“The idea of defiance is universal” An Interview with ‘And Then We Danced’ director Levan Akin
Interview by Lewis Bayley
And Then We Danced follows ambitious dancer Merab in the traditional Georgian-dance Academy, as new arrival Irakli challenges his opportunity to join the National Ensemble. Directed by Levan Akin, the Swedish-French-Georgian co-production explores sexuality in a masculine, high-stakes environment with an incredible sense of craft, emotional reality and nuance.
I had the opportunity to talk to director Levan Akin about the film, hot off the heels of the film’s Best Feature win at the Iris Prize Film Festival in Cardiff.
First of all, congratulations on the success of And Then We Danced, I’m sure its just the beginning of the recognition that this film is going to receive.
You premiered at Director’s Fortnight in Cannes in May, and now Sweden have submitted the film for Best International Feature for the Oscars. Not to mention your UK premiere at London Film Festival and your Iris Prize win for Best Feature too. How are you navigating the response to the film?
I’m barely keeping up to be frank. I’m very curious by nature so I think it is fun to meet people and communicate about the film but this last month has been very draining. Lots of travel.
It’s interesting to see this place that we haven’t really seen on screen before, and particularly the world of Georgian dance. What is your connection to Georgia and Tbilisi that made you want to tell this story?
My parents are Georgian so I used to spend the summers there as a kid. I love Georgia and it was really special for me to go back there and film.
The heightened expectations of masculinity within Georgian dance echo that of the military. Do you think people are connecting with the film because everyone wrestles with defying expectations?
Perhaps, we all have expectations on ourselves, from family and jobs etc. I think the idea of defiance is universal. To sort of tell everybody to **** off.
I couldn’t help but notice the Georgian dance choreographer unnamed in the end credits of the film. This really emphasises the seriousness of what attaching yourself to a queer film could mean for him. Where did you shoot the film? What was the response from locations and the public over the content of the film?
We shot on location in Tbilisi and it was very challenging in many ways. We would lose locations the night before we were supposed to film there. We received death threats and had to have bodyguards on set. But we were a very small team and we really guerrilla shot the film in many ways and we were fast at getting away.
Stakes are high throughout the film — this is a family living on the poverty line and any misstep could mean losing everything. Was this a conscious decision in reflecting Georgia’s the social-economic situation or more to stress the responsibility on Merab’s shoulders as a provider for his family?
I have always had class as a theme in my films. And in this case, it was also the everyday reality of the Georgians.
Speaking of Merab — Levan Gelbakhiani delivers an incredible performance in the film, and I was shocked to find out this is his first acting role. Where did you find him?
I found him on Instagram when I was doing interviews with young people in Tbilisi. We added each other on instagram and then the algorithm suggested him as a friend so something good came out of social media for once. Then my casting person suggested him too from another end and I was like “this is a sign”. We met and he inspired the film a lot. I think I would’ve made a different story had I not found him.
The on-screen chemistry between Levan (Gelbakhiani) and Bachi (Valishvili) is palpable. I couldn’t help but notice that there isn’t really any quiet in the film — there is no private space for Merab and Irakli to hide and be together. Even their first intimate scene is outdoors where we can hear people in the background. Was this an artistic decision or more of a decision to accurately present what it would be like?
Yes, very. There is no private space in Georgia which is a problem. Everybody is in everyone’s business. It can be charming like when a stranger helps correct Merab’s shirt collar on the bus but it is mostly very problematic. People live their lives knowing that everybody knows everything and it limits ones life a lot.
Their first encounter doesn’t involve any kissing — this really struck me when watching the film for a number of reasons, including the notion in coming to terms with one’s own sexuality that kissing is a romantic entanglement rather than just a physical interaction. Can you speak about this decision?
It would’ve been too intimate for them to do that at that point in their development. It is when Irakli acknowledges Merab after this first encounter that Merab feels comfortable to show emotions.
I think the film articulates exploring sexuality and embracing your authentic identity in one of the most realistic ways I’ve seen on screen. How much of the character of Merab is you?
Good question. I don’t know really, I think we are perhaps similar. But for me, the filming was a rumination of my own youth and how I will never really have those types of emotions ever again. First love. I had never thought about it really before diving into this film. How much changes the older one becomes. It’s like Ally Sheedy’s character says in The Breakfast Club. “When you grow old your heart dies”.
How long was the process from your first draft to the first day of shooting? How difficult was it to acquire funding and support for the film?
I would say 3 years. It was difficult, we had too little money for this film.
Now I’ve tried to be vague so far to try not to spoil the film but I have to bring up the dance that Merab does for Irakli to ‘Honey’ by Robyn. Was it always going to be that song? Everything in that sequence from their chemistry, the movement and cinematography is simply stunning. The scene breaks down the barriers of masculinity in a playful and flirtatious way.
Thank you. We were all listening to that song while filming and we tried doing the dance to that song and it worked amazingly. But it was something that happened in the moment and we caught it.
You have two very long continuous tracking shots in the film that are perfectly executed. What was the rationale behind these?
I wanted to convey the feeling many of us have felt when everybody around you is happy but you are dying of sorrow from the inside and you just want to get out. That’s why it is continuous. I never do shots just because they can be done or because they are intriguing. They need to have a narrative purpose.
You mentioned in an interview earlier this year that you and Levan (Gelbakhiani) have both received hate messages on social media after the film. Does this reinforce the importance of films like And Then We Danced?
Social media is fun in that sense, that you can get direct feedback from people.
Your next project is set in Turkey and follows a character mentioned in And Then We Danced but we never see them. Will we get a chance to see Merab and Irakli again but in the location of Istanbul? And if not, would you be open to exploring these two characters again in the future?
It is too early for me to know what will happen with the next film exactly. But perhaps I will revisit them in ten years? See where they are then?
I hope so, I think everyone is going to want to see these two again! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me Levan.
And Then We Danced from director Levan Akin is set to be distributed to UK cinemas by Peccadillo Pictures in March 2020.
Interview by Lewis Bayley https://www.instagram.com/lew_bacca/