Forbidden love in a patriarchal society
A review of And Then We Danced. A film written and directed by Levan Akin. Sweden, Georgia, 2019.
For Georgians, dance has never been just a cultural phenomenon, a product of specific values or aesthetics. After police raids on Tbilisi’s popular nightclubs in May 2018, thousands of young Georgians went on the streets to protest. Under the beats of electronic music in front of parliament buildings, they protested by dancing. The slogan “we dance together, we fight together” went viral on social media. Raving became a political statement, a form of resistance to the oppressive system and the conservative values of society. For most of those ravers, an eclectic mixture of drum machines, synthesisers, sequences, and other instruments became a symbol of change and progress, while traditional Georgian dance epitomised conservativism, patriarchy and backwardness.
An ideological gap
At the same time, Georgia’s rave revolution unveiled the increasing ideological gap between the liberal youth and traditional conservativism – deeply rooted in Georgian society, politics and culture. In the movie And Then We Danced, traditional Georgian dance seems to exemplify society – frozen between traditional values and progress, and in desperate need for change. Levan Akin, a Swedish-Georgian director, shows that Georgian dance, even though symbolising traditional values, is still compatible with improvisation and modernity since the interpretation of dance largely depends on the identities of a the dancer or audience. Just like his contemporaries, the film’s protagonist, Merab, has several identities: he is Georgian, gay, a brother, a son, and, most importantly, a dancer. Akin showed that in traditional Georgian ensembles, being gay and a dancer are not mutually exclusive. Merab can be a passionate traditional Georgian dancer, gay and still painfully “Georgian”, with his everyday problems that are so familiar to most of the county’s youth.
The movie tells a story of a young boy, Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), who works as a waiter and dreams of becoming a member of the National Georgian Ensemble. Dancing is everything for him. It is his lifegoal, his remedy, and his hope, a way to escape his reality, which is shaped by his fear of ending up like his almost alcoholic parents, who barely make ends meet. The plot twist starts when Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) – a handsome and skilled dancer – joins the ensemble, and the two begin to practice together. Merab soon realises that he is attracted to Irakli. In a hyper-masculine society where even in dance there is no space for “softness”, Merab keeps his feelings bottled up. Until, one day, they submit to their desire for each other. From that moment on, Merab starts his arduous journey from heartbreaks and fears to self-acceptance.
S: Seeking freedom in a traditional society
And Then We Danced is hard to classify as a genre. It is definitely not just another LGBT movie that found its way to Oscar nominations because of the sensitivity of the topic. Even though sexual exploration is one of the central themes of the film, homosexuality is not an overwrought plot point. Nor it is a coming-of-age story, although it has common teenage drama features: from first love, tears and jealousy, to fight scenes and heartbreak. Thus, this coming (out) of the age story has a perfect balance between the exploration of identity and sexuality and self-acceptance. As Akin said in an interview, the film is about self-reflection. It is about seeking freedom in a traditional society. It is about the dreams and goals of a Tbilisi teenager.
The cinema premiere of the film in Georgia cinemas could not be more timely. Amid increasing homophobia, backed by the Georgian Orthodox Church, the film, once again, sparkled a sharp divide within Georgian society and unveiled the existing polarisation. Various far-right and conservative groups tried to disrupt cinema screenings of the film. Getting into the cinema was only possible after passing through a police cordon. Thus, everyone was carefully searched with metal detectors. Outside the cordon, fear-mongering anti-LGBT groups were gathered, supported by the Orthodox Church – the institution desperately seeking to maintain power and control over citizen’s private life. Inside the cordon there were people hoping for a more tolerant, progressive Georgia.
According to Akin, the movie was influenced by the events which took place on May 17th 2013, when hundreds of anti-gay demonstrators, supported by the Georgian Orthodox Church, attacked a peaceful LGBT rally. In response to these events, the head of the church, Patriarch Ilia II, openly stated that the rally was “an insult” to Georgian traditions and described homosexuality as an “anomaly and a disease”.
Despite fearing violent counterdemonstrations, LGBT rights groups have not been able to organise a rally to mark the International Day Against Homophobia. The pride parade scheduled in June 2019 was met with outrage from an anti-LGBT group led by the Georgian businessman, Levan Vasadze, who allegedly has close ties with Alexander Dugin, a Russian Eurasian thinker. Again, backed by the Georgian Orthodox Church, the group led by Vasadze was “patrolling”’ the streets of Tbilisi, preventing LGBT activists from holding a rally.
In this light, And Then We Danced is Akin’s “love letter to Georgia” and his heritage. With the movie Akin wanted to go back to his Georgian roots and show the reality of contemporary Georgia: not only the one where gay rights are supressed, but more broadly, those who experience the brutality of social exclusion. “With this story, I wanted to reclaim and redefine Georgian culture to include all, not just some,” he wrote on Facebook.
“Georgian dance is based on masculinity,” says the younger dance instructor in the film, and the old one adds – “it is the spirit of the Georgian nation”. Indeed, Georgian national identity has been strongly linked with masculinity throughout history. However, only few people mention that certain Georgian dances have never been based on masculinity. Thus, it is symbolic that Merab and Irakli are paired up for Kintouri – the dance of the Kintos, most of whom – according to urban rumours – were homosexual. At the same time, the Kintos, who were the 19th and early 20th century traders and entertainers in Tbilisi, were always frowned upon. They were not considered part of Georgian society; they were considered to be cunning, disrespectful and shameless practitioners of “sodomy”. Most of the Kintos were of Armenian descent.
Armenophobia, also portrayed in the film, is the second phobia shared by many in Georgian society. Merab’s grandmother cannot hide her dissatisfaction when she hears that her second grandson, David (Giorgi Tsereteli), is going to marry a Georgian-Armenian woman. Together, these phobias construct the image of a Georgian who is heterosexual and a practising Orthodox Christian. All “others” who fail to fit into these categories are doomed to be discriminated against and marginalised.
In his interview with The Guardian, Akin discussed the challenges that the LGBT community faces in Georgia; he could not hide his disappointment of the fact that the director of the Georgian National Ballet (traditional Georgian dance ensemble), Nino Sukhishvili, refused to co-operate with him on the film. To justify her refusal Sukhishvi said that “Georgian dance is masculine. Historically, in our ensemble, we have never had a man of non-traditional sexual orientation,” and added: “I think that Georgian dance is a representation of Georgian identity, which shows a masculine and freedom-loving Georgian nation.”
The movie, however, shows that, even in a very conservative setting, there is still space for improvisation – the rules are made to be broken. In the finale, Merab brings “softness” and femininity to his dance moves as a protest against his dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist dance instructor and the elderly ensemble director. At the same time, this scene captures his rage against patriarchy, dogma and repression. And Then We Danced shows that young people, like Merab, can provide a fresh interpretation to old traditions. And what are traditions if not social practices? They change with time and adapt to new realities; otherwise, they would be impossible to maintain.
Dance, as a way of expression, is framed, moulded and dogmatised in the traditional dance. To escape those constraints, Merab seeks refuge in a flamboyant, queer community in Tbilisi. After an internal struggle of confessing his identity to himself, Merab goes to Bassiani – the nightclub which has become a symbol of the progressive Georgian youth with its gay-friendly attitude. Tired of the constraints of traditional dance and social conservatism, Merab fully emerges himself into techno music thus setting him free.
The movie is painfully Georgian because of the heavy socio-economic problems that lay the canvas for it. For Merab, dancing becomes a distraction from his everyday problems: his impoverished house, his alcoholic mother, his delinquent brother, and the constant whining of his grandmother. Even though Akin has never lived in Georgia, he has managed to make a socially-conscious drama.
Unfortunately, the film also slips into a few clichés. It is overloaded with cultural, social and political references. Akin tried to include everything he probably ever heard about Georgia: the Russian occupation, Armenophobia, high level of unemployment, and homophobia. Abundance is not always a virtue. From time to time, those narratives appear a little bit artificial. And yet, it can be argued that these small, artificially inserted, narratives carry out an essential message for both local and international audiences.
Nevertheless, And Then We Danced is a must-see for those who value engaging narratives and impressive performances, as well as those who want to get a better understanding of the brutally honest reality of gay people living in a conservative society.
This is not only one of the best LGBT films of the year; it is also the carrier of a profound, political statement. This moving drama of love in a conservative society contains a personal and powerful message, portraying a young man’s exploration of queerness and identity. On top of this, the wonderful performances bring a compassionate, touching quality to the feature.
Eva Modebadze is a postgraduate student at the International Master’s programme in Central and Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (CEERES) at the University of Glasgow, UK. Her particular field of interest includes gender and security studies in the post-Soviet space.