It is a testament to the power of art when a fictional film can change how an entire country addresses LGBTQ+ rights. Such is the case with And Then We Danced, whose screening in the country of Georgia led to antagonistic riots and ultimately shed light on marginalized communities. Director Levan Akin’s beautiful love story is set to traditional Georgian dance and music, as Merab, a young competitive dancer, puts his future in jeopardy when he falls for a talented fellow male dancer. The direction and cinematography focus more on showing than telling in this sumptuous, passionate, and joyful story of discovery and rebellion.
“The film is really my love letter to Georgia,” says Akin, who is of Georgian descent but was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden. In an interview at the Sundance Film Festival, he explains how he wanted to include traditional Georgian dance in the film “for pure cinema . . . you can tell so much about Georgian dance and society without them talking about it.” He shows how a new generation honors tradition while transforming it. “Nobody is allowed to tell anybody what they need to be in order to love your tradition and how you choose to interpret it.”
The film also reflects his love of the polyphonic singing unique to Georgia, especially a hauntingly beautiful and passionate a cappella moment where the camera glides across the transfixed faces of several generations of artists. Akin met cinematographer Lisabi Fridell through a producer and after ten minutes on Skype was convinced they had to work together. Their relationship was “very organic” Akin recalls, and Fridell’s lens becomes a principal storyteller.
And Then We Danced introduces Levan Gelbakhiani, the film’s star, who is a natural actor and dancer, easily charismatic and vulnerable. He threw himself into this performance, rehearsing Georgian dance for three months prior to shooting. One of the final scenes is an intense combination of traditional and contemporary dance. “We had some choreography, but they gave me space where I can improvise for myself,” he says. The results are breathtaking.
Family plays an important role in the film and in Georgian life—Merab lives with his mother, grandmother, and brother. “For socioeconomic reasons you can’t move out and get your own flat,” Akin says. “Family is super important to survive in Georgia.” There is also this intergenerational dynamic, as the grandmother was a dancer, too. “I have an affinity from loving Tennessee Williams of families that are down and out and still live in the past.”
Since And Then We Danced premiered at Cannes in 2019, it has been a whirlwind for Akin, who feels existentially exhausted. “This is the first LGBTQ+ film to come out of not just Georgia but the whole region,” he says, proudly. After screening in Tbilisi, Georgia’s largest city, “we had to stop after three days because of riots,” which he said were protests motivated by the church and, indirectly, the government. They had 30 police at every screening, along with metal detectors. The film brought the conversation about enforcing existing laws protecting LGBTQ+ individuals to the surface for the first time. People who had never seen gay people onscreen realized they are just regular Georgians. “I don’t know if that would have happened if not for this movie,” Akins says.
The film has been a huge international success with distribution rights to 40 countries. Now when Gelbakhiani walks the streets, Georgian youth recognize him. “Some teenagers were having a birthday celebration in a bar, I was in front of the window,” he says. “They were playing the soundtrack to the film,” he says. He says the teens ran outside singing the songs from his movie, in disbelief that it was him.
“The movie soundtrack has become a thing in Georgia, they play it at demonstrations,” Akin says with amazement. “It’s like the soundtrack of a movement.” And indeed, And Then We Danced has become a phenomenon. And with a tinge of continuing existential exhaustion he adds, “It’s pretty cool to make a film that changes the world and the state of things in the country.” v