Taking Back the Culture: An Interview with And Then We Danced’s Levan Akin

If Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country (2017) is the earthiness of green, green grass, then Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced is the warmth of burning gold. 

Set in the world of traditional Georgian dancing, And Then We Danced is more than just a film about the blossoming and consuming love between dancers Merab (newcomer Levan Gelbakhiani) and Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). It is young Merab’s own journey through masculinity, dance, and identity. The film is a warm, loving embrace, and a call to the young LGBTQ+ people of Georgia. 

After watching the film for the first time at the MIFF, Rough Cut published a Facebook Group Chat describing the experience as “a film [that comes] out of nowhere and completely floor[s] you.” It was a viewing which resulted in physiological and bodily reactions (a heart both racing and caught in throats)—one cannot easily forget the film’s quiet tenderness, it’s tangible emotions and beautiful, visceral imagery. It coats the edges of the heart and mind like honey. 

First premiering as part of the 2019 Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section, the film has since sold to over 30 countries and is Sweden’s submission for the international feature category at the 92nd Academy Awards. After MIFF, Claire White spoke with director Levan Akin about same-sex desire, claiming a traditional culture for your own, and the queering of John Hughes. 

Claire White: I probably want to start this by saying, thank you for making And Then We Danced, because it is probably the most beautiful film I have seen all year. The response from my friends and I who got to see it has been tremendous, and we just can’t stop talking to each other about it!

Levan Akin: Oh, that makes me so happy. I loved your conversation, your Facebook Chat.

CW: Thank you!

LA: It’s so nice to get an in-depth conversation about something you’ve done, as a director and a writer, because that’s not always the case. I feel like a lot of the reviews so far are often very on the surface. The actors, too, they loved it. 

CW: I want to talk about Levan Gebakhiani as Merab, actually. I was amazed to learn that it was his first acting role, because I think it was one of my favourite performances of the year. I am quite impressed by how expressive his face is. To me, the narrative plays out more on his face and through his body and his expressions rather than through any dialogue. What work did you two do together to bring the character of Merab alive, especially with a non-professional actor such as Levan?

LA: You know I got the idea to do something about this topic in Georgia when I saw a Pride parade in 2013 [where a large group of far-right protestors violently attacked gay rights demonstrators]. So, I went there and I sort of just started to do research. I didn’t really know if it was going to be a documentary or a feature film. I discovered the film while I was working with it, which was very different to how I usually work.

The same with the actors in the films, because most of them were non-actors. A lot of them were people that I interviewed while doing my research. With Levan, for instance, he’s a dancer, not an actor. We did different exercises together. He wrote a lot stories of his life that he would read to me. I also spent a very long time getting to know him, and his world. I was there three months last spring, basically just hanging out with him and his friends. I think for me, the change that the film could give to, not just Georgia but a lot of countries, who have never had this type of representation [for young LGBTQ+ people] in this way—it’s a very big deal. [Levan] took an enormous risk being in this film, and I think this also bonded us because I felt an enormous responsibility for him. We became very, very close.

As a non-actor, he doesn’t really have the tools an actor has where he can bring forward emotions, and then take them back. We worked a lot with just him being in the moment, listening and reacting to things around him, and in that way, he is so expressive. I got so many things from him. But he was also very difficult. It was not only mentally demanding, but also very physically demanding. Our relationship sort of changed when we started shooting, because then I was really just in director mode, and my only goal was to get the best performance out of him that I can. A classic conversation would be, “You’re gonna thank me afterwards.” You work differently with different people, and with Levan, unfortunately in some cases I had to really put him in the situation for it to be real. Because he is not an actor, he can’t fake it or bring it forth. I think that’s why his performance is so, so real and raw—because it is very close to him. 

The script, the story and all the details really developed from what [Levan and the cast] would talk about, like English cigarettes from London, his family life. All of these things were stuff that really happened while I was doing research. A lot of people think the movie is very textured and it has a real life in it, and that is why: because it is real life I chose to include in the film.

CW: I think that’s what works so well. You can definitely tell that there is this great amount of trust between you and your crew and your actors. It comes across in the film, that it all felt very safe and looked after. Especially with such a difficult filming reality.

LA: Yeah, because it is super difficult to do a film like this in a country like Georgia. It really, really is. And for these kids to be in this movie and go all the way that they did… There was no hierarchy, we were doing this together and it was really, for me, also so inspiring. 

CW: It definitely shows. A lot of audiences are also feeling that love as well. It’s an incredibly tender film. Was there a specific moment you remember where you suddenly knew what type of film the film was going to be? Or was it more of a constant process?

LA: I had sort of decided that I wanted it to be in the dance world of Georgia. When I had been doing research, a lot of the kids that I’d meet loved dance and they loved music. I love folk dance myself. Traditional dance of any kind, from any country. It’s something very moving to me, when people express their cultures through dance. It always makes me well up. 

I started doing research in dance companies in Georgia, and obviously I didn’t say what the main topic of the film was. I was with one company for like five days, and when I was there, I noticed dynamics and things happening. There actually was a boy called Merab there. His father had been in the main ensemble, and he came from a star family of dancers. So [that was where]  one of the pieces of the puzzle came from where I thought, “That’s interesting.” A lot of the things in the movie that they talk about are real stories, including the story about Zaza, who was kicked out [of the Georgian National Ensemble], and that person is actually in the film—I won’t say where, but he’s there. Then I had to write a script for financing reasons, and that’s sort of what the movie became, but I changed a lot of things while I was working on it. 

We were also very free, in a way, because the movie also had so little money, literally [we were] on a shoestring budget. Nobody expected anything from it. My last film (The Circle, 2015) was really high budget, so this was totally the other way, and I had no expectations. And people just let me do what I wanted to do, which was good because it gave me freedom.

CW: Was the reason it was so low-budget because of the subject-matter?

LA: I suppose. We didn’t get any money from Georgia, obviously. I am born and raised in Sweden, so that’s the only way I could make this film, because I don’t live in Georgia. We got money from the Swedish Film Institute, and we had some really passionate commissioners in the Swedish Film Institute who really loved the film, but everything sort of happened quite fast. Because also, another thing with this film was, it is not the type of project where you could wait a year or more and get more financing for the film, because then you would lose Levan. It was something that was really here and now. Levan is evolving all the time. 

We started filming in October last year, and it all went very, very fast. We filmed [to] November, and then I edited December, January, February, and in March we were showing it around, and in April, we found out it had gotten into Cannes. When the film was done and people saw it and it got into Cannes, then people wanted to actually come with more money. Like, we could have used that money a year ago!

CW: Do you think Cannes is kind of responsible for the response of the film? Actually, let me rephrase that because I think the response from the film comes from the film itself, but I think maybe it launching at Cannes gives a certain air about it?

LA: A hundred percent. I mean, that’s what Cannes does, and that’s why everybody wants to get into Cannes. In Georgia they still haven’t seen it, they’ve just seen the trailer, but it really gave the film a bit more respect. People couldn’t be like “Ok, it’s that gay movie”, now it’s “The Gay Movie from Cannes,” and it really helped us, and the film. We got a lot of media attention because of it.

CW: In the film, Merab and Irakli hardly ever mention anything about emotions or feelings when they talk to each other, but you know that there’s this feeling of love there, and I think it’s that unspokeness of their desire, the unspokenness of same-sex desire overall, which makes for such a riveting film. It reminded me of my own experiences, when you make eyes with a girl across the room wondering if they are thinking the same thing you are. That’s just such a large part of the same-sex desire experience. 

LA: That is very personal for me, and very self-lived. I mean, that is so much what the same-sex experience is, because you can never really talk about it…just those glances and those unspoken moments. I am so happy that that comes through, because other people have said that, too, and I’m very happy.

CW: I’ve spoken about this film with a lot of my queer friends. One of them, his name is Anders Furze, and he said he “admired that the film conveyed a sense of endemic homophobia, but really elevated these moments of queer desire and emotions so effortlessly, that it felt in those moments that all that didn’t matter.” The way the film was able to convey and find moments of lightness, despite all the darkness kind of surrounding the environment around them. 

LA: Again, that was really important for me, because I really, really didn’t want to make a film where a Western person comes in and points their finger like, “Look how you’re treating these poor people!” and everything is so terrible, and somebody gets beaten to death in the end or something. I wanted the film to be tender, and a warm embrace, and I really, really wanted it to be about love. For me, it was important that the character of Merab never really has this moment of, “Oh no, I’m gay, what am I going to do?”. I just wanted him to be engulfed by love, the feeling of first love and all those emotions. 

I love that he’s a character that’s never a victim in the film. He’s always active, and I think that’s what makes him so likeable. In the scene when Luka from the dance company says, “I saw you last night, you were at this gay club”, it was actually originally written that [Merab] tried to leave and that they’d come after him and this whole thing happens. But I was like, “No, that’s not Merab.” He would turn around be like “What the fuck are you saying?”. I think those moments, and that he’s active in everything that he does in the film, I like that about him. 

CW: Can we please talk about the use of Honey by Robyn?

LA: Of course. 

CW: I listen to the song and I can play it again in my head. It’s completely visceral. I think it’s the most sensual scene I’ve seen all year. It’s just that feeling of beautiful, intense love and joy. What were your intentions with that scene? Did you always want Honey in it? 

LA: Actually, while I was doing research, we danced a lot to Robyn while we were out, and I love Robyn, she is amazing. Levan—his nickname is actually Gelly, because his last name is Gelbakhiani. So, me and Gelly used to dance to Robyn all the time when we went out, Robyn was everywhere. When we were shooting that scene, I knew I wanted him to dance, but we didn’t know it was going to become this. I knew that I wanted him to fool around with [the white Gerogian dance hat, the papakhi], and I knew that I wanted the scene to be sensual, but also goofy, sort of, like they were goofing around and then it becomes serious. When we were doing the dance scene, we were trying a few different songs, and Honey was new then, so I said, “Let’s do Honey.” So we put it on, and —it just took over his [Gelly’s] body. When we were shooting that scene, all of us were just looking like “Oh my God, this scene just became the best scene ever.” 

You watch a movie and you always think that everything is so planned out, but I think that some of the best things are things just happen in the moment, and that scene really happened in the moment. He was really feeling it, he was dancing to it, he was having fun to it. I think that’s one of my favourite scenes in the film. 

CW: It really feels like you’re just peering in on this private moment which you just so happened to capture. Did [Levan] just choreograph that himself? No rehearsal or anything, he just went for it?

LA: He just did that.

CW: Even though you just came across Honey and he had this great response to it through dancing, it kind of works on another level in that the lyrics of the song kind of sings what can’t be said between the two of them.

LA: Yeah, definitely! It really did, it really did.

CW: I’m a film studies student, so this kind of analysis is second nature to me [laughs].

LA: Yeah, no it’s amazing. It really fits the scene and the film. It was just one of those moments which rarely happens.

CW: There is so much light and brightness within the film, especially golden light. Is that something you did intentionally with your cinematographer? 

LA: Our cinematographer, her name is Lisabi Fridel, who was from Sweden. We really wanted the film to feel realistic, but romantic. To catch those moments in the light that you remember for a long time. The natural street lamps of Georgia are very orange, so we actually just heightened those and made them more and added our own orange to amplify it, but it still fits how it actually looks in Tiblisi, which was important to us. 

CW: It’s very beautiful. I think you portray Georgia in such a beautiful light, in a beautiful way. I love, knowing you made this film in response to such a violent attack on a Pride parade, you definitely highlight the tradition of Georgia, but it’s not against Georgia at all. I feel like there is still such a love for the country and Merab definitely still has a love for the country.

LA: I love Georgia, and I love Georgian culture. I really want the young generation of Georgia to take back their culture, to loving their culture, and also owning their culture even though they don’t fit the norm of what these right-wing bigots think about what it is to be Georgian. For me, the movie is a lot about that, because that’s a narrative that’s going on all over the world, unfortunately, right now. What does it mean to be Swedish, Australian, Whatever? And [there are] these crazy people are dictating [what that is]. What happens for Georgian young people is that all this beautiful, old culture represents for them oppression, and patriarchal societies and structures. I wanted to take it back with this film, like, “No, you can do Georgian dance and you can be queer,” and “You can sing this old, beautiful song about love between a man and a woman and still think that it’s about you and your love for a boy, or your love for a girl.” 

CW: While I was researching, I saw this interview from Cannes, where you mention that the film is influenced by your upbringing in the 80s, and John Hughes’ Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) in particular.

LA: Yeah!

CW: I’m a big fan of 80s movies and John Hughes, so I am loving this and I’m really interested in whether you could expand on that? 

LA: That is so fun that you picked that up! What’s really interesting is, I didn’t think about it actively until very late, when I myself saw the film. I think it was around Cannes when I was like, “Ok, so I think there is a lot of Some Kind of Wonderful in this movie.” I used to love that film as a kid. It was one of the first films I saw in the cinema, I think, with my sister. As a kid I remember thinking Drummer Girl (Watts) was maybe a boy, dressed as a girl, so that film has always been so queer for me, even though as I was older I understood that no, she’s just a girl, who was sort of like an 80s tom-boy. I didn’t really get that as a kid. I thought it was like a gay guy, which is really weird [laughs]. I hadn’t thought about that, again, until now. I mean, there’s obviously a lot of things in And Then We Danced, but there’s also a sort of a triangle between Mary, Merab and Irakli, and how Mary wants Merab, but Merab wants Irakli. And I’m really tired of threesome love stories, but it’s still something because in the end Levan and Mary sort of find each other again, and it’s the same as in Some Kind of Wonderful. And the actress who plays the Drummer Girl (Watts), her name is Mary Stuart Masterson, so I was just thinking, maybe I just subconsciously—

CW: Didn’t even realise?

LA: And Eric Stoltz is a redhead, so I don’t know…

CW: The layers just keep on coming!

LA: It’s fun with this sort of 80s narrative in a film that’s from such a different environment.

CW: Mmm. Kind of like a universality, thing. 

LA: Yeah, definitely because I think for me growing up in Sweden, as a teenager I used to spend the summers in Turkey and Georgia. And when I was growing up in the early 90s, there was a lot of racism and extremism in Sweden. It was really bad days, and I remember what really struck me when I used to go in the summers was all the universality of how all teenagers were the same. It was the same problems, the same conversations. I used to think if some of my friends in Sweden could meet my Georgian friends, they could see how alike we all are. It’s just the cultures are very different, and some of the norms, but everything is still similar. 

I think that also comes through in And Then We Danced, because this is really their stories and how they are, how they live and how they behave. Especially now with the internet, they’re watching the same shows, they’re listening to the same music. And I think we really need to support these kids in these countries where they’re being oppressed by these terrible, terrible people in Government who are using the LGBTQ+ as a propaganda against the West. 

And Then We Danced played at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

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Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She is currently undertaking an Honours thesis in Screen Studies and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew

Claire White