AND THEN WE DANCED is the first Georgian LGBTQ film to get an international cinema release and while it has had massive international festival success it also sparked huge violent protests from the far right in its home country. Movies.ie met with writer/director Levan Akin and star Levan Gelbakhiani to chat about the film.
How did the idea for the film came about? Levan Akin: My parents are Georgian, but I was born and raised in Sweden. I saw news on Facebook of a pride parade that people 50 people tried to have in Tbilisi. It was the first ever and they went out marching, but a counter demonstration was organized by the Orthodox Church and other far right groups…. And they were like 20,000 people. If you watch the YouTube video you’ll see what I saw. It’s like a zombie movie.
It’s completely disproportionate Levan Akin: Yeah I was like what? It was insane. So I was like, what’s going on and I remember not wanting to show like friends about it. I was ashamed of Georgia. I was like, I don’t want people to see this because this is shameful and that’s not the Georgia that I know, really. So I started thinking, why has it become like this? And I went to Georgia just to research into this topic in 2016 and that’s what led to this movie. And my theory is that, you know, in places like Georgia, for instance, where they haven’t been exposed to LGBTQ people, they’re sort of homophobic by default, because they think it’s weird. And then you can use that to your advantage.
If you want to create propaganda, for instance, against the West, you can you can mobilise it and weaponise it and I think that’s what happened in Georgia. This movie is hopefully like an antidote to that. It has already become a huge deal.
I’m going to go back actually. Let’s start off in terms of making the film: so you had an idea for the film back in 2013 and now in 2016 you started researching this? And then you went in you interviewed people. Levan Akin: Yes I interviewed real people some of whom ended up playing the prostitutes in the film.
So can you tell us a bit about the process from deciding to interview people to it then becoming the film that it became?
Levan Akin: Yes, good question. I met and studied these people and I thought they were so interesting visually, they had so much character that I felt like, I don’t just want to take this and go home and write a story and then cast actors. I want them to be part of it somehow. Make it real. And also give back to the community and engage them in their own story somehow. And then I was like, I’m not a documentarian, how do I do this? And then I had this idea that was gonna have interviews mixed with scenes from their lives, like a sort of docu-drama. But then at the end of the day, I couldn’t do that because people didn’t want to portray themselves in the movie. So I decided, you know what, who cares if this is real drama or fiction, because I think like that division feels old anyway. It’s like, this movie’s a mix of everything. A lot of the things you see in the movie are real actually, because it’s emotionally real.
So you chose to make it as a drama instead of a docu-drama. You wrote it all instead. Levan Akin: Yeah I wrote a beginning a middle and an end so that we would have something to hang it off but everything else was sort of in motion and I changed them as we went. But we wrote things a lot whilst filming out of necessity, because we would get kicked out of places. You know, it was really like guerrilla film in that way.
What difficulties did the film face as a result of its content? Levan Akin: The difficulty during the filming process was that we were boycotted – one national ensemble called all of the dancers and told them not to be part of this movie or you’ll get fired. We got death threats. We lost locations with a few hours notice. We had actors who didn’t want to be in the movie: we had to be very sneaky with everything we did in that sense
That sounds horrendous. For something so lovely and so well put together to come out of that is amazing Levan Akin: And so important to Georgia, yeah. And then when it was released a few weeks ago we decided to screen the film first for three days and then we were hoping to prolong it. There’s been enormous support for the movie in Georgia, people are dying to see it and they wanted to show it. But then these groups mobilised and they were standing outside the screens so the cinemas needed 30 policemen in every theatre inside the screening rooms. And metal detectors.
Levan Gelbakhiani : They had these policeman sitting behind the chairs, looking at people to make sure that they didn’t attack
Is it just me or do some straight people have too much time on their hands? Levan Akin: I know. The thing is so many straight people came and saw the film and so many amazing stories came out of the screening. This old lady Lydia, she was so sweet. She’s 89 years old and she was that What’s all this fuss about? Why she just posted on Facebook And she was like, Oh my god, what’s up with this and then a TV crew came and interviewed her and she was like, I’m gonna go see this movie.
Levan Gelbakhiani: She was like can someone gave me a ticket? I don’t have a ticket.
Levan Akin: Oh really?
The whole thing was a scam to get free tickets. Clever lady Levan Akin: Yeah… she saw the movie and she loved it. Maybe she would have gotten riled up if somebody came up to her like, man, those gays are gonna get married on the street. But when she sees this movie she’s like okay it’s just a regular kid and love is love
Levan Gelbakhiani: Yeah, he falls in love and that’s that’s just really lovely
Levan Akin: There’s all this wrong information that they spread spread it on social media. People get really scared about the movie cause they are saying guys get married in it – they basically made up a new plot
Levan Gelbakhiani: And they said it was gay porn
Levan Akin: Yeah they had like this statement and they sent this to the police station saying they had to block the movie because you can’t show gay porn. And then Ministry of Internal Affairs made a statement saying Yeah, we watched the movie and basically we can find any gay porn in there. Which means they must have watched gay porn to know what they were looking for. (laughs)
You said you often had to change filming location with no notice. And that it’s changed you as director because you realised how exciting it is to have to work like that. Can you tell us about that? Levan Akin: Yeah, it was really liberating. So I’m Swedish. You know, Bjork says in one song I thought I could organise freedom… how Scandinavian of me… which is so true because you know in Sweden when you’re off, like if I have three days off, I lay in bed all night thinking about what I’m going to do on my day off, scheduling it. In Georgia, they don’t schedule anything. Like they’re in the moment. They’re living in the moment. They don’t care about tomorrow or yesterday. It’s happy in a way, but it’s also extremely not. It’s too extreme to one side. They need a little organisation. That was the beginning for me and I became like, not a Georgian Georgian, but I really let go of my need for control. I’m a film director and I love to plan things, but here I couldn’t and it was really liberating and I felt that it really changed my outlook in my working process. And it you know, fundamentally has changed me.
Do you think that you’ll be going for more of a guerrilla off the cuff style in future then? Levan Akin: Yeah, I will definitely. I was supposed to do this TV series now and I’m definitely going to implement a lot of the guerrilla kind of stuff.
Levan, this is your first job as an actor. I was shocked when I found that out because you’d never have known. So much of the film is just your face. Levan Gelbakhiani: Thank you
So, director Levan, how did you know that he’d be able to pull that off? Levan Akin: It was a process so first I was intrigued by him and I knew that he was interesting to look at visually because I could see him on Instagram so I knew and he doesn’t know this but
I felt that he was very guarded and he has this shield, or he had. He’s much more relaxed now. And he was very timid, but I could also sense that he was really wanting in this and that he was very curious. And I think that curiosity was what made me think like okay if he’s curious and if he’s sort of brave he might join me on this journey and what we did was that we shot sort of teaser like the first dance scene of the movie.
Not the one you see in the movie – we have the exact same scene but I shot one year earlier on my own calendar and might include it in some extra material. It’s really interesting… And I got it home to Sweden and I edited it and my producer said that they felt that he was too guarded. That he was he was nice to look at but you could feel that he was containing himself and that he was uncomfortable.
And I was like, Yeah, but the kids not an actor. I remember saying trust me, we’ll get in there. I invited him to Sweden for two weeks to get to know him. And so he lived with us for a week, I think. And you took like a dance class. And there again, you were super, super shy in the beginning, but towards the end, you sort of loosened up a little. And then you went home back to Georgia. And I continued to research on the movie and I still was like I want to use this kid.
So while I was doing research while I was auditioning other people, I would use him and he became like part of my core team. He used to sit in here discussing people with us. He was really smart and got comfortable. So he felt this sense of ownership like it was his movie too
And so it was a it was a process – to get to shooting the movie took two years and I used to just watch and film him when he was like cooking, feeling more relaxed to observe his behaviour because it inspired stuff in the movie. I could test him to see what worked.
Like when he buys potatoes in the movie? (He goes downstairs off the street to a basement where a woman is watching tv in what looks like a living room that turns out to be a store) That thing happened for real and he used to live next door to them and he was like, I’m gonna buy this stuff and when he walks down and I followed him in there just like God who is this woman why she’s laying on the couch Why is this TV on the shop with vegetables and she lives there too like it’s so weird
Yes I really didn’t know what to expect when he went down there. Dark and surreal. Levan Akin: Yeah, Georgia has just sort of like random little mixtures of homes and businesses and stuff.
It doesn’t look like there’s a lot of money there. And with the oppressive church presence and poorness that feels familiar from Ireland in the eighties and the fears of homosexuality it all felt quite familiar in an uncomfortable way Levan Akin: Yeah. I’m just thinking in this bubble that we’re all in, you know, it’s so easy to get complacent about things like gayness. Like in 90% of the world, it’s not OK you know.
Levan the actor, you said yesterday that you actually turned down the role five times. Can you tell me why? Levan Gelbakhiani: The reason why I say no five times it was because of things like fear. I mean, it’s not easy to kind of agree to the project because of my society. There’s too much responsibility on your shoulders and there’s like thousands of people behind you to get asked all these questions and they have to be ready for that.
And your family and friends were supportive? Levan Gelbakhiani: Yeah, of course. Of course. Yeah. But it took time to get it.
You say of course, but to me, given the stories that I’m hearing and the story behind the film that doesn’t seem like that it’s a given. Levan Gelbakhiani: My mother works in theatre but she was scared a little bit because of these scary moments because you never know when they’ll become dangerous – because it only takes you one second and then you probably can die – like someone can kill you. We just had a trans Lady killed by Georgian crazy men because of their gender identity and you realise that you’re kind of the banner of the movement, because like in Georgia is not just only a movie it’s become like a whole movement.
Did you realise when you were making it, it would become such a big deal? Levan Akin: I mean, I hoped that this could happen… I didn’t expect to the international level it has… like in Sweden it would you know, go into cinemas I never thought we would like get into Cannes or all these festivals
Levan Akin : Yeah, I think I mean, I’m really proud of these guys. They’re so cool and brave and there’s really I would never have done this when I was their age I was like an idiot. What a brave man. He (Levan) was 19 when I met him
MI: God, you were brave. Wow. That’s amazing. So what would you say to other young gay people like the character you play in the film being brave enough, or being themselves and being willing to be visible? Levan Akin: Also sometimes just survive in the background, and you know, don’t take shit but don’t also poke the bear. I know that one day you will, you know come in another situation where you can, not today but take it easy.
I think that’s a really good way to look at it as so much of so much of today’s kind of Instagram sort of self help society is thinking you always have to be yourself 100% as hard and loud as possible. Which is easily said and done in more tolerant societies. Levan Akin: Yeah. And it’s like that can get you killed… like in analogue places. Don’t be yourself if it’ll get you killed. Get out
I really enjoyed some of the use of music and film. I really loved the scene after the lead characters have been together for the first time when they sing this hymn? And it felt like the requiem for his old life but the start of something new and beautiful. Levan Akin: it’s a it’s a polyphonic hymn yes. It’s so beautiful. It’s a love song about unrequited love.
To me, the way you shot it is kind of like drifting through this tableau. It felt like it was almost like a funeral for his old life and also a celebration of starting his how he wants it. Levan Akin: Exactly. Also I wanted it to be like the return point of no return like innocence lost like he knew that he crossed a threshold. He doesn’t know what it’s going to signify. He knows that for him personally, he’s going down a new path but he doesn’t also know what it means for his relationship.
I liked that you didn’t have him be beaten up in the end, as in so many queer movies and media. Levan Akin: I always want to tell the positive story, as you can see in the film with the brothers. It doesn’t go how you might expect
I really liked how that storyline was handled at the end. There are many scenes where you dance and I particularly enjoyed the scene where you danced drunk with a lampshade on your head after your friends fell asleep. I love that you’ve taken this really masculine thing that he’s been forced to his whole life, and he’s got this kind of femininity inside him and then he just lets it out. And it’s so transgressive and it’s so powerful. As is the final dance. Levan Akin: He also hugs himself at the end.
Yes! I loved it. Who choreographed the last dance? Levan Gelbakhiani: There was like this Georgian choreographer and there was this girl Natasha Blizzard, who is a contemporary dancer and choreographer. And there was also like some parts done by me because it was like really difficult to kind of have this transition between Georgian and contemporary and it was like really, really, really hard to get the result. But at the end of the day, she said I will give you like some points and some like basic choreography and feel free to do in between yourself.
AND THEN WE DANCED is in Irish cinemas from March 13th
Interview by AJ O’Neill