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‘I couldn’t have made this film if I lived in Georgia.’ The queer love story inspired by traditional dance

Hailed as the ‘Georgian Call Me by Your Name’ after it premiered at Cannes, And Then We Danced is a bold but sensitive dissection of masculinity and social identity, set within the high-pressure world of the country’s national dance troupe.

And Then We Danced is the kind of arthouse feature that is not easy to make in Georgia. In a society where the Orthodox church and ultra-nationalist forces wield strong influence, the film’s LGBTQ storyline is bound to prove controversial; that it’s set within the Georgian National Ensemble, a traditional dance troupe where macho ideals are sacred, only adds to the tension. But abroad, the film is quickly becoming a festival hit. Some heralded it as a Call Me by Your Name for the Caucasus upon its world premiere at Cannes, and at the Odesa International Film Festival in Ukraine it shared the Grand Prix, and bagged a Best Actor prize for lead Levan Gelbakhiani.

Its Swedish-Georgian director, Levan Akin, grew up in Stockholm, and the film was mostly financed by Swedish sources. After his Odesa recognition, Akin told me: “I couldn’t have made this film if I lived in Georgia, because firstly, I wouldn’t have gotten any funding; secondly, I would have been ostracised.” But, he adds, within polarised Georgia itself, there is also very strong support. “The media there has been overwhelmingly positive, and I get messages every day on Instagram that a lot of young Georgians really want to see it.”

Gelbakhiani plays Merab, a talented dancer in the Georgian National Ensemble. He’s had the same female dance partner since he was 10, and has also fallen into the role of her boyfriend, more from societal expectation than infatuation. But he’s thrown off balance by a new spark of desire when Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a gifted dancer from Batumi, arrives as a rival in the troupe. Auditions are approaching to replace a member of the national ballet expelled after being caught having sex with another man while on tour. Initially bundled off to a monastery, the disgraced dancer is now hustling on the streets. His fate hangs over Merab not only as an opportunity, but as a cautionary tale.

Akin took care to shoot discreetly in Tbilisi. Even so, bodyguards were brought on set after far-right activists threatened the casting director, and many planned locations either fell through without explanation or were closed for bogus “renovations” when people got wind of the kind of movie in question.

“The thing with homophobia in Georgia that pisses me off is that many people aren’t open about it because they’re getting funding from EU organs and are supposed to be democratic,” the director says. “The far-right people you can sort of handle, but not all of these other people who are pretending to be progressive so they can get money, but are raging homophobes. Or the people that I know are gay, are pretending that they’re not, and are working in high positions to block our movie. You can literally be Liberace, and still be married with a kid there.”

“The thing with homophobia in Georgia that pisses me off is that many people aren’t open about it, because they’re getting funding from EU organs and are supposed to be democratic”

Akin was in the midst of making his last film, teen witch fantasy The Circle, in 2013 when he saw footage on YouTube that shook him into tackling the politically sensitive territory of And Then We Danced. It was an explosion of hatred on Tbilisi’s streets that is now notorious as a dark day for gay rights: on 17 May, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, queer activists were chased and attacked by a violent mob, led by Orthodox priests. “I felt ashamed, because the Georgia that I knew was much more tolerant and open than that,” says Akin. “I knew of course that the church isn’t that accepting of LGBTQI, as in many places around the world, but the extreme level of the hostility really surprised me. I kept thinking about it. Then when I finished my last movie I went on my own to Tbilisi to research the topic.”

Debate around LGBTQ rights has reached fever pitch recently in Georgia, as activists in Tbilisi struggled to hold the city’s first Pride parade this June in the face of vocal far-right aggression and a state reluctant to guarantee their safety through adequate police protection. The organisers were resigned to violence, understood as an inevitable stage in the march’s eventual acceptance and normalisation — a process witnessed in other post-Soviet cities such as Kyiv.

In the long term, the move toward greater visibility was seen as essential in improving life for a minority for whom persecution is a daily reality, and who are seeking asylum abroad in ever-greater numbers. Under huge pressure, the organisers managed to hold a scaled-down, guerrilla version of the march.

Akin regards cinema as another effective vehicle for visibility. “I wanted to make a film that could potentially have the power to change minds in Georgia, in Ukraine, and that part of the world — something accessible and quite broad. Somebody’s mother in Georgia — not necessarily a homophobe, but unsure — would see the film and realise that LGBTQI people are struggling with their lives just like everyone else.”

Akin says that he was inspired by the 80s teen movies he’d grown up with. “I’d never seen anything before that mixed the visuals of Tbilisi with that kind of storytelling. Georgian cinema is amazing, but it’s very reverential. ‘Pretentious’ makes it sound negative, so that’s not the right word, because I love it — but I wanted to make something youthful, energetic, fun.” The film’s real strength, aside from its gorgeous cinematography, is the wealth of detailed, colourful incidents woven around the main story arc, based on real-life experiences recounted to Akin during his research.

Horoom Nights: inside the secretive queer night at Tbilisi’s world-famous Bassiani club
Read more Horoom Nights: inside the secretive queer night at Tbilisi’s world-famous Bassiani club

“Before, I didn’t know anybody in that community. I’d just been [to Georgia] visiting family. So, for me, it was also like opening this box and all of these amazing stories came out,” he says. “It was quite difficult in the beginning to find people who wanted to talk to me. I went through an NGO, which introduced me to people. Quite quickly I came upon the whole dance aspect. I was meeting and shooting kids in [the Black Sea port of] Batumi who were in an after-school organisation for LGBTQI kids, which was really on the down-low and not officially sanctioned. They would just hang out and the first thing they would do was put on music and start dancing.”

Using dance to stage a battle for Georgian identity could not have been timelier on Akin’s part. Dance, which has long been regarded as an essential aspect of the nation’s cultural DNA, has in recent times become a politically combustible topic, as a new creative generation has turned away from tradition toward more globalised forms of expression. On the dancefloors of Tbilisi’s burgeoning techno scene, it has even become a form of activism. “We dance together, we fight together!” has become the rallying cry of the loose movement that grabbed media attention around the globe in May last year, when police with machine guns stormed Tbilisi’s world-famous Bassiani club in drug raids, and patrons responded in defiance with a thousands-strong protest rave in front of parliament, met by neo-Nazi counter-protesters.

Image: Odesa International Film Festival

Image: Odesa International Film Festival

A safe space for LGBTQ people, Bassiani has a monthly queer night, Horoom, which is subversively named after a traditional Georgian war dance. In And Then We Danced, it’s Bassiani where Merab ends up when his inner conflict becomes intolerable. In a city with little truly private space, it’s perhaps no surprise that, before he enters this concrete underground of pumping techno, a fellow troupe member sees him stumbling out of queer watering hole Success Bar — giving him the power, should he use it, to out him.

Akin not only shot in these iconic venues, he also featured cameos by well-known faces from Tbilisi’s nightlife, including Nia Gvatua, Success Bar’s charismatic 29-year-old owner, who recently took over and gave the long-running bar a hip image overhaul. “I’m really glad that Levan has touched on this subject and made it more visible around the globe,” Gvatua tells me. “It’s very unfortunate Georgians haven’t seen his film yet, since there are still risks that society will react, but he promised they’ll get the chance here soon.”

“I want young people to own their culture and not let these crazy bigots claim authority over what it means to be Georgian”

Akin says he walked a careful line when it came to portraying Tbilisi’s deeply divided society: “I didn’t want it to be a movie of polar extremes, so I didn’t go very deep into the hate, or too deep into what the hateful people would consider the decadent, Sodom-and-Gomorrah side of Bassiani, or drugs. It’s very Swedish maybe, but I tried to step into the middle. I didn’t want to alienate any viewers in order to get the message across.”

He had at first planned to make a documentary (“the real people are so interesting in themselves, so I didn’t want to recast it”), but turned to fiction due to his subjects’ concerns about exposure and potential repercussions. He was determined, however, not to tone down the sex scenes. “The norm for supposedly ‘progressive’ people in Georgia is that it’s OK to be gay, but you don’t have to flaunt it on the street. So, I didn’t want to cop out and pan toward a tree or something when they started having sex.”

The challenge of incorporating the myriad aspects of his personality into a coherent identity presses in upon Merab. Akin explains: “For me it wasn’t just about masculinity, but the question of what is tradition? How do you own your culture and still be you? When I talk to these young kids, they’re always saying Georgian dance sucks, and they don’t want to be part of it because to them it’s stifling and represents oppression. I try to tell them that I’m Georgian too, and for me this folk dancing is beautiful. I get goosebumps watching it, but that doesn’t make me patriarchal or nationalistic. I want them to own their culture and not let these crazy bigots claim authority over what it means to be Georgian.”

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