Georgian-Swedish filmmaker Levan Akin is already enjoying success with “And Then We Danced,” his acclaimed social drama about a young dancer struggling with the confines of tradition and forbidden love. The film, which premiered in Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, went on to win three top awards at the Odessa Film Festival, including best film and best actor for Levan Gelbakhiani.
It’s Akin’s third feature after the 2011 Swedish drama “Certain People” and 2015 Swedish fantasy film “The Circle,” produced by Benny Andersson of ABBA fame. Akin spoke to Variety about the challenges of dealing with homosexuality in a conservative society, the hope in a new generation and the roles of art and tradition. “And Then We Danced” screens in competition at Sarajevo Film Festival.
Congratulations on the film’s success in Odessa. In view of the subject matter, how do you expect it will perform in Eastern and Southeastern Europe?
Thank you. I was very happily surprised. I didn’t expect it to bomb [in Odessa], but I didn’t expect the response that we got, which was so overwhelming. I think it goes to show that there is a yearning for this type of representation in films that are not only Anglo or Western European in the setting. When we were in Cannes and we started selling the film there was such great interest from countries like Turkey, Greece, the Baltic states. We’ve sold the movie now to 30 countries. I believe that there is an audience for this because the stories haven’t really been told in that setting.
What has been the response so far from Georgia?
When we released the trailer back in April and announced that we were going to be part of the Quinzaine, the response was overwhelming. All of the media reported about this film. From a media standpoint, it has been overwhelmingly positive. There were Georgian critics in Cannes and it got great reviews. Somebody even wrote that there was now a before and after this film in Georgian cultural history. It’s made a great impact in Georgia and we haven’t even screened it there yet. Of course it’s really polarized. You have the far-right that doesn’t like this movie. They’re sort of traditionalists. I wanted with this movie to really reach people. I didn’t want it to be too narrow, too polarizing. I really worked on making it accessible. To me the film is very much a love letter to culture and tradition. I wanted to show that there wasn’t any contradiction in loving your heritage, being part of your culture, and also breaking the norm. That was the overarching theme for me.
You got the idea for the film after seeing a violent attack on a pride parade in Tbilisi. Would you say Georgia is becoming increasingly intolerant, or are you hopeful about the younger generation?
Hate tends to galvanize people who already have it difficult. It’s easy to find people to blame. When I saw that parade in 2013, I was really surprised and also ashamed. I knew there were intolerant people in every country but I never thought it would be as extreme as the images that I saw. That was the seed for me to make something about this topic in Tbilisi. But I really see so much hope, not only in Georgia, also in other countries with similar backgrounds where you have this young generation and the future is there. They are the future of Georgia, these young people.
This film is already having an impact. It’s sort of an antidote to all of that poison. It’s empowering. So many young Georgians and Ukrainians and Polish people have written to me on Instagram about how much this movie means to them and they haven’t even seen it yet, but they’ve watched the trailer like 50 times. It’s really moving.
What were the biggest challenges in making the film?
The team in Georgia that we worked with was obviously in on what we were doing and they were super supportive. The Georgian producer, Ketie Danelia – I don’t think we could have made the film without her, or without our main producer, Mathilde Dedye. Ketie was really instrumental in orchestrating everything there. We had to have bodyguards on set. We got death threats. We had a fake story of what the film was about that we would tell people when we were filming but it would inevitably leak somehow and we would lose locations the night before. I think it’s fear. I don’t know if it’s just homophobia; it’s probably fear that they’re going to lose clients or money somehow. They would make up things like they’re renovating and things like that. After a while it gets really tiresome. It’s easier in that sense to deal with pure hatred when it’s in your face, rather than when people are making excuses like, “Oh sorry, you can’t be here anymore,” and you’re like, “Why?”
The name of the Georgian dance choreographer was not in the credits – he was listed as “Anonymous.” Was the situation that serious?
Yes, he would have lost his job.
I was surprised some times even though I had done so much research. It was a reminder that we in the West think that the struggle has been won and everything is okay. In the rest of the world it’s still difficult to come out to your parents, it’s still a matter of life and death. Two hours from Tbilisi, in Chechnya, people are being murdered.
You tend to forget when you’re watching a show like “Pose” on television and you think it’s so normal to watch guys and girls having sex on TV. What’s interesting is that these kids in Georgia also watch the same things you and I watch. There’s a huge gap between their generation and their parents’ generation and the Soviet generation. I think that’s so interesting and I’d like to explore that further. It’s like the 1950s and 2019 are living simultaneously in Tbilisi at the moment.
What made Levan Gelbakhiani ideal for this role?
I wanted a dancer in the film and wanted to focus on the dance aspect and he’s a very talented dancer. There’s something very expressive about his face. He can emote so many emotions so suddenly. A lot of things happen while you watch him. He makes you curious as a viewer. And he often looks different – sometimes he looks young, sometimes he looks old. He has like 50,000 faces. I knew that he was going to be interesting to watch. So that’s why I picked him. The best acting in the world is when it just looks effortless but it’s so hard to get there, especially when you have a big camera in your face. He’s extremely talented.
What are you working on next?
At the moment I’m working on a TV series called “Dough” that I’ve written with two colleagues here in Sweden that I’ll be directing in the spring for [Swedish broadcaster] SVT. And I’m also working on a new feature film that I can’t say that much about at the moment, but it’s very exciting. I’m currently doing research. It might be partially set in Georgia. I think a lot of it will be in Istanbul.