In mid-2013, violent anti-LGBT demonstrations erupted in Georgia, the fledgling democracy in the South Caucasus which only five years prior had successfully recovered from an aggressive Russian invasion. Roughly 20,000 counter protestors had gathered in the capital of Tblisi to target some 50 LGBT activists marching for gay rights. Watching the violence unfold from his home in Sweden, gay filmmaker Levan Akin felt ashamed that his country of origin, where he spent summers in his youth, would display its homophobia so violently.
The revelation inspired him to set his third feature film in Tblisi, and envision it as a tour-de-force coming-of-age drama about a traditional Georgian dancer coming to terms with his sexuality. Six years later, “And Then We Danced,” which is Sweden’s official submission for Best International Feature, is reigniting anti-gay sentiment in Georgia.
Queer films have enjoyed significant mainstream success and critical acclaim in Hollywood in recent years, with the consecutive trifecta of “Carol,” “Moonlight” and “Call Me By Your Name” receiving recognition from the Academy, not to mention the fervent adulation of LGBTQ audiences. We’re well past the days of “Brokeback Mountain,” when it was rare to see a queer film in the Oscar conversation. As evidenced by the fervor over last year’s Kenyan lesbian film “Rafiki,” queer film is just as galvanizing — and politically impactful — outside the U.S. and Western Europe as it was in Hollywood 20 years ago.
Which is why, when a film as tender, well-crafted, and culturally significant as “And Then We Danced” comes along, attention must be paid.
“This notion of tradition and culture and these bigots hijacking what it’s supposed to mean really pisses me off,” Akin told IndieWire during an interview in New York during Newfest. “A lot of young people were really disowning their heritage in Georgia because it represented oppression and patriarchy for them. With this film I wanted to be like — ‘It doesn’t have to. You can decide what you want it to represent.'”
Even though it was filmed in Tblisi, the film has been ecstatically embraced in Akin’s home country. In addition to being the country’s Oscar pick, it is Sweden’s top-reviewed film of the year and continues to screen in theaters there. Its reception in Georgia, while rapturous among progressives, has been decidedly more fraught. When an initial trailer premiered accompanying the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere, it was “like a bomb” according to Akin. But for the filmmaker, the trouble started from the beginning of production.
“I set it up as a very classic narrative. I knew that I couldn’t deviate too much because I never knew what I would have, we would lose location on like one day’s notice,” Akin said. Once word got out about the content of the film, Akin and his producers not only had trouble securing shooting locations, but they also had to hire a security detail after receiving threats. Initially naive about the potential challenges of shooting a queer film in a conservative country, Akin first realized how dire the situation was during an early meeting at one of the national dance ensembles.
“When they found out what the movie was about they basically kicked us out, and they were like, ‘Why is it a movie about a boy and a boy? There are no gay people in Georgian dance.’ And I was like — ‘Actually there are, I interviewed several.’ And they were like, ‘Get the fuck out of here.'”
Rather than giving up, Akin described the constraints as liberating. The filmmaker — who trained under Swedish auteur Roy Andersson and has directed for the Swedish National Television, which he describes as “a machine” — knew how to work on the fly.
“I really had to be flexible. But I’ve never filmed like this before, and this is how I always want to work now. It was so fun to be in the moment and to never really know what I was gonna get, but I took what I could all the time,” he said. “The restaurant was open when were filming, the [sex workers] were working that night. It’s very neorealist. We literally ran out with our camera and were like — ‘OK let’s do this scene now.’ I’ve never worked like that.”
Casting proved a unique challenge as well. For his luminous leading man, with whom the filmmaker shares a first name, Akin tapped contemporary dancer Levan Gelbakhiani for the role of Merab. With distinctive features and a lithe physicality, Gelbakhiani toggled effortlessly between child-like innocence, explosive anger, and wisdom beyond his years. His riveting performance is indisputably the heart and spine of the film.
But because of the sensitive subject matter, not to mention an ambivalence towards acting, Gelbakhiani was initially reluctant to even meet with the director. Akin eventually wore him down, and began the process of getting the dancer comfortable being vulnerable on camera. In an initial teaser to help raise production money, Gelbakhiani was far too guarded and reserved.
“That was a concern my Swedish producer had. She was like, ‘He’s nice to look at, he has a very intriguing face, but you can feel that he’s protecting himself.’ And I was like, ‘Just give me time and I’ll break him down,'” Akin said. His inexperience forced Akin to get creative with the edit. “He isn’t an actor, so a lot of the things were one-shot takes. It was very hard to get him to do the same thing two times. It was really sort of like Russian roulette. I edited the movie, and it was almost like editing a documentary in a way, because I had so much material but so little of the same thing.”
While the story includes a satisfying romantic storyline, with an earring-clad fellow dancer no less, the film is really more about Merab’s personal journey of self actualization. Lest wary queer audiences worry, the film includes multiple sex scenes — and they’re smokin’ hot.
“I have [the sex scenes] in the movie because I thought they were necessary for the narrative, they were necessary for the viewers to understand their connection,” Akin said. “There is a love story in the film, but to me it was never supposed to be a love movie. It’s about him finding his place in this traditional society and the love story is a catalyst for that.”
Akin is enjoying the success of “And Then We Danced,” though he was understandably upset about news of anti-gay protests at screenings in Tblisi. The film has received universally rave reviews, including from the Georgian media (as well as from this critic). It’s both heartening and refreshing to see a gay film with political impact, something the blockbusters of today’s Hollywood lack in a big way. By returning to his Georgian roots, Akin was able to shine a light on a global issue while injecting a shot of adrenaline into his own artistic process. The result is his most impactful film yet.
“I think I’d gotten bored of the old way of filming,” he said. “So this film really gave me back my joy of making film. I’m happy that it showed somehow in the movie.”