Georgia is one of few former Soviet bloc countries that legally prohibits discrimination against LGBT people, yet it’s a nation rife with homophobia. In 2013, a march by LGBT activists to commemorate International Day against Homophobia was repressed by a mob of thousands, led by Orthodox Christian priests. In February 2019 it was announced that Georgia’s first LGBT Pride Week would take place in June, and far-Right groups responded with threats of extreme violence. In this cultural climate, it’s something of a miracle that And Then We Danced, which tells the story of a love affair between two male Georgian folk dancers, has made it to the screen at all. Introducing the film at the Directors’ Fortnight, director Levan Akin showed his gratitude for the bravery of his cast and crew, highlighting that many of the film’s crew members remained anonymous in order to protect themselves from persecution.
Merab (played by the compelling Levan Gelbakhiani) is a talented folk dancer who lives in a small flat with his mother, grandmother and bullish older brother. His ascendancy within the local dance company is threatened by the arrival of the dashing Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), but the pair are magnetically drawn to each other. “There is no sex in Georgian dance!” the teacher scolds, but of course Merab and Irakli’s forbidden desire is expressed through electrifying scenes of their dance duets. Low early morning sunlight streams into the dance studio as they move gracefully but with a kind of aggressive, rigid power to the sound of a pounding drum. Their backs are straightened, heads held up proudly and fists tightened as they rhythmically punch the air. Merab learns that an older student was expelled by the dance school for having sex with another man and imprisoned in a monastery, a threat that looms over him as he and Irakli grow closer.
Comparisons to Call Me By Your Name are inevitable. Merab, small and lean with tousled curls, is a Timothee Chalamet type, while Irakli, older and classically handsome, is easily comparable to Armie Hammer. Their first sexual encounter in a garden at night feels familiar, yet the camera does not coyly move away from the embracing couple as it does in Call Me By Your Name. Merab doesn’t live an enviable life of summers in Italian villas either; he and his family struggle to make ends meet and he’s warned that there’s no future in folk dancing. His conflict between his sexuality and the form of creative expression, that’s emblematic of the violently homophobic nation he calls home, feels painfully real.
But while Merab and Irakli’s doomed love story is well-trodden, if grounded by the harsh realities of life in Georgia, there are moments in which it soars. At the end of a party, the soon-to-be lovers are left alone together. In a scene of pure, transcendent joy that’s bathed in golden light, Merab dons a wig and dances to Robyn’s ‘Honey’ for Irakli, privately able to express himself outside the restrictive macho elegance of folk dancing. And Then We Danced isn’t a stylistically groundbreaking film but it’s a courageous and important one, which shows the value of untold stories. One can only hope that the film will bring the issue of the abuse of LGBT people in Georgia to the world stage and potentially help make real, lasting change.
by Laura Venning
Laura Venning is a Film Studies MA student from London. She’s particularly interested in female directors and Australian and New Zealand cinema. Her favourite films include A Matter of Life and Death, The Piano, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Cléo from 5 to 7. You can find her on twitter at @laura_venning