Levan Akin is a Swedish-born filmmaker of Georgian descent whose third film, And Then We Danced, is Sweden’s Oscar submission for the International Feature race. The Georgian-language film is the first LGBTQ+ movie set in the country and debuted in the Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes earlier this year. When Akin came to Deadline’s Cannes Studio at the time, he told me the subject matter required the team to be scrappy while shooting in Tbilisi. But he wasn’t really prepared for what would follow.
“It’s been a turbulent week,” he understated to me recently. This was following the November 8 premiere in the Georgian capital which was stormed by several hundred protesters who chanted “Long live Georgia!” and “Shame!” before burning a rainbow flag. The demonstrators created a “corridor of shame” leading to cinemas showing the movie, but the screenings were able to carry on. Riot police were on hand, although injuries ensued and at least 11 people were arrested.
The Orthodox Church had earlier criticized the film’s screening as “an affront to traditional Georgian values.” A nationalist group also circulated a video calling on followers to join the protests.
Set in the strict and gender conservative scene of ancient Georgian dance, And Then We Danced follows an obsessive young dancer Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), who has been training at the National Georgian Ensemble with his partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili), since he was a child. However, when new dancer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) arrives, what begins as a rivalry soon turns to longing as the two draw closer together.
It has been legal to be gay in Georgia since 2000 and there is protection on an official level. Akin says the protests have not been endorsed by the government, but there are “these loudmouths that are screaming who are homophobic by default — and there is also a large group that supports the movie.”
Akin calls it a “film about tradition and culture and how to carve out one’s own place. This discourse is happening not only in Georgia, but happening all over the world.”
Still, he allows that in Georgia, And Then We Danced “is like if Brokeback Mountain had been made in 1950s America. I don’t know how to compare it, but it’s a huge deal.” He adds, “Twenty-five percent of Georgia is occupied by Russia, which is sneakily moving the border every night by a few meters. The people who rant should go and rant at the border if they’re so patriotic to Georgia.”
A silver lining has been the “overwhelming” support Akin has received on social media and directly through his Instagram account, he notes. Another “good thing” has been that “officials, because of the international eyes on this movie and the success so far, have had to take a stand for the film and for LGBTQ rights.”
Akin says that it’s been a wild ride in general. “A year ago, I was still filming so it’s been so fast. By the end of November last year we finished shooting, I rested for two weeks and edited the movie in my kitchen in Sweden. I was really very, very hands on with the film which is really personal. It’s my love letter to Georgia.”
Gelbakhiani won Best Actor at the Sarajevo Film Festival in August and Akin has been on the road with the movie since September. “It’s been very intense,” he says, marveling, “Last week, we won something like 10 awards.”
While Akin has been surprised to see walk-outs in some countries when the film’s sex scenes begin, he notes, “Generally, I’m surprised how the film translates in so many different cultures. I think it’s because of the theme of telling people to eff off, this is who I am, take it or leave it. Everyone has this inside themselves, it’s universal — all people want to live lives on their own terms and everybody has somebody they feel they can’t be truthful towards.”
Up next for Akin is a Swedish TV series for SVT. He has an idea for his next feature, which might have some English, and “probably Turkish” in it with Istanbul a possible shooting destination. And there’s certainly more to come. Akin says he’s been getting “direct requests from some pretty big produces. It’s pretty funny.”