Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili, whose film “Beginning” is her country’s Oscar entry, thought COVID-19 was the reason why there were so few people backstage when the San Sebastian Film Festival jury, headed by Luca Guadagnino, was awarding its prizes. “Backstage there were only two other film teams.”

For the next hour, the 34-year-old would trundle onto the stage four times as her outstanding debut film picked up the Golden Shell award for best film, director, actress for Ia Sukhitashvili, and screenplay for Kulumbegashvili and co-writer Rati Oneli, who also plays a role.

“I just thought I was there to pick up the best actress prize, as we knew we won that in advance because Ia needed to record a video,” Kulumbegashvili told Variety in a Paris cafe.

Afterwards, she chatted with Guadagnino and his jury members. “They wanted to talk to me about what the future of the film could be, and they also gave me good advice on looking for money for my next film.”

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Courtesy of Wild Bunch

“Beginning” starts with a Jehovah’s Witnesses community being attacked by an extremist group during a sermon in a small Georgian village. Yana (Sukhitashvili), the wife of the community leader, David (Oneli), faces a slow and tormenting breakdown after the police advise her husband to destroy CCTV footage of the attack.

It was Kulumbegashvili’s father’s funeral that the genesis of “Beginning” emerged. “Some Jehovah’s Witnesses were attending, and we started to talk,” recalls Kulumbegashvili. “I realized that they were ostracized from the community where they grew up, but on the other hand, the structure of their religious group is also very particular. So I started to be interested in how they live and the subject of alienation.”

“Beginning” will be playing Out of Competition at El Gouna Film Festival. The in-demand Kulumbegashvili will also be at a special three-day Cannes Film Festival event in Cannes from Oct. 27 to 29, where “Beginning” will be one of four films from the Cannes Label selection to screen at the Lumiere Theatre. Kulumbegashvili will also be on the short film jury.

“I’m very interested to see how the audience responds to the film,” says the director. “It’s been interesting to see all kinds of reactions to the film, from anger to love. All reactions are equally important to me.”

For her Middle East and North Africa premiere, she says, “I think every audience reacts differently. I’m interested to see the El Gouna feedback. For Cannes, where I’ll be present physically, I’m really nervous, because one thing I can’t overcome is that tension of being in a theater with an audience.”

She is looking forward to partaking in the Short Film Jury. Columbia University film graduate Kulumbegashvili had two short films “Invisible Spaces” (2014) and “Léthé” (2016) play in competition at Cannes. She recalls, “The best experience was to sit in the theater in Cannes because I think it was the first time in my life when I understood how time functions differently on the big screen. And it’s my first time on a jury.”

Also, “Beginning” is Georgia’s pick for the International Feature Film Oscar. The director responded, “This year on the jury of the Georgian Oscar selection committee was a lot of young directors and that’s important because I can see that they want to be a bit radical and they connected with the film and have a lot of trust in it.”

Kulumbegashvili has already started work on an as-yet-untitled second film: “In some way, I’m exploring the same themes, but I want to go into more depth this time. At the center of the new work is a woman. It’s again set in Georgia and the places that I grew up. The producers and cinematographer are the same, possibly some actors. But I can’t say much more about it.”