And Then We Danced ****
Starring: Levan Gelbakhiani, Bachi Valishvili, Ana Javakishvili, Kakha Gogidze
Director: Levan Akin
For a small-scale release, And Then We Danced has experienced quite the press coverage. Unfortunately it wasn’t for its quality but for the reaction from homophobic groups picketing the film’s premiere in Tbilisi. Though homosexuality is legal in Georgia, far right and Orthodox extremists claimed the film was a “moral threat to the fabric of our society”. Riot police were present to help escort movie-goers into the theatre, but that didn’t stop several people leaving the cinema in ambulances. And though the film was the biggest Georgian release of recent years, finding acclaim at Cannes and becoming Sweden’s official entry to the Oscars (its director is of Georgian heritage but grew up in Stockholm), it was noticeably absent from the programme at the Tbilisi Film Festival in December. Now, the film has found release in UK cinemas thanks to Peccadillo Pictures.
Merab (Gelbakhiani) is a dancer in the National Georgian Ensemble. For the Georgians, their traditional dances are a source of immense national pride, embodying their traditional values. Masculine, poised and intense, the male dancers are more like a sports team than artists, whose incredibly physical exertions are demonstrations of their masculinity. Taking tremendous amounts of self-discipline and control, those lacking in commitment are cast out, like Merab’s brother (Gogidze) whose nightly partying and loose morals lead to his dismissal from the troupe. Despite this, Merab is riding high with his dance partner since childhood, Mary (Javakishvili), who is also considered by everyone else his girlfriend.
Cue the arrival of Irakli (Valishvili), a handsome newcomer to the troupe, whose talent leads to feelings of jealousy and maybe something even more intense that Merab doesn’t understand. As the two of them become close, we hear stories of other gay people whose lives have been destroyed by their sexuality, which casts a long shadow over his sexual awakening. And, of course, the tall dark stranger has his own secrets too, illustrating just how difficult it is to be gay in Georgia.
With Georgia sharing a border with the notoriously homophobic Russian province of Chechnya, it’s no coincidence that a film about homophobia in their country was met with such vitriol. And considering the hostility the characters experience, the film doesn’t allow this to be the be-all and end-all of their experiences. In fact, it depicts the joyous sexual awakening of Merab with a dignified exhilaration without letting the doom and gloom overcome it. In fact, the film’s final moment gives a beaming beacon of hope in a beautifully tender scene between the two brothers.
Merab is a very likeable character, while Irakli is enigmatic and beguiling. The brief scenes that feature Tbilisi’s limited gay scene are fascinating, but the film’s best feature is its dancing. Obviously the film’s title is fairly explicit in reminding us this is a film about dance, but even the most dance-phobic viewers will find themselves in awe of the physical prowess this remarkable tradition requires. And the film’s biggest triumph is the way it manages to breathe twenty-first century life into a centuries’ old tradition and make it appear both modern and relevant. I’ll confess that a film about traditional Georgian dancing is a particularly hard sell, but not only is it a compelling watch, its dance scenes are its most enthralling. Mesmeric, animal and guttural, dance is more than just a pastime for Merab, it’s a physical need.
A captivating snapshot of life in Georgia, this is a fascinating portrait of a charming young man and his need for self-expression. Having channelled it entirely into dance, this is a movie about what happens when that is simply not enough. With beautifully captured dance sequences, we also see customs played out for the camera, with an especially striking tracking shot capturing a Georgian wedding. The director’s Swedish upbringing does become painfully obvious in his musical choices at times (hello ABBA and Robyn), but for the most part this is a skilfully authentic experience, with a boy’s sexual awakening projected against the hostile machismo of an artform that would be synonymous with tolerance elsewhere.