Levan Akin on And Then We Danced
While shooting And Then We Danced – a tender romance between two male dancers – in Georgia, director Levan Akin and his cast needed bodyguards. He tells us how love and the music of Robyn helped make a joyous film inspired by hatred
They may be separated by 5000 miles, but Georgian-born Swedish director Levan Akin reckons his home nation and Scotland aren’t too different. “I've been there. For the Edinburgh festival! It's very beautiful,” says Akin excitedly when he clocks my accent as we meet to discuss his exquisite third feature, And Then We Danced. “And it's so fascinating because both the country of Scotland and the people really look Georgian.”
Really? “Totally. He could be Scottish.” Akin is pointing to his lead actor, Levan Gelbakhiani, who looks on sheepishly wearing a bright tangerine hoodie that compliments his curly auburn locks. “It’s not just that both countries have lots of redheads,” laughs Akin. “But it's also the nature and the sort of topography too.”
And Then We Danced concerns the attraction that forms between two male dancers at a Georgian dance company specialising in the country’s folk dance tradition. The men falling for one another are Gelbakhiani’s Merab, a nervy livewire with a smile as wide as the Caspian Sea, and the company’s newest member, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), who’s so cool he wanders into training on his first day wearing an earring. Such flourishes of personality and self-expression are not tolerated by their stern dance instructor. "This is not the lambada," he says, reprimanding Merab, whose thrusting hips and florid hand movements break two of the company’s cardinal rules: be chaste (“There is no sex in Georgian dance”), and be hyper-masculine ("You should be like a nail!").
The idea of setting a gay romance in this milieu came to Akin after violent attacks on Tbilisi’s pride parade in 2013. “I was very horrified by what I saw, and ashamed,” he recalls. “I live in Sweden, but I'm of Georgia descent, so I said to myself: perhaps I can go to Georgia and do something on this topic.” The inspiration may be born of hate, but the execution is overflowing with joy. “It was really important for me that the film felt like a warm embrace rather than a kick in the stomach,” says Akin, “because I wanted to celebrate love. It sounds corny, but I just want it to say, ‘Listen, people can love who they want. Like, it's not a big deal. Chill.'”
The film succeeds on this front. It’s incredibly tender, thanks in no small part to Gelbakhiani’s balletic, almost feline performance. “I was instantly fascinated by Levin the first time I saw him,” says the director. While the 23-year-old had no experience of acting, he had other qualities to make up for it. “Levan is a dancer himself but he's also very expressive in his face,” explains Levin. “He has these very subtle changes that the camera picks up.
Gelbakhiani is practically squirming in his seat through Akin’s effusive praise. Their fruitful director-actor collaboration didn’t come easy, though. “For me, it was really difficult to show my emotions in front of people I don’t know,” Gelbakhiani tells me. “So it took a while to build up trust, but we worked together for, like, almost two years for me to lose this shyness between me and him.”
“For months I was just being with him and his friends, filming them and being around them,” adds Akin. “It was like being an undercover journalist or something.” This isn’t to say it was all plain sailing between the pair. “Our relationship was really built around trust, but when we started shooting the film, that was when the director in me came out.” Both men laugh knowingly at this. “That's a different guy,” continues Akin. “So we had some tense moments there because he thought I was very strict. But, you know, you got a good performance out of it.”
Gelbakhiani looks sceptical. We press for details. “He was just like really manipulative,” he says of his director. “I would get so angry because, you know, I’ve never worked in film before, so I didn't get an idea of what were the basic rules.”
“There are no basic rules,” counters Akin without missing a beat. “But what happened was that Levan doesn't really have the tools of an actor because he's not an actor. So he can't bring out things on cue. Now he can, I mean, he developed so fast. But in the beginning, it was hard for him to maybe do the same thing twice because it came from such a place of truth. So I think for me it was also very much about really helping him come into that mood, and really be there and stay there and also focus between takes. Because you know, a lot of the times young people, you do a take and the first thing they do is take out their phone.”
“Welcome to my life!” adds Gelbakhiani, still clearly sore about Akin’s smartphone ban.
None of this tension is evident on screen. Gelbakhiani’s performance is enchanting – and intensely physical. “You can express so much through your body, so I always tried to use the actors’ physicality as much as I can,” says Akin. “When I think about it, I could have done more even without the dialogue.” The film’s standout scene – perhaps the scene of the year – is one such moment of pure physical expression. It also features a perfect needle drop in the form of Robyn’s Honey.
“The Robyn scene was a lovely moment,” recalls Akin.”I just had in the script, Merab dances sensually and playfully to Irakli and feels free for the first time in the movie, truly free. And it was like a sort of foreplay to the sex scene. We tried a bunch of different Robyn songs and Honey had just come out, so we tried that. We put that on and he did that dance in the moment and we just filmed it – the whole movie is like that actually.”
This isn’t to suggest Akin’s filmmaking is slapdash. Rather, he was forced to work on the hoof given he was making an LGBTQ film in a culture that is, to say the least, not tolerant of a queer presence. “We couldn't plan anything,” says Akin. “We didn't know where we were filming tomorrow because people were constantly blocking us once they got wind of what the film was about. We needed bodyguards! So we were like a ragtag crew running around.”
Despite the open homophobia Akin’s production faced, this violence doesn’t spill on screen, avoiding the old cliche of gay protagonists being somehow punished for their sexuality. “I don't want anybody to die in my movies for being in love, that's just not fun to watch. I mean nobody wants to hurt this guy,” he says, grabbing the shoulder of his embarrassed leading man. “I mean, can you imagine? People would have hated me if I put them through the agony of falling in love with him only to have him beat up. It would be such a tragedy.”
And Then We Danced is released 13 Mar by Peccadillo Pictures