Caucasus Kino #2: And Then We Danced (2020)

Credit: TriArt Film, 2020

“There is no room for weakness in Georgian dance.”

Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced (2020) sparked controversy in Georgia when it premiered. Actually, “controversy” might be an understatement.

It caused a riot in Tbilisi.

Why? Because it depicts LGBT characters in the context of Georgian dance — a cultural staple of Georgia and symbol of its national heritage.

Actors feared for their safety. Levan Akin was blacklisted by dance studios, ensembles, and choreographers. The Georgian Orthodox Church got involved. Armed security was present on set. And even the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport refused to fund the crew’s trip to the Cannes Film Festival in 2019 — where the film premiered.

To this day, the film’s choreographer remains anonymous — out of fear for his safety, reputation, and job security.

In Georgia, And Then We Danced (და ჩვენ ვიცეკვეთ) only received a limited, one-night premiere in Tbilisi and Batumi. Despite the hostilities, every single one of the film’s screenings nationwide sold out within minutes.

It also received a fifteen-minute standing ovation at Cannes.

Internationally, it is available on Amazon Prime Video.

And Then We Danced is considered by some critics, journalists, and publications to be one of the most controversial and polarizing films in recent memory — and, one of the best.

Here, I’ll attempt to broadly summarize the film’s plot, review the film, provide you with important context as to why it elicited such a passionate debate in Georgia, and explain why it should be part of the canon for anyone who is interested in the contemporary cinema of the Caucasus.

Credit: Amazon Prime Video, Irakli (left) and Merab (right)

(!!! MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD !!!)

And Then We Danced follows the story of Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani)— a dancer at the National Georgian Ensemble in Tbilisi — his family, and the ensemble he is a part of.

The film opens as Merab and his dance partner, Mari (Ana Javakishvili), practice the Adjarian duet for their ensemble’s routine. Suddenly, a new dancer from Batumi arrives at the studio — Irakli (Bachi Valishvili).

Merab and Irakli experience an instant connection, even though Irakli “has a girlfriend back home.”

They begin warming-up together before practices, they go out drinking with their friends, and they eventually experience an intimate moment in the countryside — leading to Merab’s sexual awakening, his first romantic encounter, and an identity crisis that he has to navigate while preparing for an prestigious audition.

Merab is met with anti-LGBT bullying, rumors , and slurs — spearheaded by another dancer, Luka (Levan Gabrava) — who sees Merab outside of a gay bar one night.

The stress of this hostile atmosphere is so difficult for Merab that it begins to take a toll on his physical form and his ability to dance.

This harassment eventually culminates in a group of men jumping Merab’s brother, David (Giorgi Tsereteli), who has to take a beating after his own wedding “in order to defend Merab’s honor.”

While all of this is happening, Mari — Merab’s dance partner — experiences an identity crisis of her own. She drunkenly expresses feelings of sexual attraction towards Merab, who politely rejects her.

She attempts to overcome denial about her instincts regarding Merab’s sexual orientation and his relationship with Irakli. She also manages a paranoia about the potential consequences of Merab being outed by his friends. Nevertheless, she tries to remain supportive of her best friend and dance partner — who she was paired with when they were only ten years old.

Her anxieties are presented to us in the form of an anecdote told in the girl’s locker room after dance practice:

The girls talk about a former dancer, “Zaza,” who was brutally beaten by his fellow Georgian dancers in Armenia after they discovered him having sex with another man. He was shipped away to a monastery — in order to make him “normal” again — was raped by the priest, and now lives as a homeless male prostitute down by the market. Some of the girls find this funny. Except for Mari, who is visibly disturbed and confused.

His brutal beating and the injuries he suffered leads to an opening in the main ensemble that needs to be filled via an audition — thus prompting an unspoken rivalry amongst the male dancers.

This story — and the mixed reactions of amusement, homophobia, shock, and apathy it evokes —sets a tone that lingers as a fog throughout the entire film.

It is also, I believe, meant to reflect Akin’s understanding of the polarized views on sex, sexuality, and sexual orientation in Georgia.

Without spoiling any more of the film’s plot, I will give it a bit of a content warning.

There are scenes here that may be distressing, upsetting, or controversial. We see instances of hazing, anti-LGBT harassment and violence, the use of anti-LGBT slurs, discussions of disturbing events, and an atmosphere of emotional tension, distress, secrecy, and anomie that might be too much for some viewers.

There are also discussions of “honor,” virginity, and sexual expression here that may be perceived as antiquated by Western audiences. It is important to understand going into this film that views on sexuality and sex-based traditions in Georgia are drastically varied depending on religion, political affiliation, ethnic group, and age. More so than in the United States, for example. Even popular opinions on topics like sexual behavior and pregnancy out of wedlock, LGBT issues, dating customs, virginity, modesty, gender roles, and sexual expression vary dramatically within each of these groups.

Any attempt to project Western legal standards, values, or modern sensibilities onto this film — or, judge its characters and their beliefs with such standards — would be a manifestation of cultural relativism and a misunderstanding of the film’s purpose.

Although the film is not explicit in its depiction of sexual acts or graphic in its use of violence — it is still upsetting.

Credit: Amazon Prime Video, Merab (center) and Mari (right)

This is a powerful, albeit somewhat melodramatic portrait of sexual identity in Georgia. It serves more as an allegory, analogy, and broadly thematic piece than it does as a tangible example of the anti-LGBT sentiment in the region.

But, for its purpose, it succeeds.

The film is impeccably shot. Paired with mesmerizing choreography, a blend of traditional Georgian folk music and foreign pop, and gorgeous colors that bloom in the natural lighting — it is an audio-visual treat that you can’t take your eyes off.

I often found myself straying away from the dialogue, pausing and rewinding, and forgetting plot points because I was lost in the cinematography.

The emotional tension that Akin creates is beyond words. It is both sensual and stressful, optimistic and cynical, and hopeful — yet, infuriating. Every scene presents such complex emotions and elicits a visceral reaction because we understand that each character is experiencing their own unique internal struggle that directly clashes with their on-screen behavior, words, and moral views. It is sometimes frustrating to watch.

Irakli has a girlfriend and insists that he is straight, but cheats on her with a man. Mari has feelings for Merab, but instinctually senses his complicated sexual identity. Merab is in love for the first time, but lost and terrified. David messes up constantly and betrays Merab’s trust, but still loves his brother unconditionally. And so on. Nobody feels comfortable within their own skin, with their decisions, or with their place in Georgian society. Everyone is flawed.

Levan Akin has written such complex characters here that the level of individual development presented in such a short runtime is truly dizzying.

Although it is definitely subversive in theme, this film doesn’t take too many risks. It exhibits incredible restraint — particularly in its depiction of sexual behavior or violence — in that many of the scenes which could be considered “shocking” take place off-screen or just out of frame.

I understand the purpose of this — leaving so much to innuendo and imagination — but sometimes it feels like climactic scenes leave you wanting more. It’s a difficult feeling to express, but there are many instances where a scene’s action can best be described as “muted.”

Even the ending, which prompted some mixed reactions from critics, could be received as either satisfying or underwhelming.

I’m somewhere in-between.

Before issuing a verdict, we have to commend the performance of Levan Gelbakhiani as Merab. This was his debut. He is not a professional actor, but was rather found by Levan Akin while browsing Instagram. It’s unfathomable to believe that an amateur could put out such a nuanced performance — but, he did. For this, he should be praised.

Nevertheless, the depiction of an LGBT romance in such a sensitive cultural context is almost unprecedented by contemporary Georgian standards. The cinematography, music, performances, and subject matter make this film a must-watch and outweighs *any and all* negatives in cliched storytelling, uneven pacing, or the film’s muted resolution.

Final score:

8.0/10

Credit: Amazon Prime Video, Irakli (left), Merab (center), & Mari (right)

And Then We Danced is already a modern staple of Georgian cinema, entertainment, and pop culture.

It is internationally renowned, critically acclaimed, and has been submitted, nominated, and awarded at numerous festivals and ceremonies — including Sundance and Cannes. Its accolades alone justify its place in the canon of the cinema of the Caucasus.

However, the debate surrounding its depiction of LGBT characters in the context of Georgian dance makes it even more intriguing — especially for those interested in Georgia and the South Caucasus.

As one character, the dance instructor Aleko (Kakha Gogidze), says:

“Your eyes must convey purity. Virginal innocence. There is no sex in Georgian dance.”

By sexualizing a cultural practice that is so ancient, so traditional, and so symbolic of Georgian national heritage, identity, and unity — you inherently subvert a national reverence for the practice and challenge a hegemonic discourse on the separation of sexuality from public life.

By sexualizing it in the context of an LGBT relationship, you further challenge religious, cultural, and political sensibilities as well.

This is a very difficult thing to do — and, Levan Akin has attempted it. Whether it will have a lasting impact on Georgian popular perceptions of sexuality and dance is yet to be seen and, by nature, incalculable — given the film’s exploration of public vs. private sphere, internalized struggles vs. external, identity vs. conformity, and so on.

There is an inherent conflict in this film between self-acceptance, self-expression, and self-realization — and, how these feelings clash with Georgian “national values.”

We may never know if and how this film has influenced such perceptions.

However, its controversial nature warrants a close viewing and analysis — especially for those who are interested in Georgia and Georgian culture.

Here is the full trailer:

Credit: Music Box Films, YouTube, 2019

Alexander Leslie is a foreign policy analyst, freelance journalist, and has an M.A. in Eurasian, Russian, & East European Studies from Georgetown University. His interests include U.S.-Georgia relations, energy politics, and studies in counterterrorism policy.

Contact: aejleslie@gmail.com

Follow me on Twitter!

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