And Then We Danced Review
While Georgian-Swedish writer-director Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced was widely praised on the festival circuit last year, which led it to being selected as Sweden’s Oscar entry, the reception for the film in Georgia – where the story is set – was hostile to say the least. The country is one of a handful in the region who have raised legislation aimed at preventing LGBTIQ+ discrimination, but that didn’t stop far-right groups (and the Georgian Orthodox Church) attempting to shut down early screenings, labelling it "homosexual propaganda."
Of course, just because something is legal doesn’t mean that hateful beliefs are likely to disappear. Which is something Akin is eager to highlight in a story about a young man’s sexual awakening in Tbilisi - a capital city with homophobic attitudes even older than its architecture. As a dancer training at the National Georgian Ensemble Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is expected to behave and perform like a ‘man’ in the way that society expects. He's told Georgian dance is “based on masculinity” and that there is “no room for weaknesses” so finding an identity beyond those narrow boundaries puts him in an impossible position up against decades of tradition.
Merab frequently finds himself being reprimanded by teacher Aleko (Kakha Gogidze), who wants him to remove the emotion from his movements and dance without passion. While not explicitly highlighted by Akin (at least not until a powerful solo dance scene that closes out the film) Merab’s feminine gestures when practising with long-time dance partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili) demonstrate he is unlikely to conform to outdated constructs of masculinity. “Your eyes are too playful, you’re too soft,” bellows Aleko as he pushes Merab to drop the flourishes that reveal his individuality.
The other male dancers laugh and joke about hooking up with girls after practice and although Merab is in a relationship of sorts with Mary, they are yet to be fully intimate. His chaotic older brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli) also attends the school and they both live at home with their mother and grandmother who in the past have both danced on the biggest national and international stages. Money is tight and if the electricity isn’t being cut off then they are eating leftovers offered by the local grocery store.
But it’s the arrival of a handsome new replacement dancer called Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) that shakes things up. At first rivals for a newly opened position in the senior dance academy, they slowly become close friends and Merab morphs into a giddy love-struck teenager the more time they spend together. It remains unspoken for a short time, but a developing undercurrent of sexual tension ensures they both know where their relationship is heading, and amidst all the drinking and partying enjoyed with their wider group of friends, the barriers that separated them physically soon disappear.
The plot inches towards the big day when Merab can try out for the opportunity of a lifetime with the main ensemble, and it’s worth noting the reason why it exists in the first place. Akin carefully weaves in the rumours being passed around about another boy called Zaza who has been forced to abandon his dance career after being caught having sex with a male tutor. Mary tries to warn Merab about the dangerous situation he is putting himself in, while his older brother – who he is constantly at odds with – displays a surprising and emotionally affecting moment of tenderness that reminds him he is not totally alone.
DP Lisabi Fridell shoots with minimum fuss to create an understated yet involving tone, although it is also probably a result of having to carry out so much of the production under a veil of secrecy, which also resulted in multiple death threats. The handheld style lends the film a documentary feel, adding an intimacy and sense of honesty that draws you closer to Merab’s inner turmoil. But the bulk of the credit must go to Gelbakhiani, who despite his inexperience looks completely at ease in-front of the camera, bringing a sweetness and charm to the role as he ventures deeper into his own need to realise his truth.
As critical as Akin is about the aggressive masculinity within Georgian society, And Then We Danced also takes time to embrace other positive aspects of everyday life. Focus is placed on family and local delicacies, while an all too rare insight into gay nightlife culture shows a side to the capital most are unlikely to be aware of. Music plays a big role too, with commercial hits from Robyn and ABBA setting the mood alongside a handful of beautifully rendered Georgian songs. Through it all Akin captures the vibrancy of the country’s younger generation – which makes it all the more frustrating that young men like Merab have to fight harder than most to express it.
And Then We Danced is available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema