I have often commented on the bravery of bringing LGBTQ stories to our screens from those countries where oppression is still rife. But when this bravery is coupled with a mission to break down the stereotypes and perceptions leading to segregation and discrimination. While exploring culture, identity and history that directly influences homophobic actions. Film can not only open doors to understanding, diversity and cultural change. But also enable wider discussion and reflection on the interface between a countries history and embeded discrimination. And that is exactly what is achieved through Swedish filmmaker Leven Akin’s new film And Then We Danced.
LGBTQ films that manage to achieve this are rare delights in sea of similarity. But when they do appear, they sear themselves into one’s memory, while equally challenging and changing audience perceptions. From the social isolation of LGBTQ Brazilian young people in Socrates. Through to the rural isolation and community fears of Gods Own Country. Or the power of belief, passion and love against a backdrop of mortality and discrimination in 120bpm.
These are LGBTQ stories that transcend the boundaries of their genre. Dovetailing sexuality and gender identity with wider themes of social and cultural change and belonging. And it is here that ‘And Then We Danced’ shines as brightly as many of its groundbreaking predecessors. Providing us with a journey that not only reflects the cultural and artistic landscape of Georgia. But layers it with a brave and bold journey of both personal and community acceptance. Where the barriers of institutionalised and internalised homophobia find voice in the life of two young dancers. As the power and energy of Georgian dance swirls around their brief but pivotal love affair.
Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) balances his love of dance with a part time job waiting tables. His income helping to support three generations living in a cramped Tbilisi flat. Including his older brother David, mum and grandmother. His daily restaurant leftovers providing the bulk of the family meals while his older brother (who also dances) drinks his nights away in local bars. However, despite his breadline existence, Merab longs to become a full time dancer with the National Georgian Ensemble.
But while Merab dreams of his life changing through dance, his abilities to make it real lay within the shadow of his family name. His father having been a notable dancer who dropped out of the Ensemble. While his brothers drinking and money making schemes often lead the family name into disrepute. Meanwhile the dancing school is overseen by the hard and cold figure of Aliko (Kakha Gogidze). A teacher who proudly states “There is no room for weakness in Georgian dance”. Something that jars with Merab’s more expressive belief in the power of the art form.
However, when Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), a gifted dancer from another town joins the troupe. Merab finds himself both fascinated and jealous of Irakli’s dancing ability and social prowess. His feelings of rivalry, mixing with a suppressed desire. One that slowly pulls Merab into a new world of possibilities and change. Just as auditions approach that could lead him to his dream of joining the National Ensemble.
Georgias history as a country has been far from smooth in both ancient, modern and recent times. From joining the Russian Empire in 1800 to claiming its independence after the Russian Revolution. Only to once more find itself under soviet control in 1921. However, in 1991 it once again claimed its independence despite ongoing conflicts that saw The Georgian Civil War of 1993. Due to this Georgia has often found its ancient cultural roots wrapped in the history of those who have invaded or controlled its destiny. With the arts a victim of a toxic masculine grip that often does not reflect the rich history of the countries past.
Many of these masculine influences stem from Georgia’s soviet past, with a direct link to the rights and acceptance of LGBTQ communities. After all homosexuality was banned in Georgia under Czarist rule, only to be accepted in law on the country joining the European community. However, despite this change, oppression against LGBTQ people is still rife in a society where perceived masculinity dominates communities. A reality highlighted by the large scale protests and violence against attempted gay pride events in 2013 and 2019. As well as recent protests against the premiere of And Then We Danced in its home city.
Despite having been brought up in Stockholm, director Leven Akin’s Georgian ancestry shines through in his vision. Showing not only a love for the country and its culture. But also a deep understanding of the complex social boundaries facing LGBTQ people. While also reflecting the power and influence of the Orthodox Church and Russian culture in fuelling negative perceptions and stereotypes. Ultimately creating a film that not only challenges Georgian society but speaks of generational divide and cultural appropriation. While surrounding this with a young man’s defiant yet beautifully delicate sexual awakening. As Merab’s world changes forever through a daring yet tender love affair.
And this neatly brings us on to the performance of Levan Gelbakhiani. A young man who is a revelation in his first on screen role. Leading the narrative with a magnetic intensity and charm that embodies pride, passion and freedom. While also reflecting the power of art in enabling escape and rebirth.
While many reviews will point to the standard love story at the films heart as a mainstay of LGBTQ cinema. And Then We Danced is fundamentally a personal study of one young man’s journey to self-acceptance. Through a community of generational change and social and artistic restriction. As we witness the shackles holding Merab’s sexuality and desire shattered through expressionism, release and desire. With this raw emotional power never stronger than in Merab’s final defiant dance. A dance where he not only removes his personal chains but unlocks the artistic restraints born of social control and oppression.
Director: Levan Akin