When Ketie Danelia was approached a few years ago with the script for “And Then We Danced,” Levan Akin’s gay romantic drama about a young man’s sexual awakening in the masculine world of Georgian dance, the producer knew the risks. “Everyone was telling me not to take this project, because it’s very dangerous. Which turned out to be true,” she tells Variety.
In a conservative, patriarchal country where the powerful Orthodox Church holds tremendous sway, filming was a challenge. Locations would balk at the last minute, concerned about the potential backlash; far-right groups threatened the cast and crew. When the movie finally premiered in Tbilisi in 2019, after bowing in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight to rave reviews, police units had to escort moviegoers into the cinema. Yet through it all, Danelia remained undaunted. “I knew why I was doing it,” she says.
“And Then We Danced” is among a wave of films that are bringing the stories of women, immigrants, queer people, and other long-marginalized groups to the foreground in Georgian cinema. Festival players such as Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s “My Happy Family,” a Sundance selection about a middle-aged woman who suddenly leaves her family, and Ana Urushadze’s “Scary Mother,” a Locarno premiere about a woman who finds freedom while writing a novel, are among the titles that are increasingly confronting and upending cultural mores in the former Soviet republic.
Each boundary-pushing film to land a coveted festival birth and garner critical acclaim, says Danelia, “creates an open door for the younger generation.” Elene Naveriani, whose feature debut, “I Am Truly a Drop of Sun on Earth,” follows a prostitute and a Nigerian immigrant living on the fringes of Georgian society, says that while “there was no space for these people to speak before … the narrative is changing.”
“It’s a very different narrative,” she adds. “It’s a different way of seeing the world.”
The warm reception from the international film community goes beyond simple accolades. The Georgian National Film Center’s annual operating budget is just €1.8 million ($2.2 million), an amount that covers not only production funding, but operational and administrative costs; the country’s 25% cash rebate scheme, meanwhile, was suspended last year, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
With budgets for the average arthouse feature falling in the €800,000-€1 million ($970,000-$1.2 million) range, according to Danelia, ambitious Georgian films — particularly those tackling difficult or controversial themes — would be impossible to finance without majority co-production partners from elsewhere in Europe.
“Every project that we have is a fight,” says the producer, who recently wrapped shooting on Naveriani’s LGBTQ-themed feature “Wet Sand.” “[But] you see the result. You see that this is worth fighting for.”
Led by a host of bold female filmmakers, the new generation of Georgian voices “talk more openly about the challenges they face,” says director-producer Rusudan Glurjidze (“House of Others”), who is prepping her next feature, “The Antique,” about the hopes and aspirations of Georgian immigrants amid a campaign of deportations from Russia in 2006.
“They explore new approaches to narrative style. Plots are getting bolder,” she adds. “There is an intense search for new aesthetics, methods of expression, dramatic forms, solutions, and visual imagery.”
Dea Kulumbegashvili, whose feature debut, “Beginning” (pictured), traced the inner struggles of a married woman grappling with discontent in an insular Jehovah’s Witness community, says female filmmakers in Georgia are demanding to be recognized by a society that has long considered women second-class citizens.
“We don’t want to be told anymore where our place is,” she says, citing the casual misogyny that she faced even after her film received a Cannes 2020 label. “I think there is so much anger that we just don’t want to hear it anymore.”