BIFF 2019 – Interview: And Then We Danced

When Swedish-Georgian director Levan Akin went to Cannes earlier this year with his latest movie, And Then We Danced, he traveled with his two stars, Levan Gelbakhiani, and Bachi Valishvili, as well as a few other people associated with the production. They all had to pay out of pocket because the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia refused to fund the trip. Their reasoning: it dealt with a homosexual romance. The movie became an immediate hit in Cannes. It drew comparisons to Call Me By Your Name, but people also made it clear that this was a movie birthed by the circumstances of which its story takes place. 

The movie is distributed by Arthaus in Norway and is set for a theatrical release in October. It did, however, open the Bergen International Film Festival last week, and we sat down with director Levan Akin, as well as lead actors Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili before the premiere to talk about the production of the movie and how it was like shooting a story like this in Georgia. 

NOPRESS (NP) – What inspired you to make this movie now? 

Levan Akin (LA) – Back in 2013 I saw some news clips of 50 kids who decided they wanted to organize Georgia’s first pride parade. They were attacked by a mob of thousands in a counter-demonstration that was organized by the Georgian Orthodox Church among other groups. Those images were terrible, you can Google them and see for yourself. That was the inception of the idea that I should go to Georgia and research this topic. When I was there I found these kids [Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili] and the movie sort of became what it is today. 

NP – How has the movie been received in Georgia so far? 

Bachi Valishvili (BV) – It hasn’t been released yet, but when the trailer came out we got a ton of reactions. We got a lot of people swearing at us on social media, and there were horrible comments, very creative, but horrible comments

Levan Gelbakhiani (LG) – Georgians are really creative when it comes to hateful comments.

BV – Yeah, but we also got a lot of love, which was empowering and emphasizes that this is a topic that is very divisive and important for Georgia. We got a lot of love from young people, who said that they were proud. We have at least five fan pages, and we can’t even walk out on the street without it showing up on these pages. So there is a lot of anticipation for the movie from young people. Not only young people, but that’s who mostly supports us. There was one time when this young woman came up to us on the street in Tbilisi and said that she and her friends are very proud and that they feel very empowered by what we did and the movie hasn’t even been released yet. But also the dark side, the other side, is pretty scary. 

NP – Maybe you can talk a bit about the cultural differences between Sweden and Georgia, Akin?

LA – It’s a big box you are opening now, I don’t know if we have time. Homophobia is, unfortunately, rampant all over the world, and not just isolated to Georgia. I think we in the west sort of tend to have an idea of “oh we’re so enlightened when it comes to these issues” when in a matter of fact we’re not, and in many cases, we are actually going backward when it comes to these issues, even in Sweden. There is this case in Sølvesborg, which is a small town in Sweden, where the Swedish Democrats, they call themselves, have come into power and they have ruled that the rainbow flag should no longer fly outside the local council offices. That’s super extreme, so I think it’s important to remind ourselves that we always have to be vigilant and fight for our rights because they can be taken away so easily, not just when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues, but all issues. We sort of become complacent and relax, and we think that it’s over and done and that everything is fine, but it’s not. I think that goes for all over the world. Xenophobia and all types of racist shit is all around us all the time, unfortunately. 

NP – How was it to work in Georgia? 

LA – Work-wise it was an extreme cultural clash because it’s very different from Sweden. First of all, nobody likes to wake up early in the morning (everyone looks at Levan), number two: nobody’s on time, number three: nothing ever pans out the way it was planned out. Like, if I said it was gonna be like this, it would always be the complete opposite. But, it was also very nice for me, because it became an exercise for me to let go of control and just sort of embrace what I was served, and be inspired by what was happening around me. For me, as a Swedish director, that was very, very inspiring. I mean, it’s not optimal. As a director, you are never 100% happy with anything, or at least I’m not, so in some cases, I wish it would’ve been the way I initially wanted it to be, but you take what you get. We had very limited resources making this movie, and it was a though production in many ways. 

NP – Did you feel the local community helped you or not?

LA – No, not at all.

NP – Did they know what the movie was about?

LA – Yeah, some did and those people were very aggressively not helping us. Those people then spread the information to other people, so a lot of local institutions and people that should support a movie like this did not. The thing is in Georgia things a very complicated and very bureaucratic. In Sweden, you go to a place and fill out a form and you’re allowed to film there because that’s the law. In Georgia, you have to go through like ten different people, and you have to know somebody. Everything has to do with personal connections and it’s really really complicated. We wanted to…

LG – It’s because of the topic

LA – Well, yes and no. It’s still more complicated in Georgia either way. Like when we were doing the teaser and nobody knew about the topic, it was still a mess. They canceled it like 50 times, it was crazy. It is complicated. There is so much bureaucracy around all the decisions in Georgia.

NP – With so little help, how did you find all the locations in the movie?

LA – Some places I knew, but we also had an amazing location scout in Marie Jachvadze. A lot of the places we shot in were real places. For instance, it was a real restaurant and we filmed when it was open. It was very neo-realistic in that sense.

NP – I noticed that there are some people who are not credited in the movie

LA  – Yes, the choreographer and a lot of people who contributed to the songs didn’t want their names to be associated to the movie. It is a sad reality that they felt that they could lose their jobs or their reputations if they were officially connected with a movie like this. That is, again, a stark reminder for us in Norway and Sweden, where we think everything is golden and full of sunshine because it’s not and this can happen here too to, very fast.

NP – To talk more about the film production, I loved the sensitivity of the camera, how did you find this sensibility?

LA – The thing is the style was sort of a necessity in a way. We filmed it in a very documentary way. I had made a teaser with my own personal camera a year before where we sort of set the style that I wanted for the movie. I wanted it to be very close and very sensitive, and then we found Lisabi Fridell, an amazing photographer, who has that sensibility and that style that I wanted. 

NP – Is that teaser available anywhere?

LA – Well, I still have it and it’s very interesting to see because it’s very similar to the movie, but also very different. The whole first scene of the movie is there in the teaser, and you can see how Levan developed over the year. He is so much better in the movie than in the teaser.

BV – Please don’t watch the teaser

LA – No it is interesting, but I don’t think I can show it.

NP – And how did you find these kids, since neither of them had acted in a movie before?

LA – Well, Bachi was a theatre actor so he was in the system, but as for Levan, I actually found him on Instagram. I remember when I added Levan on Instagram, he added me back, but then unfollowed me. He was probably curious, going like “who the fuck is this,” and then he realized it was just a loser from Sweden. The only reason I know this is because he followed me again when we first met. 

NP – What made you two decide you wanted to do this project?

LG – In the beginning when they offered me the role, I said no five times. Then, when I started to think about the project, I thought to myself, how can I do this and how can I develop myself. I also discussed it with my friends and my family, who were very supportive. The biggest thing, however, was the topic, because of the hate towards LGBTQ+ people in the Georgian society. It was scary, but it made me want to do it.

BV – When I heard about it from a casting agent, I didn’t know what it was about. All I knew was that it was a Swedish/Georgian production. I was working at a restaurant at that time as an assistant cook, and I actually really needed an acting job, so I sent all the pictures I had and more, and my agent was like “ok, chill, they want to see you.” When I heard back, it was a video casting which can be pretty tough, they feel very awkward. My agent told me about the topic, and what the movie was about, and I hesitated for two weeks while she was texting me to send the video. I was afraid of doing a movie like this because of the unfortunate reality that was and still is, in Georgia. And also because a lot of the homophobia is quite hidden when it comes to art, so it was also the threat of not being able to do movies or theatre in Georgia after this. But then I decided that this project was something meaningful, and the fact that I hesitated emphasized for me how important it was for me to do it, and that if I was to be an actual actor, I had to take it and I had to do something that meant something for me. 

NP – Akin, how was it working with these two, especially Levan who hadn’t acted before. Was it difficult to instruct them?

LG – Say no!

LA – Well, Levan’s very stubborn… Yeah, I’m getting memories now. It was difficult and fun, it’s like it always is. But most of all it was very inspiring. I was very inspired by both of them. They gave me a lot of ideas by just looking at them. Bachi was much easier than Levan, however

BV – Why so?

LA – You were less complicated, and he had more to do.

NP – Do you have any stories about Levan being stubborn?

LA – I mean… not any specific ones, but I think it is also that Levan is such a complicated person that makes him interesting to look at. It’s like a double-edged sword. But I mean, with us it was really like the movie sprung out through our relationship. I don’t think this movie would’ve been this movie if Levan did it with another director, and I hadn’t made this movie if I made it with another actor. I was thinking about this the other day, it’s really the perfect combination. The perfect storm. Because Levan sort of gave the movie something. It was very organic the way we worked, and we had a lot of trust in each other and we were very comfortable with each other. If you look for instance in the teaser, when we don’t know each other so well you can tell that from Levan, because he’s more guarded. Because the thing with Levan that people don’t realize is that he’s very shy, and he has a lot of integrity and he has a hard time to really open up to people… if he’s not drunk. Un-drunk Levan is very tightly wound, so we had a few instances at the beginning of the shoot where Levan was very tired and stressed, because he lives a very independent life, and the concept of schedules and being on time and having to be in one place, I think he feels that inflicts upon his freedom. And when he has to be in a place for six weeks, it makes him feel imprisoned. He reacted to that and I think that was very complicated and difficult for him. He didn’t like being a slave to the movie at first.

LG – I mean, it’s true, but now that I have this experience I know how to do this stuff. So if we do it again, for like a sequel or something, I think it would be better.

LA – We had a lovely time. It was a great shoot, with lots of love, laughter, and no tears I think. I think it shows in the movie, that it is full of love.

NP – Yeah, I think you can certainly feel that you are close in the movie. I wanted to ask you two about the differences between acting and dancing and acting on screen vs on the stage

LG – When you dance you have to express your emotions with your body, it’s more physical. I think that’s the difference for me at least. When I dance I don’t have to speak or think about lines, so that was a new challenge for me, but it was a good challenge and one that made me search for new tricks and learn new skills.

BV – Acting wise there is a subtle difference that I’ve noticed. In both cases you can’t get away with faking something, you have to actually be honest, but… the difference is that in theatre you have an audience, which is very alive and a lot of the audience is in the back of the room, so you have to be more expressive. The theatre itself forces you to be more expressive, and sometimes even over the top, but the form can take that pressure. When you move to film, it’s pretty jarring that you have to do less, you have to pull back a lot of things because the camera can see everything, the tiniest movements. You can’t control every muscle in your face, because that would be fake, so you have to actually believe what you’re doing more when you’re acting for a movie. You have to be more real, more alive, and funnily enough to me film is more about being… It’s about being in the moment and being alive and honest at that moment, which is kinda ironic considering in theatre you are actually standing in front of a live audience.

NP – Have you gotten any reactions from your communities (dance/theatre) about the film?

LG – A few of my friends have seen the movie in other countries, and they really like it. I am very curious about the Georgian reaction in general, and about what people will say about the movie. It’s being released in November, so we’re just waiting to see what will happen.

BV – I actually have a funny story about when I went back to Georgia after Cannes when I went to my theatre. All my friends who I have been working with for the past four years were so supportive and when they heard about the film they messaged me that they were proud of me. It feels like they are part of my family, but when I went back to the theatre the head of the theatre arts, the teacher, said that the topic was the only reason that the movie got any attention, and he hinted at a very homophobic thing. It’s funny to me to see someone who has been in theatre for such a long time have such weird views. I’ve noticed that a lot of older people in the theatre, artists whose jobs it is to actually fight these things, are pretty homophobic, which is quite jarring and shocking. But the younger people, like our generation, every single one of them is just hugely supportive. I get so much love from it, it’s crazy

LG – Yeah, they are open-minded and they understand the meaning of the movie and that it’s very important for the Georgian society and for the Georgian community. It can open a lot of doors for the LGBTQ+ people in Georgia. For instance, I have gotten a lot of messages on social media from people telling me I’ve given them a lot of inspiration, and some of them tell me that they feel free now to do what they want to do. I think that’s the good part of the Georgian society. At the same time that we have these older generations that are brainwashed by the Soviet Union and the church and right-wing groups, we have a really open-minded younger generation. And I think that the country of Georgia will be built by young people now, because older people don’t have any idea of what’s happening around the world, and we are the people who are trying to develop culture and institutes and things like that.

BV – It’s something you see around the world. Kids versus older people, like with Greta Thunberg and all the kids coming out for climate change.

LG – I mean, a few months ago we had a really bad relationship with Russia because they have…

BV – Don’t go political…

LG – But, I mean, that’s the truth, we can’t hide that. They still occupied our territories and they moved our borders day by day and we had a demonstration in June and it was really, really huge. I’ve never seen that many people, and it was just young kids because they really care about the future of the country, and I think that’s the really good part of the Georgian society, that we try to go as far as we can to do the things we want to do.

NP – I feel like that is actually a beautiful note to end it on, but I have to ask you both… Do you want work in movies again?

LG – Yeah! I mean, it was really hard, because I’m not used to it, but with the perspective, I have now I want to continue with acting.

BV – That’s actually the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life.

Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

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