“A warm embrace rather than a punch in the stomach”: Levan Akin on his queer Georgian love story And Then We Danced

Akin’s tender drama offers an intoxicating celebration of Georgian culture, presenting a defiant challenge to homophobia in the country. Alex Davidson speaks to the director and traces its place within a small but significant tradition of queer films from the former USSR. 

► And Then We Danced is streaming on BFI Player as part of the #FlareatHome film festival.

Alex Davidson
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Bachi Valishvili as Irakli and Levan Gelbakhiani as Merab in And Then We Danced

Bachi Valishvili as Irakli and Levan Gelbakhiani as Merab in And Then We Danced

“The film is very loving towards Georgia – it’s almost an invitation to go,” said director Levan Akin to me at the BFI London Film Festival last October, discussing his film And Then We Danced – a moving, visually gorgeous gay love story about Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a teenage Georgian dancer living in Tbilisi, who falls hard for new recruit Irakli (Bachi Valishvili).

“I think when it comes out in Georgia in November,” Akin continued, “a lot of people are going to be surprised at how warm it is and how it is very celebratory. There are many people in Georgia who don’t have any idea about LGBTQ issues, but… the movie premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, which really boosted awareness. People are really proud of it.”

At those LFF screenings, Akin and Gelbakhiani received standing ovations. One month later, the film had its domestic premiere in Tbilisi, where Akin’s predictions sadly proved overly hopeful, at least with regard to the reaction from some. The film was greeted with far-right protests, as hundreds of men tried to force their way into the cinema to disrupt the screening against a line of police officers in riot gear. Georgia’s Orthodox Church condemned the film, calling it “an attack against the church”. As well as the distress caused to audience members, such protests also necessitated additional security measures, adding costs to venues keen to screen the film.

When I meet with Akin again a few months later, he expresses surprise that the hate groups have been given so much media coverage, preferring to emphasise how encouraged he has been by the response from some audiences to the film. “The support and the reaction to the film has been very intense following the premiere,” he says. “Many older people who have never seen any LGBTQ stories were very moved by it. The film has become almost a symbol in Georgia, with people playing the music at demonstrations. It’s really wild.”

Levan Akin

Levan Akin
Credit: Carla Orrego Veliz

The Swedish-Georgian director was born in Stockholm. “But we used to go to Georgia every summer. I have an insider and an outsider perspective at the same time, which is really fascinating,” he says. “A lot of the time you are so ingrained in a country because you live there, you are blind to it.” Georgia has a complex relationship to homosexuality. Compared to other former Soviet states, the country is legislatively fairly progressive, with laws that prohibit discrimination against queer people.

Akin is sceptical: “It looks and reads very well, but it’s not really properly implemented.” He was partly inspired to make And Then We Danced when thousands of Georgians protested against a 2013 Pride march in Tbilisi, breaking through police barricades and beating queer activists with stinging nettles. “There should be repercussions for the people organising these counter-demonstrations and inciting this violence. And there aren’t.”

Akin had to be guarded in how he communicated the film’s subject matter when it was in production. “We contacted one of the national dance ensembles very early on, naively thinking they might help us,” he says. “We told them about the movie. They freaked and called everybody and told them not to work with us. Far-right people called our casting agent and threatened her; we had bodyguards while we were shooting.”

The extent of the homophobia resulted in the loss of film locations at extremely short notice, although ultimately the resistance entrenched Akin’s determination to make the film. “It was a very rough shoot, we had very little money but we were also bolstered by all the pushback,” he recalls. “That gave us energy to keep fighting.”

 

Post-Soviet chill

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

While some filmmakers in post-communist European countries have started to engage with queer-positive storylines in their movies over the last decade, the approach of many directors in post-Soviet states has been considerably more cautious.

Ironically, two of the USSR’s greatest filmmakers are considered by many to have been queer. Despite the fact that he married until his death in 1948, many believe Sergei Eisenstein was gay – an interpretation made explicit in Peter Greenaway’s bawdy biopic Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015), a film that earned much opprobrium in Russia.

Sergei Parajanov, director of stunning works such as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) and The Colour of Pomegranates (1968), was sentenced to prison in the late 1940s for homosexual acts with an officer of the MGB (a forerunner of the KGB), a few years before he began making films. His flamboyance and provocative nature earned him the disapproval of the Soviet authorities, and in the early 1970s he was sent to a maximum-security gulag on a number of charges, a sentence that led to a large group of artists and filmmakers worldwide petitioning for his release.

Unsurprisingly, none of the films of Eisenstein or Parajanov feature explicitly gay characters, although homoeroticism can be detected in the work of both.

Jolly Fellows (2009)

Jolly Fellows (2009)

While some critics have read queer subtexts into films such as Hussein Erkenov’s 100 Days Before the Command (1990), a dreamlike, erotically charged piece about young soldiers in the Soviet army, it wasn’t until 2004, nearly 15 years after the dissolution of the USSR, that openly queer characters began to appear. You I Love (2004), a silly romantic comedy with very broad satirical swipes at capitalism, is Russia’s first gay-positive film, even if it ends on an ambiguous note for the two male lovers. Felix Mikhailov’s Jolly Fellows (2009) explores the lives of drag queens in Moscow, with many moments of misery weaved in among the sparkles. The bleak but beautiful Winter Journey (2013) follows the doomed affair between a gay music student and a petty criminal.

A controversial Russian amendment, forbidding positive depictions of homosexuality “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”, was signed into law by Vladimir Putin in 2013, with transgressors facing hefty fines.

As a result Kirill Serebrennikov, after struggling to find funding amid the resultant homophobia in Russia, gave up his ambition to make a film about the gay composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky (Serebrennikov’s 2016 film The Student does feature a prominent gay character who, inevitably, ends up killed by the end credits). If representations of gay characters are rare, portrayals of lesbian, bisexual and trans characters in feature films from former Soviet states are almost non-existent.

The Student (2016)

The Student (2016)

While homophobia may be prevalent in Georgia, the tolerance of queer people is significantly greater than in many other countries. Homosexuality is illegal in more than 70 nations, and in 2019 Brunei briefly joined the ranks of countries where gay sex is punishable by death.

Remarkably, films exploring queer lives are still made in these countries. Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki (2018), the first Kenyan film selected for the Cannes Film Festival, was temporarily banned in its home country for “promoting lesbianism”. Walking with Shadows (2019), a British-Nigerian co-production set in Lagos and based on a novel by Jude Dibia, explores the fallout when the homosexuality of a married man is discovered.

Although Rafiki and Walking with Shadows are comparatively mild in their depiction of queer love – the former is a teen romance, the latter a soapy melodrama – the fact that they are from countries where gay people are persecuted is a major step forward.

Making these kinds of films in countries with strong traditional values is, unsurprisingly, very challenging. When shooting Retablo (2017), a powerful Bafta-nominated drama set in a Peruvian Andes village, in which a teenager discovers his father has had affairs with men, director Alvaro Delgado Aparicio had to sidestep some of the queer details of the story when seeking permission to film in rural locations.

Akin faced similar issues when scouting locations for And Then We Danced, occasionally needing to state that the story was about a French tourist who falls in love with Georgian culture, rather than a gay romance.

 

A love letter to Georgia

And Then We Danced (2019)

And Then We Danced (2019)

And Then We Danced is much more optimistic in its outlook than these other films made in oppressive conditions. Akin was determined, for example, not to show any violence towards the gay characters. First-time viewers may watch certain scenes on edge, waiting for a physical attack that never comes.

“I wanted the film to be hopeful. I never wanted Levan Gelbakhiani’s character to be victimised in any way and beaten up,” says Akin. “I just wanted him to be in love and happy and full of warmth. I could never bear to make the film if something bad had happened to that character.” Gelbakhiani, whom Akin discovered on Instagram, is superb in his film debut, as is Giorgi Tsereteli as Merab’s boorish brother, whose complex relationship with the protagonist leads to some of the film’s most powerful moments.

Despite the film’s criticism of entrenched prejudices, Akin has described And Then We Danced as a love letter to Georgian culture and tradition, a country where a large proportion of children learn to dance after school. The director describes dance as one of five central forms of Georgian culture, alongside polyphonic singing, the church, wine and food.

“I wanted the film to be a warm embrace rather than a punch in the stomach,” Akin adds. “I didn’t want it to feel angry and to be an attack on tradition and culture, because I love tradition and culture. I don’t want the bigots to hijack my tradition and my culture. Nobody has a right to tell anyone what boxes you need to check to say you’re Georgian.”

And Then We Danced (2019)

And Then We Danced (2019)

And Then We Danced is a sensory feast, with Lisabi Fridell’s cinematography emphasising the colours, the flavours and the visual splendour of the dance performances, and the region. Scenes featuring a close-up of a plate of steaming khinkali (Georgian dumplings) in a bustling restaurant or a group of youths woozily listening to a haunting polyphonic chorus as they recover from hangovers are highly evocative. By the end credits, the viewer may feel like they have actually visited Tbilisi.

While the film evokes the beauty and the skill of the traditional Georgian dance and music scene in Tbilisi, Akin was also keen to show the city’s vibrant youth culture, with an exhilarating, joyous scene in which Merab is taken for a wild night on the town with a new friend.

“Bassiani is a club in Tbilisi that has become world-famous. It’s a venue that is important to Tbilisi’s youth culture and a queer-friendly space,” says Akin. “It’s where you can let your hair down and do what you want. I really wanted to have Bassiani in the film, as it’s where [the characters] would go that night. I thought it would be a nice way for Merab to discover new sides to himself and his dancing.”

And Then We Danced (2019)

And Then We Danced (2019)

In keeping with Akin’s desire to show different sides to Tbilisi, the next scene features a cheerfully bawdy encounter with a group of queer sex workers by one of the city’s parks. Ultimately, however dispiriting the protests have been, Akin is delighted to have reached audiences and helped to change attitudes. Despite the coverage, And Then We Danced is a romantic and defiantly celebratory film, filled with humour and energy. A huge fan of John Hughes, the director of The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Akin compares his film to 80s Hollywood films about young lives.

“I love 80s teen movies. It’s my present to Eastern Europe,” he says. “With And Then We Danced, they get their own 80s teen movie, as there’s never been one from Georgia.” A key scene in the film even seems to echo and subsequently subvert the climax of Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance (1983), a glossy, very 80s blockbuster that’s also about a marginalised dancer.

How have Georgian queer teens reacted to And Then We Danced?

“Many young people write to me through social media on a daily basis thanking me for the film and for giving them a voice – not only from Georgia, but from many Eastern European countries. And actually from all over the world.”

 

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