiered this year at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was awarded the critic-chosen FIPRESCI Prize, whose jury called it “a brave and fresh quiet storm of a film.” It is a distinctive production that deals with issues of faith and justice, through a simple, personal story, using a unique, very visual approach that gives the film a strange and memorable look.
The film deals with a small community of Jehovah’s Witnesses established in a town in Georgia and their relations with the disapproving town residents. The film opens on complete darkness, the only sound that of intent, whispered prayers from main character Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), a devoted missionary for the little Witness group. From here we move to a service in the meeting hall, peaceful until the moment an unseen person opens the door and throws a firebomb into the building. The resulting panic, and the discouraged people watching their hall burn to the ground, is handled with great effectiveness.
From this point, the drama arises from the community’s interaction with the town’s mainstream population, who are resentful of the religion’s missionary efforts, and their very presence. The police make it clear they have no intention of prosecuting, or even identifying, the people who burned the meeting hall, and when Yana’s husband, David (Rati Oneli) insists of pressing charges, the comfort and safety of Yana and her community are increasingly threatened.
The film is subtle, understated, and minimalist almost to a fault. The ordinary scenes of domestic life among the Witness families are shown with affectionate simplicity; the ongoing problems with their community emerge at first as background details: the lack of acceptance from the residents, the fact that Yana’s little son George has no friends. The firebombing was the last and worst of a series of snubs and hostile actions which Yana’s community had stoically ignored until this point. Even the police intimidation that makes up a major part of the plot is shown in a bland, unemotional way, often using the director’s unusual camerawork choice of keeping one of the characters audible but completely off-screen throughout the discussion.
Suspense builds slowly and with great subtlety, as pressure on the community, and on Yana specifically, increases, but it is not expressed through dialogue or open emotion, only through minor acts, such as Yana’s anxiety while doing her customary missionary work, whispering anxious prayers over her sleeping son, or refusing to let him play outside any longer for fear of vague dangers; Yana’s hesitance to openly discuss her fears on a visit to her sister; or an oddly effective scene showing, mostly off-camera, the vaguely threatening behaviour of a male passenger on the bus, which even Yana can’t be sure is real or intended. The quietly expressive but carefully restrained performance by Georgian theatre and film actress Ia Sukhitashvili is a big part of what makes the approach successful.
When the amorphous danger finally expresses itself openly in a climactic scene, the camera once again refuses to provide the expected drama and emotional intensity. It is seen from a distance, too far away to hear raised voices, in a stark single shot, with no mood music or even soundtrack apart from faint sounds of the wind and rolling waves, giving the incident an entirely different kind of horror, that of a terrible event made completely banal.
The visual effectiveness of Beginning is no accident. The film editor is Matthieu Taponier, who edited other films greatly dependent on visual impact, the brilliant Son of Saul and the award-winning Sunset; the unusual electronic musical score comes from Nicolas Jaar, whose work includes the critically acclaimed Dheepan and Ema. It was shot on 35 mm film rather than digital.
The film offers something of a dual finale, one which shows the community, and Yana’s family, trying to recover and move on; and a more surprising one, which reveals the depth of the harm done by the town’s animosity. In the final shots, the director once again lets her unique camerawork speak, ending dialogue and using an eerie time-lapse shot to draw the film to a conclusion.