“Can we sit outside? I need to smoke.”
Levan Akin makes the request when we greet him outside a bookstore in Park City, Utah. The two of us find a cafe table nearby overlooking the street, where we watch a light powdering of snow begin to fall as the mid-week lull of the Sundance Film Festival begins.
Normally we might object to Akin smoking, but in his case, it somehow makes sense. His Sundance entry, And Then We Danced, has incited protests in the nation of Georgia where the film takes place. The story follows Merab, a lifelong dancer trained in traditional Georgian dance. He puts his career on the line when he meets Irakli, another handsome young dancer.
The queer content of And Then We Danced angered many. LGBTQ activists and even government officials came under physical attack from protesters. Yet the film has helped jump-start the queer rights movement in the very homophobic Georgia. In short, no wonder Akin needed a cigarette.
Akin granted Queerty some time during the Sundance festival to discuss the film, its reception, and how to cope in the face of violence. And Then We Danced opens in Los Angeles February 14 will have a rollout on streaming services later this year.
So this is only your third feature. Where did Merab’s story come from?
Actually, it’s pretty interesting. I got the genesis of the idea to go to Georgia and research the story back in 2013. 50 people had tried to hold Georgia’s first Pride Parade. They were attacked by a mob of 20,000 people who had organized a counter-demonstration. It was pretty brutal. 12 people were injured. It was all over the news.
I’m of Georgian descent, but I was born and raised in Sweden. But then I decided I needed to check it out. I was working on another film at the time, but as soon as I finished, I went to Georgia to start researching. The film just grew organically out of my research. I never set out to make a dance movie about a kid. It was just through my interviews and people I met along the way that the story evolved.
So, are your parents from Georiga?
Maybe this is a redundant question then, but what is the Georgian attitude toward queer people?
It’s legal to be LGBTQ since 2000. They’re supposed to be protected. But society—it feels like a cosmetic thing. The government doesn’t do anything to protect LGBTQ people. They are the lowest class, especially trans people. They’re murdered. You can’t get a job or go to school if you’re gay. You can’t be openly gay. A lot of people there are homophobic by default. They’ve never met gay people. There’s no representation. There’s tons of Russian propaganda. So the movie hit Georgia like a bomb. If you Google the premiere…
Oh you have?
Yes. It was crazy. And I want to talk about that in a minute. But first: Levan Gelbakhiani, your lead actor, had never acted before. How did you find him?
I found him on Instagram.
Really? You just messaged him and said “Do you want to be in a movie!?”
Sort of. Our casting person did. We met. He was reluctant to begin with, of course, because of the topic. But then we hit it off. We did a pilot to raise money, and we had fun doing that. So he was part of the project.
What was it that you saw in his Instagram pictures that made you think he could carry a film?
He was a dancer. I had decided I wanted a dancer, and he looked so endearing.
He does have that look about him, natural charisma.
He’s very fun to look at.
How scared were you going into this with an untested actor? That’s a huge risk to take.
It is. And a lot of the actors in the film are non-actors. It’s a mix of amateurs and actors. But they all jumped into this film head first not fearing anything. Also, it was a low-prestige project, sort of a side project. We didn’t have a lot of money, so there weren’t a lot of people trying to interfere. So I just did my thing. That was really nice.
So how do you approach directing actors that inexperienced? We should say at this point too, that Bachi Valishvilli, Levan’s costar, had also never made a film before.
He had acted in theatre, so he did have experience. But really, I had a very documentary approach to the whole shoot. We worked a lot with the camera far away on a zoom so that they didn’t feel they had a camera in their face. They could be natural.
Sure. I also have to ask though, because of the sex scenes and scenes requiring nudity, given the subject matter of the film as well, how do you direct your actors?
Actually those were among the easiest to do, surprisingly enough. It was just choreography. We did the choreography together, and then we just shot it. It wasn’t a big deal.
What really struck me in the movie is how much it’s about masculinity, as opposed to sexuality.
Yeah! It’s more about tradition also. It’s not a love story. There is a love story, but that is more what sets him free in his art.
And you use that as a way to examine traditions in the context of the dance.
It’s so ironic that we think of dance as being more feminine.
Very feminine, yeah.
But in Georgia, it’s considered very masculine.
Yeah, it is. That is interesting.
In doing your reseach, preparing for the film, what is the root of the masculinity fascination? Obviously that’s something we’re talking about across cultures right now, especially in the United States and Russia. I just watched two films this week about the gay purges in Russia. Both of those films also really focused on the notion of toxic masculinity. What is that obsession about?
That’s a good question. In Georgian culture, it’s a lot about the idea of the Georgian spirit. In the Georgian spirit, you have to be straight and Orthodox Christian to be considered Georgian. It’s a country that has been oppressed by so many other nations throughout history. Their sense of nationality is very, very strong. Anything they feel wants to push it in another direction or deconstruct it in any way is really threatening to them. Moreso than in other places.
And again, the idea of the Georgian alpha male, as you see in We Danced, is very, very strong. That’s why I chose Georgian dance as a start point. Then the audience would instantly understand what Georgian culture is all about. It really is a representation of their culture and spirit.
As one of the teachers says, “Dance is the spirit of Georgia.”
I’ve heard it said that Georgia is to Russia as Scotland is to the UK.
It’s a bit rougher.
It’s also southern, so all the Russians go there for sunny holidays, for food and for passionate men.
It’s sort of what Spain is to Sweden.
So then, what is the commitment to tradition? How does that relate to such strict ideas about masculinity and sex?
I think it’s the church. I really do. In Georgia, they come out against homosexuality all the time. Ironically, a week earlier, before our film came out, a scandal hit the Georgian church where they were accused of being pedophiles and having sex with young gay men. They diverted that into our movie and claimed we had planted the story.
Reading words that prove, point blank, that the church is lying is such a weird feeling. You know they’re lying, and we know we had nothing to do with it.
We’re having similar conversations in the west right now about the Catholic church, which has similar scandals.
Yeah. And there are so many answers. I can’t pinpoint what the obsession is, but I think it’s a combination of the church, the toxic masculinity that’s present all over the world, and also propaganda. We have to think of it like New York in the 60s. Because of the Soviet Union, a lot of cultural development stopped. There could only be a certain kind of art, that was socially realistic. It’s important to take a step back and remember, there was no representation present. In Sweden, we had gay people present in society since at least the early 80s. That’s almost 40 years. Now it’s starting to happen there thanks to a movie like this. It catapulted things forward 10 years. So that’s good. If you have no representation of nothing except “the norm,” and suddenly you’re presented with western gay pride, it’s jarring.
Now from a directorial standpoint, what was your approach to the dance sequences? We don’t talk about it much, but shooting a musical or dance sequence is essentially the same as directing an elaborate action sequence. It’s very difficult.
So do you storyboard?
No. What we did, actually, was we wanted the camera, in those instances, to be very close to him. I wanted it to feel very tactile, like you were there with him. That was something that was important to me: to be with him in the dance.
So obviously this is a controversial film in Georgia and has inspired protests. Government officials were attacked—physically—over the film. Activists have been assaulted. What’s that been like for you? Are you getting death threats?
We’ve gotten some on social media, yeah. But the film has also gotten so much support in Georgia. It has really changed [the country]. The government just came out today and said they will officially support the Pride parade.
And protect them against the bigots. The music in the movie—the soundtrack has become an anthem for kids in their demonstrations. It’s also the first youth movie in Georgia, representing them. So it really has changed Georgia. A lot of the older generation that never tolerated gay people, I read stories every day. I took my mom to see the movie. She doesn’t like gay people. And she was crying, saying “I can’t believe how hard they have it.”
I’m going to start crying just talking about it. It’s been crazy. My cousin’s wife’s grandma came to Stockholm to see the film because she couldn’t see it in Georgia. And she couldn’t stop crying. She’s 89 and had never met a gay person. I met her right before Sundance because she really wanted to talk about the film. And she was so emotional about it.
So what kind of questions did she ask you?
One thing she asked me: “How could you have grown up in Sweden and made a film that is so Georgian? You caught every detail, How’s that possible?” And I told her I did so much research, that it’s my job. But she was really impressed by the level of detail in Georgian everyday life.
They say the purpose of art is to start a conversation. It seems like you’ve started one on a cultural level. What does that feel like? What’s it like to wake up and find out the Georgian government is now embracing a Pride parade because of your movie?
You know what’s weird? Everything that happened with the movie after we premiered has been hard to process. It all happens so fast. A year ago I’d basically just finished the shoot. It’s all been so fast. I was editing until April, then we got into Cannes. So since then, it’s just been a rollercoaster. So I’m happy, but sometimes I can’t really process it. It’s too surreal. When the film premiered in Georgia we were on the news for two weeks straight. Every hour there was something about the movie. At that point, it’s almost like I didn’t make the movie. I’m on the outside looking in. It’s so weird. I feel removed somehow.
That makes a certain amount of sense. It’s like it’s about everybody else.
It’s so crazy.
Now, have you been in touch with any of the victims of violence?
Yeah, I’ve met several who were part of the 2013 Pride parade. There was also a girl injured at the premiere. We know her, and she is fine. She still hasn’t seen the film! She’s going to go to Belgium and see it there. Can you imagine, three months later? She wrote to our actors “I probably won’t get beaten up there.” Fingers crossed.
That’s so wonderful that you’ve inspired change. What’s next for you?
Next I’m doing a TV series in Sweden about two women from different social classes whose roads cross and they have to work together. It’s a bit like Thelma and Louise. Then I’m doing a new film that’s set in Istanbul. So that’s the next culture I’m going to rile up.
Can you tell us about it?
I’m still really early on in my research. Basically, I want to explore the notion of family, how you can’t always be close with your blood family but find other people to become your family. That’s very vague, but it does have part of it set in Georgia, and it’s based on stories I heard while shooting And then We Danced.
And Then We Danced opens in Los Angeles February 14 will have a rollout on streaming services later this year.