Following its world premiere at Cannes in 2019 writer/director Levan Akin’s gay coming of age drama And Then We Danced went on to enjoy a hugely successful international festival run, including showings at last month’s Sundance, picking up awards in cities such as Chicago, New York and Montréal. The premiere in Tbilisi, Georgia, where the film was shot, sparked controversy with hundreds taking part in homophobic protests that turned violent, making news headlines throughout the world. Despite the disruptions, three days of screenings in both Tbilisi and Batumi (where there were similar demonstrations) quickly sold out with filmgoers determined to see one of the country’s first explicitly LGBTQ films. Sweden, where Levan grew up, submitted the film as its official Oscar entry.
And Then We Danced opens in New York today followed by Los Angeles on Friday February 14th. The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with filmmaker Levan Akin this morning in New York about his inspiration for making the film, the challenges of shooting a movie with a lead gay character in Georgia, its controversial opening there and gaining a new perspective on the country.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: How was Sundance?
Levan Akin: “Intense and fun!”
You have Georgian heritage but grew up in Sweden, what was the draw of making a film in Georgia?
“I never set out to make a film in Georgia, it was the topic that interested me because of the situation for LGBTQ+ people in Georgia. They tried to have a pride parade in 2013 and they were attacked and when I saw that I thought ‘OK, I should do something on that topic in Georgia’. So that’s how is started actually.”
So you saw the homophobic demonstrations against the Tbilisi pride parade reported on the mainstream news in Sweden?
“Yes, it was in the media internationally, I think I saw it on CNN on Youtube. I thought it was pretty appalling and so I decided to got to Georgia, but I didn’t know if I was even going to make a film at that stage, I just went there on a whim to start researching this topic and then the film grew out of that.”
What kind of research did you do, was it mainly interviews?
“I interviewed a lot of young and older LGBTQ people just to get a sense of the situation in Georgia. From this dark subject matter of what happened at that pride parade that went awfully wrong, I wanted to make a film that was hopeful and also celebratory of art.”
Yes, that was one thing that surprised me when I saw the film actually, I was expecting something a bit grim with it being a gay love story set in a conservative society.
“I didn’t want it to be grim, I’m so tired of all the grimness in the world. We need to make positive things because love is beautiful, so I wanted to celebrate that and not critique the bigots, I’m tired of them, I don’t even want to acknowledge them. There is never a point in the film where the lead character Merab is upset that he’s gay or says ‘oh, no I’m gay!’ He’s just embracing love and it gives him an outlet to find himself in his art and to find his place in this society that doesn’t accept him, that what the film is about to me.”
And I think you and the character expressed that idea beautifully in the defiant dance scene towards the end.
“We’ve all wanted to do a dance like that at some time in our lives, right?”
I loved the entire cast, but what about your two leads how did you find them?
“The main actor, Levan Gelbakhiani who lays Merab, I found him on Instagram! I’d interviewed people during the research process who were his friends and we’d added each other on Intagram, and then Levan came up as a suggestion, like you might know this person. I checked him out and he was a dancer, and I thought he was intriguing so we booked a meeting with him. He was reluctant to be in the film in the beginning because of the subject matter and living in Georgia, but then he decided to be part of it and the film sort of grew out of casting him. I think I would’ve made a different film if I had found a different person. I formed it around Levan’s personality because he wasn’t actor.”
That’s so impressive that he wasn’t a professional actor before this. He hadn’t done any acting?
“No, not at all. But he’s amazing.”
Yes, he’s fantastic in it. I suppose being a dancer he is a performer though, so it’s related. It’s a very natural performance, maybe that’s partly because he wasn’t as experienced, sometimes I think acting training can make people be in the heads too much, too technical.
“Yes and I also worked a lot with all of the cast because we had non-actors and actors and amateurs. I wanted to train them to be in the moment and listen and trust their impulses.”
What about your other lead actor Bachi Valishvili who plays Irakli?
“He is a professional actor, he’s worked in Georgian theatre. He came to audition and he had interesting an chemistry with Levan, so I thought ‘OK, this will be good’.
And does he have a dance background also, that aspect is very impressive in the film?
“He danced a little as a kid, but we Levan isn’t a Georgian trained dancer either, so we had to have rehearsals for a couple of months. But a lot of kids in Georgia have danced Georgian dance before. They do it as an after school activity.”
It seems from the film anyway that traditional Georgian dance is quite dominant there as a way to maintain the culture and carry it forward.
“It is, definitely.”
Is is something that you did as child in Sweden?
“No, but there are photos of me in traditional Georgian clothes, but I never danced.”
With the dance aspect, how concerned were you about making look authentic?
“We had a Georgian choreographer so he made sure everything looked accurate and convincing.”
And what about any assistance from professional Georgian dance companies or training schools?
“They didn’t want to help us.”
Did you go to them and tell them what you were doing?
“Yes, I was quite honest with one of them and they basically said no and that there are no gay people in Georgian dance.”
Had you already got that storyline of the gay dancer being kicked out of the professional dance company in the screenplay at that point?
“That storyline I got from a dancer that I talked to when I was doing research interviews, and he’s actually in the movie, but we don’t say who he is to preserve his anonymity.”
He was the one that it happened to in real life?
“Yes. It’s so sad.”
I think it woks well in the screenplay because it shows how conservative things are and that the stakes are high for Levan.
“Yes, it gives the viewer a sense of what’s at stake. Again without going too dark and showing anything.”
Yes it’s very effective the way that the girls are talking about what happened to him, being thrown out of the company and then going to what’s essentially conversation therapy, but then being sexually assaulted there.
“Yes, then he’s raped it’s so sad.”
And that happened to the man you interviewed?
“Yes, all of it happened.”
In terms of shooting the film, the cinematography is very intimate, tell us about your shooting style?
“When we did the teaser for funding purposes I shot the film myself and that’s the style we kept. I really wanted it to be close and intimate and documentary style and also because we had to film so much on the fly, we had to be flexible because of the subject matter, we would lose locations on a day’s notice.”
When people found out what the film was about?
What kind of locations did you lose?
“Surprisingly enough official locations that we had secured through the municipality of Tbilisi, and they’re supposed to be supportive of everything. I mean it’s legal to be gay in Georgia, so that really pissed me off. We’d get things like ‘we’re renovating tomorrow’ and we’d be like ‘no, you’re not and we’re filming there tomorrow’ and they’d come back with ‘no, you can’t’ even though everything had been arranged. We would have to be so flexible.”
Well, that’s even more impressive because you have some beautiful locations. I love that house with the back garden where they have the party.
“Yeah, I love that location too.”
I guess with filmmaking there are always surprises and unexpected things you have to react to and overcome.
“There are always challenges, yeah and we had very little money. It was just a crazy shoot.”:
And I understand you had to have security while you were filming at one point, how did that come about?
“Our casting director received death threats so I thought ‘OK, we need security in case a crazy reason decides to show up.'”
So you already knew that you wanted to make the film in reaction to the pride parade, but did spending time in Georgia while researching and then when making the film give you more of an insight into what it’s like for LGBTQ people living in Georgia?
“Definitely, I mean you can’t be open about it. Now it’s better because of the film, it’s crazy, the film has actually changed things in Georgia. It’s a depressingly masculine society and you can’t be openly gay or lesbian and get a job there, it’s not like you can go to an interview and if they asked you ‘are you married with kids?’ and you say ‘no, I have a boyfriend’ that would never happen, you wouldn’t get the job.”
What makes you think that your film has had that kind of impact?
“Just from people that have texted and emailed, and also from the news in Georgia. The media has been very supportive of the film. I’ve received a lot of emails from friends and strangers who took their grandparents to see the film and said that seeing the film changed their opinion of gay people. Actually, one of our sound engineers, his parents were semi-homophobic like most people who can be homophobic by default when they’ve never knowingly met any LGBTQ people. His parents saw the film and they both cried and they said ‘we are never going to judge a gay person again’, which is sweet.”
Yes very sweet and pretty amazing, even if you just changed two people’s minds that was worth making the film for but it sounds like the impact has gone much further from all the feedback you’ve had. It’s great people have taken their grandparents to see it. The opening in Georgia was pretty controversial and became an international news story didn’t it, why was that?
“Yes, the crazies were rioting outside the screening and the church went out against it, but the tickets sold out in something like 15 minutes, so many people really wanted to see it, but we didn’t have more than three days of screenings because of all those crazy people causing such a ruckus. We had to have police there. If it hadn’t been for the protesters it would be screening now still and it would have been perfectly fine.”
So you haven’t been able to show it in Georgia apart from those three days yet?
“No we couldn’t. Maybe we can do it again sometime and of course eventually it will be online.”
In a roundabout weird way they did the film a favour, they did your publicity for you.
“Yes, you’re right, in a weird way they did, which is fun and ironic and it’s a slap in their face. We should thank them actually.”
And it’s always people who haven’t even seen a film protesting isn’t it?They get incensed without even seeing it! Going back to the film itself, I loved the colour scheme, it tends to be lighter and warmer in the first part and then it darkens in the second half.
“We just slightly exaggerated the colours that are in Tbilisi, the orange light comes from the street lamps and we thought that was nice so we made it stronger. We wanted it to feel soft and romantic and hopeful I guess.”
One of your locations is a gay bar in the film, so there is some LGBTQ nightlife in Tbilisi?
“Yes, there is an underground culture there, the youth culture. It’s like two separate worlds in Tbilisi, you have older generation living in one lane and then you have the kids and they have these bars and techno clubs and everything, so it’s pretty exciting.”
So people can be more open in that environment?
“Yes, in that zone, but there’s security around it too. For instance with one of the nightclubs ahead of going there you have to apply to their Facebook page and they have to verify that you are who you say you are.”
And the bar you used in the film is that a real place?
Yes, that exists, if you go to Tbilisi you have to go there. You should go there, it’s an amazing place to be a tourist.”
How long were you there altogether with research and the shoot?
“Two years I was there.”
Personally, what kind of experience have you had renewing your link to the country, given your heritage?
“It’s been doubled edged for me actually, because I have this affinity for Georgia which I still do and love Georgia with all my heart, but also being there for that long I got to see firsthand how complicated life is there and how a lot of people are struggling in different ways and that makes me sad. I want the country to thrive. Economically it’s very difficult for a lot of people, there are great income gaps, the salaries are very low, yet things are still quite expensive. I think also my relationship with Georgia really changed by making this film because before this I would go there and think ‘oh, it’s so nice and relaxed and there’s great food and wine’ and now I see it with different eyes. Things that I saw from a Western perspective as almost exotic or quaint, like ‘oh, they still have their old way of doing things, that’s so cute’, now I realise actually that’s really difficult for them and they’re only doing it that way because they don’t have a choice, it’s not cute. My perspective changed a lot from being there. And also having made a film like this there, their relationship to me has changed. I mean I was a nobody to them and now I’m this person who made this film and everybody knows about it in Georgia, so I don’t know how it’ll be when I go back there again.”
Would you make another film there?
“Potentially. Parts of my next film could be shot there, but I’m not sure yet. I’m going to Istanbul to do research for my next film, maybe it’ll be set there. It’s a wonderful city.”
The film has shown throughout the world, what’s your festival experience been like?
“It’s been intense, we started off in Cannes which was so fun because none of the actors had seen the film yet, so it was their first time and we were watching it all together in Cannes. It was very overwhelming, it was crazy. Then it’s just been travelling since and it’s been released internationally, so it’s been very intense doing all the promotion. It’s premiering in Spain today, but the US and the UK are the pretty much the last countries where it’s opening, maybe a few more in the Spring, but now it’s done. The UK is my last stop in March.”
And you’ve already been there with the London film festival.
“Yes, I met the director of God’s Own Country Francis Lee there, and he’s been so supportive, he tweeted about my film today, he’s been amazing. It’s so sweet of him to support another filmmaker like that.”
Lastly, can I ask if you have a favourite LGBTQ+ film, play, book, artwork or piece of music and why it resonates with you?
“The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. I first saw that play when I was about seventeen and it’s still one of my strongest theatre experiences. I try to catch it all them time when I can, different productions. I just love his relationship to Laura and his mother. I love Williams and it’s such a good play.”
UK cinema release Friday March 13th 2020.