And Then We Danced is the first LGBTQ+ film to come out of Georgia. Based on the story of dancer Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) whose aspirations of joining the national ensemble start to slowly dissipate as his burgeoning sexuality surfaces. Its an exceptionally crafted coming-of-age movie set within the hypermasculine world of the country’s traditional folklore dance, hence predictably it was met with great controversy and protest when it was premiered in Tbilisi at the end of last year.
With its release in the UK, The London Economic had the chance to speak to director Levan Akin and lead actor Levan Gelbakhiani to tell us all about the film.
How long was the film in the making?
Levan Akin: I started doing the research in 2016. The actual filming, wasn’t that long ago…. like last year (2018). We filmed the whole thing over a short period.
Was it easy to cast for the movie considering its LGBTQ+ subject matter?
Akin: It was very organic. It was very different from the way how I usually cast for a film. When I started doing the research, I was originally wanting to make more of a documentary hybrid. In doing that process I found a lot of ‘real people’, which I then decided to use when it turned out I was making a film. The film is a mix of actors and non-actors. Like Levan is non-actor… I basically chose people that I thought were interesting and that had something of themselves that I could put in the film.
We did meet a few Georgian actors, specifically older and more established ones, but they immediately refused to be part of it. Even though they may not have a problem with the subject matter themselves, they were more concerned about being seen associated with the project.
Did you have any doubts about taking on the role?
Levan Gelbakhiani: The thing is, when they offered me the role, I said ‘no’ several times because I was thinking of what people would think. But then when I spoke with my friends and my family, they encouraged me. I mean, my mum was a little hesitant at first, she was scared of what might happen. Then I started realizing this would actually be a big opportunity for me. Also, for me as Georgian, I feel like I want things to change and progress but never really knew where to start to encourage change. With a film like this, it’s a great opportunity to instigate this change. Also inspiring for others to make this change.
Can you tell us how you injected that fluidity and flare into what is considered an austere masculine dance?
Gelbakhiani: I am a contemporary dancer, so I think that movement comes natural to me. Although everyone in Georgia goes through a period folklore dancing when they’re at school. Folklore dancing is stiffer and more restirctive, which is very different to how I dance. So, we played on that.
Akin: I think Levan will always dance differently because he is a contemporary dancer. And for me that is what suited the narrative: of him not fitting in with what the dance required. It was there from the beginning.
Were there issues filming in Georgia?
Akin: All the funding came from Sweden and France. Nothing from Georgia. The whole shoot I would say was very troubled. It got to the point we had to lie and tell people alternative stories of what the film was about for people to allow us to shoot at various locations. We had bodyguards on set as we got death threats. We wanted to be safe in case some random person turned up on set and started to cause trouble.
The chemistry between Merab and Irakli is very convincing.
Akin: Yes, I would say that it was there already. It was palatable to me from the very beginning. The very first moment I auditioned them together. If you meet Bachi in real-life he is a very charming person. His smile comes through his eyes. I don’t think chemistry is something that you can create.
Despite the film’s coming-of-age theme which is a premise used in a lot of LGBTQ+ films, And Then We Danced feels fresh and devoid of any over-sentimentality.
Akin: I feel that the film is well thought out, in how I present the world and the characters. Not meaning to sound arrogant, but I do feel it’s a matter of taste. This is my taste… my way of telling a story. I mean it’s a fine line to cross into over-sentimentality. Its a bit tricky, I would say to get the right balance. Also, a lot if happens in the editing room. I am not an overly sentimental person. I think in tragedy there should be humour and in humour there should be tragedy. You can’t be too sweet or too soft. Also, I have a lot of love for all the characters in the film, even the antagonists. Humour injects a certain humanity, understanding of the character’s motives.
The film appears to be a concise reflection of Georgia’s apparent struggle between progress and tradition.
Levan Akin: It’s in every single scene of the movie. Georgia’s history is a little complicated. It’s a country that has been under other countries rule for long periods of time, including Russia most recently. I think that Georgian culture and national identity is very important to a lot of local people and therefore there’s a deseperate need to preserve it. People feel very threatened when they are being asked to change in any way. They feel that this identity is under threat. I think Russia is using this LGBQT issue, using to show Georgian people that if they look towards the west they may become inflicted with this ‘gay virus’ that could infect their kids. It’s a political tool.
Yet you do see an aspiration to be more European within some of the younger characters in the film. Like Merab’s girlfriend advertising her cigarettes from London.
Akin: Of course. The youth are driving progression in that way as they were born with the internet. Also, in general, a lot of people in Georgia feel like they should be a part of Europe, because of its history of being under Soviet Union some feel that the country’s growth has been stunted. There are some telling facts: like it was the first country in the world that voted in a social democratic government in 1918. There were women in parliament then as well. That however, only lasted a few months, as shortly after the Bolshoviks took over. To play with the fantasy of what would Georgia have been if the 100 years hadn’t been lost, it’s something that a lot of people in Georgia think about.
And Then We Danced is out now on VOD.