Tbilisi, June 2019 – LGTB rights activists in Georgia were preparing to hold what would have been the country’s first gay pride parade, hoping to convert underground momentum into political action. The march was eventually called off due to concerns for the protesters’ safety, but a small march was later held on July 8. For queer Georgians, a threat of violence runs through daily life.
Despite there being laws in place which prohibit discrimination against the LGBT community, Georgians still face many legal and obstacles in society. A 2016 report from the Pew Research Center found that 93% of Georgian adults believed that homosexuality should not be accepted in society, and further surveys have found that LGBT people are less accepted than drug-addicts and criminals.
There is a strong link between Georgian Orthodox teachings and homophobia. In 2013, a Pride rally in Tbilisi was attacked by a mob reportedly numbering over 10,000, led by Orthodox patriarchs who described the march as “an insult to Georgian tradition”. Numerous priests and counter-protesters holding religious icons can be seen in footage of the attack. Watching footage of the ferocity of the attack, it is surprising that only 17 people were injured. What is not surprising is that with such violent opposition, LGBT culture and identity is not celebrated openly in Georgia.
The violence in 2013 provided the inspiration for Georgia’s first LGBT film. And Then We Danced (directed by Levan Akin) tenderly depicts a romance between two male dancers in the National Georgian Ensemble. The very premise was seen as not only an attack on the church, but on Georgia’s cherished heritage. The film’s premier in Tbilisi was the scene of large anti-LGBT riots, where hundreds of ultra-nationalist, homophobic protesters threw firecrackers and burnt pride flags. Similar scenes were seen in the coastal city of Batumi. One of the organisers of the protests decried And Then We Danced as “a moral threat to the fabric of our society” and a mockery of Georgia’s cultural heritage.
However, the film reads as both a love letter to Georgia, and a criticism of the repressive macho culture which is so prevalent in the country.
At the heart of And Then We Danced is Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a young dancer who has been training for a place in the National Georgian Ensemble with his partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili). When the opening of a coveted place in the Ensemble coincides with the arrival of the charismatic Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), Merab finds himself consumed with envy and – as he eventually realises – desires which would be dangerous for him to act upon.
The decision to frame this story around Georgian dance was a genius one on so many levels. Traditional Georgian dance is a thrilling art form: much of the choreography is based on training exercises for medieval warriors, and the male dancers frequently fly through the air and whirl at dizzying speeds, brandishing real swords. And Then We Danced is a film which is electrifying in its physicality: the bold movements of the dancers; the underlying threat of violence as exemplified by the homophobic attack which cut a dancer’s career brutally short; and the unmistakeable chemistry between Merab and Irakli as they are unable to express their true feelings for each other for fear of reprisals.
The dance studio also serves as a microcosm of traditional Georgian society. Women are expected to be chaste, gliding like swans without any kind of desire. Men are expected to be stoic and chivalrous, as strong and as unmoving as mountains. It’s a kind of masculinity the svelte Merab struggles to conform to, as he subconsciously infuses his dancing with playful gestures and sensual expressions. Although Irakli, with his broadly muscled frame and macho appearance, appears better suited to this world, it is at the expense of his means of self expression, symbolised by the earring he removes upon joining the ensemble.
Outside the studio, the dancers are different people, flouting the roles to which they are expected to conform. Female dancers smoke and initiate discussions with their boyfriends about making the next move, male dancers are shown caring for elderly relatives.
It’s that contrast between repression and expression which makes And Then We Danced such a joy to watch. It does not attack Georgia and her history, nor does it portray the country as backwards-facing and wedded to out-of-date ideas. Instead, it offers up a positive alternative vision of what Georgia can be, daring its critics to snuff out the happiness Merab and Irakli find in each other. The leafy boulevards and rickety side streets where neighbours gossip from their lacy balconies are bathed in warm light; characters relish Georgian delicacies like khachapuri and khinkali; the film is soundtracked by a mixture of classic western dance tunes and Georgian folk songs sung in spine-tingling polyphony. Levan Akin may have grown up in Sweden and have been horrified by the violence in 2013 and continued hostility to the LGBT community in the country of his roots, but And Then We Danced could not have been made by somebody who hated Georgia. Quite the opposite: it takes a great deal of love to ask one’s country or home to be better.
“I wanted to do something about how tradition is up for interpretation, that nobody can tell you how you should be in order to love your culture or cherish your history. You can do it on your own terms.”LEvan Akin – GQ Magazine
What truly elevates And Then We Danced to greatness beyond the excellent production is the strength of the cast, especially Valishvili and Gelbakhiani. Valishvili’s Irakli may be able to perform the masculine roles that Merab cannot, but he’s portrayed as having a sense of fun and gentle should which are at odds with the role he plays in the dance studio. His chemistry with Gelbakhiani is undeniable, and the scenes of them dancing together, uninhibited by macho chivalric codes and the eyes of their inflexible overseers are joyous.
But Gelbakhiani, for whom And Then We Danced is his first dramatic role, is a treat to watch and fully deserving of the dozen acting awards he picked up at numerous international film festivals. Originally a dancer (and boy, does it show), he was able to transfer his skills to give a beautifully observed performance where every movement is filled with meaning. The camera drinks it all in: the way his elfin face lights up around Irakli, and he sways through the streets as if drunk on self-discovery. Its impossible not be intoxicated by their performances and this achingly beautiful love story.
The Academy Awards campaign for And Then We Danced was ultimately unsuccessful, which is a testament to the ridiculousness of effectively restricting the cinematic output of almost two hundred countries to five slots in a competitions which is regarded as an objective arbiter of what constitutes great cinema. Yes, Parasite and Roma transcended the “Best International Feature Film” pigeonhole, but their success only proves the rule. But And Then We Danced is exactly the kind of film we should be celebrating: beautiful, brave, honest and groundbreaking.
The riots at the premiere halted screenings of And Then We Danced in Georgia, but it has become something of a symbol for the small mountainous republic’s LGBT population. Its soundtrack (including the immensely catch “Johnny Boy” by Kite) has become an anthem for a generation of young Georgians who want to see their country move in a more progressive direction. This film is not going anywhere. The riots at his premiere and the way in which it has been embraced by young Georgians is a testament to the film’s emotive power and technical mastery. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most exciting and important films you will watch in 2020.
And Then We Danced is available on video on demand platforms, including CURZON HOME CINEMA.