Interview: 'And Then We Danced' director Levan Akin, stars Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili
And Then We Danced tells the story of a young Georgian dancer whose world is turned upside down when another male dancer enters the traditional dance troupe and ignites a rivalry that turns into a sexual awakening and passionate desire in the heart of one of the most conservative regions in Eastern Europe. The film’s November 8 premiere in Tbilisi, Georgia was met with violent protests from the Georgian Orthodox Church and anti-hate groups but in larger droves were brave filmgoers showing their support for the film.
For director Levan Akin (The Circle, Certain People), the mere act of getting the film made was itself an act of courage; one fraught with secret auditions and the intense and aggressive protests of conservative factions. Although born in Sweden (and how the film was able to be selected by that country as its International Feature Film Oscar contender), Akin is of Georgian descent and desperately wanted to make something that spoke to and about his country; both as a commentary and a love letter.
For Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili, the film’s stars (each their first feature film ever), they were thrust into the limelight of success and scrutiny in equal measures, traversing the reality of explaining to friends and family what the film was about and even debating on whether to even act in it. Now Gelbakhiani is a European Film Award-nominated actor alongside Antonio Banderas.
The Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia declined to fund the trip for the filming crew to visit the Cannes Film Festival (where the film world premiered), explicitly specifying that it was solely due to the fact that it was depicting homosexual romance. Because of this, very few people that were associated with the production (only the main cast and crew), went to visit the Cannes, on their own personal funding. The film’s choreographer choose to remain anonymous, and therefore he/she is not credited.
AW critic Jack King calls the film a brave, urgent and revolutionary statement in his Cannes review. I sat down with Levan Akin, the film’s director, and stars Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili on the cultural impact of their film, the dangers in merely making and ABBA. Yes, ABBA.
AW: Anti-LGBTQ protests in Georgia is what inspired you to write And Then We Danced Why did you place it in the world of dance specifically?
LA: Good question. I never had that plan, it wasn’t on my mind when I started doing research. I didn’t know what the film was going to become, really. I just interviewed people and then along the way I interviewed some dancers, and I also love folk dance and Georgian dance. Folk dance I love but Georgian dance in particular. I thought it was an interesting idea and different, and I also wanted to show Georgia. I felt that would be a different space for international viewers who hadn’t seen that world.
I thought it was fascinating thematically because it’s so masculine. I mean, it’s almost like a hockey team mentality but also it was a cinematic choice because we know with dance you can sort of show a lot of things without words; with just movement, with emotions. So I felt like that would be cinematic. I think almost 40 minutes of the film is without dialogue.
AW: I think people can get emotional connections from dancing.
LA: It’s universal. Very much so.
AW: I understand that the casting and audition process was very difficult and even required some secrecy. Can you each talk a little bit about what your experience with that was?
LG: For me, he [Akin] found me on Instagram the first time, but then our casting managers contacted me. In the beginning I said like no several times. But then we met and then we discussed and read the script and then we filmed a teaser for funding. And then I was like, yeah, I want to do it.
AW: Why did you say no?
LG: Because of the topic and I was kind of hesitating because it’s not that easy to do this kind of project in Georgia because of all of these fears from society. Because of the topic people will have questions and I needed some time to kind of prepare for my friends and my family to ask these questions.
BV: Well, kind of the same for me. I didn’t straight up say no, but I was a little careful about. I did have to send a video for an audition and I didn’t send it for like two or three weeks. I was hesitating so much. I was like, ‘Oh, dude,’ but I shot it and sent it.
LA: I remember I didn’t like that audition.
BV: You didn’t?
LA: I watched it and I was like ‘eh’ but then when I met you I liked you.
BV: (laughs) So then I decided to do this because regardless of what the consequences might’ve been. It’s important for me personally to say something honest and something meaningful through what I do. And this was great opportunity for that. And also if you become a part of something bigger than yourself, some tiny part of a change, that is also a huge, huge thing. And I am very grateful and I’m so lucky for what’s happened because of this film.
LA: The thing with this project, it was so different for me because I never really planned anything. It just sort of grew while I was working. I was just in the moment, I was very curious. It could have been about two girls, I knew that it had some sort of LGBTQ content. I wanted to first make a documentary. I’d had these interviews and then they didn’t want to be documented because they didn’t want to out themselves. Then I was like, maybe I’ll do something hybrid and it’s just went back and forth and then I decided I wanted to be able to make it about dance and then I found these kids. I was very inspired by the events happening while I was there,
AW: For each of you, Levan and Bachi, what’s more challenging, acting or dancing?
LG: So for me in the beginning acting was really, really challenging because it was a new world for me and I didn’t have any idea how it works and how I have to work. So it was kind of hard at first but then going to get to each other and chill then it was a little bit more easy.
LA: Was it chill in the middle of the shoot? I had to bust my ass!
BV: (laughs) We were chill!
LA: Erik, are you hearing this? They were chilling. My shoot was a nightmare. (everyone laughs)
LG: But acting and dancing together, it was like really, really hard because we don’t have that much time and we’ve had just only like 12 hours per day and you have to dance and you have to act as well. And it was like quite, quite hard.
BV: Joking aside, it was actually pretty hard and challenging for me because, first to answer your question dancing is physically harder, but the acting is mentally much more challenging. But we had to do both. So it was a pretty crazy before the shoot for three months, we had to rehearse. I lost all my weight, like there was nothing left. And also working with Levan was a different experience for me. It was my first movie and getting in the zone and just staying in the moment and being there. It kind of posed a challenge for me at first, but then working with the other Levan kind of made things easy because he’s so natural and so good on set that you kind of play off of him, you know? And it also made things a lot easy for me, but again, it wasn’t ‘chill’ in the traditional sense. (laughs)
AW: You have two musical choices in the movie that are amazing. I’m not going to spoil until people watch it but, were those the only two only choices? Did you write it with them in mind?
LA: Yeah, they were actually. I had them both written in but we didn’t have any money. I mean, we shot this movie for like 200,000 euros or something. So it wasn’t like we knew that we were gonna be able to get those.
AW: Wow. Well you did and they’re wonderful.
LA: We did and everything’s good. Fortune favors the bold, right?
AW: Yes. When American see it outside of festivals, they’re going to be very, very happy. I want to turn to something far less happy, unfortunately, and that’s the protest around the film’s premiere in Georgia. It seems to underscore exactly why this film is so necessary. Do you think some good can come out of so much hate?
LA: Definitely. Yeah. I really think it already has, I mean, we were only able to have screenings for three days. We wanted to have more, but we couldn’t because of security issues. But so many people came out to those screenings, the tickets sold out in minutes, like 6,000 tickets. Everybody bought their grandmothers and their mothers and everybody went to see it. There’s so much support for the film in Georgia but there’s these loud mouth idiots, these bigots, who, you know, are making such a ruckus and a lot of them are directly funded by Russia. So there’s a lot of bigger political things at stake around this movie then around those types of issues. Just look at Poland and Hungary and all these countries. Then also the church came out and opposed the film and they’re embroiled in their own scandal that happened just a few days earlier. You can Google that. So it doesn’t come from my mouth.
I wanted this film to be hopeful and warm and so for me to see images of people having to run into cinema and having rocks thrown at them and shit like that, that’s not a nice feeling. One person got injured I think, and two policemen, but not severely. So I think, knock on wood, I think it was good. And the film has become a movement in Georgia. Now they’re demonstrating outside the government for other reasons, and they’re playing the music from the movies, singing. I can’t keep up with all the messages I’m getting, but it’s really become like a revolution for young kids and the younger generation in Georgia, this film.
BV: Yeah. I gotta tell you this story that happened. [to Levan A] Actually, you don’t know this, it happened today. I got a text from my childhood neighbor. Well, I would never imagine that he would watch the movie in the first place or even like the movie or feel so strongly about it. And he texted me and said ‘you did an amazing job’. And he said that he was proud and that the people who came out against it should we just go, you know, ‘eff off’ and that was such a powerful feeling for me because he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t have ever come out and said something like that unless he saw something really authentic.
LA: I think that’s the thing; I calculated it very meticulously so that it wouldn’t feel too foreign for a Georgian. I mean, they can identify with the movie and the response I’m getting is that it feels like really lived in and very real. I think a lot of people in Georgia are probably just homophobic by default because they don’t know anything else. So they get riled up by these idiots who are like, ‘Oh, of course we’re not going to have a gay people parading on our streets ’cause they’re monsters.’ And then they see this movie and you know, they go with their kids. Like I said, grandmothers, grandfathers, and then they’re like, ‘what’s the big deal about anyway, it’s two guys in love. Who cares? Why does that threaten me? Okay, let’s move on.’ I mean, I hoping that’s gonna like sort of be the case.
AW: [to Bachi] It feels like your friend’s comments to you are a lot about him. Like working through something so ingrained, as you said Levan, because he’s never had the freedom to think something differently.
LA: Oh my God, there was this 89-year old lady, it’s so funny. She came out and, I don’t know how they found her, but they did a TV interview with her. “So what’s the big deal about it? These people are idiots,” she said. And then they took her to see the film and then they’re interviewing after and she said “I loved it. It was amazing. These people are such morons.” But yeah, even like 89-year olds are like, what the fuck’s going on?
AW: That’s the ironic thing about most of these kinds of protests; they haven’t even seen the thing they’re pushing back against.
LA: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I should’ve made porn, it’s more lucrative! (laughs)
AW: Do you think that, like your childhood friend that if more people were able to just see it, that they might feel differently?
LA: Yes, definitely. 100%.
BV: As a Georgian I feel that there’s a lot of hatred out of people who are informed. They’re not informed enough. Emotionally or just you know, technically. If you show them a reality and how it really is, a lot of people are actually very, very progressive and very cool. And also they see that there’s nothing threatening about it. I mean the movie has humor, it has warmth, it’s no big deal.
AW: [to Levan G] I wanted to congratulate you on your European Film Award nomination.
LG: Thank you. It’s amazing.
LA: He’s nominated with Antonio!
AW: How did that feel?
LG: To be honest, sometimes I even can realize what’s happening because it’s just happening so fast and I really can’t keep up, I mean it’s insane. There was an article in W Magazine during the Cannes Film Festival and it was like ‘oh my God, the article was about Rising Stars.
LA: It was about the stars of Cannes and it was like him and Antonio…
LG: It was really exciting.
LA: He’s going to go there and win! He’s coming home with the EFA award.
AW: Do either of you have projects coming up or is it just getting through everything with And Then We Danced first?
LG: We’ve each had some offers but we have to get this out of the way first. All of the traveling, the campaigning, it’s kind of impossible to do any other project right now.
AW: I always say when I’m interviewing anyone during awards season, if you’re in it, you don’t really get to work for at least three months. This is the work. If you’re in the awards conversation, as you are, you can’t go anywhere.
BV: I mean, this is all amazing, this past year. But I’m the type of person who loves to work. I love to work more than anything else. But I’m waiting for a period when I’m going to crash before going to work again, maybe February.
AW: What do you want general audiences to take away most from the film?
LA: I want them to take away a sense of really wanting to sort of be themselves unapologetically. I think that’s what’s so universal about the film and why it hits so many people because you know, everybody wants to just dance in front of someone whether you’re a boss or a mother, a father or a sibling or husband.
I think a lot of people feel like they’re not living their full lives because of things that are hindering them. Something I myself actually thought about while making the film is how the love story, which ends as it does, still propels him be like, you know what I’m not going to wallow in this. I’m just going to move on and I’m going to do my thing. I think that’s really beautiful. I took that terrible LGBT pride parade in Georgia that went crazy and I made something really beautiful. I always come back to not caring what other people think about you, not making your choices because of what this anonymous mass of people are going to think. I think that’s number one what people do and that fear is connected to whether other people do the same.
BV: I know a writer who lived in Tbilisi and he was hiding from the government for like three years and he decided to go back to jail because he said, ‘I will not abandon you, I will not leave my home.’ That is a very brave guy.
AW: Absolutely. I think what happens sometimes too is that here in the West, which has some more progressive places and laws in place, is that it’s important for us to still recognize that there are a lot of places don’t and I think we can get really comfortable in our freedom. Until everyone is free, none of us are free.
LA: Yes! And how that freedom in those other places, as that happens more and more, it actually affects us. Because then you have more politicians, more people and it becomes the norm in the rest of the world and we become the anomaly. I think that’s why, for instance, Georgia, a lot of the former Soviet Republic, but also in Africa, it’s so important for us to sort of be there and do what we can do. So to protect people and protect the rights and everything and yeah. Cause I mean even in Sweden, shit’s going down. Home of ABBA! Have you been to the ABBA museum?
AW: I…have not?
LA: There is one in Stockholm. You can sing with their holograms.
LA: You have to go. It’s amazing.
And Then We Danced has played at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, AFI Fest and will next be seen at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Music Box Films will release the film on February 7, 2020.