BIFF 2019: And Then We Danced & God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya

This piece discusses the final scenes of both And Then We Danced and God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya

Cultural traditions can be beautiful. They can allow us to better understand our history through art, legends or customs. They can educate us, and make us come together and connect with people around us. They can also be harmful as they carry with them age-old baggage that should’ve been eradicated centuries ago, but is perpetuated by corrupt institutions and communities that use hate, shame, and toxicity for their own personal gain. And Then We Danced and God Exists, Her Name Is Patrunya are two films that screened at the Bergen International Film Festival this year that both deal with this duality and how it affects younger generations, who may appreciate their cultural traditions but still want to see them evolve.

And Then We Danced sees Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a dance student at the National Georgian Ensemble, come to terms with his sexuality as he falls in love with the carefree new arrival, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). They are rivals at the ensemble, as only one of them will be selected to join the national ballet, but it doesn’t take long for them to form a meaningful romantic relationship. Their romance has to be hidden away from everyone around them because the reality in Georgia is that there is no room for queer love unless you exist on the peripheries of society.

Director Levan Akin was inspired to make this film in 2013. This year saw the first Pride Parade in Georgia’s history, but the few people who took part to celebrate queer love and identity were attacked and beaten by a massive counter-protest that was organized by the Georgian Orthodox Chruch as well as other well-established institutions. It has been reported that the counter-protest consisted of more than 20,000 people. Akin, who was born and raised in Sweden but has roots in Georgia, was compelled to travel to the country to make a film that challenged the conservative conventions that allow such hateful ideologies to fester and boil to the surface.

Georgian dance has a deeply rich and celebrated history, it is described by one demanding instructor in the film as “the spirit of the nation,” and the fact that Akin chose to make this story about two male dancers falling in love is not incidental. It is a confrontation of the traditions that allow such incidents as the 2013 attacks, and the more hidden homophobic transgressions, to transpire day by day.

The film, however, is not a miserable affair of brutal circumstances—albeit both Merab and Irakli has to deal with terrible situations—but rather a sensual and warm embrace of these men’s love for each other. And Then We Danced has been compared to Call Me By Your Name by many, and while it’s a fairly reductive comparison, it carries a lot of truth. The delicate sensibility of the camera, how it approaches bodies and faces, is very much similar to Luca Guadagnino’s in CMBYN, as is its beautiful understanding of physicality and touch. It is a beautiful confrontation. Levan Gelbakhiani, who had never acted before this, possesses an almost Bresson-esque naturalism, and you can see every emotion reflected in his eyes. He has one of those mature and rich faces that can tell an entire story, and he’s still so young. The film challenges the systemic and patriarchal structures that allow such hate to exist, but in the final scene, Merab does something extraordinary. He goes into his audition for the national ballet and performs in a euphoric ecstasy in front of his instructor and teacher. He no longer dances for them, however, he dances for himself.

In God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya we follow a woman named Petrunya in a small town in Macedonia, who on a whim dives into a smaller river to retrieve an even smaller cross tossed into the waters by the high priest. It’s a long and historic tradition in this town, in which dozens of men toss themselves recklessly into the cold water to be the first to the cross, which is said to bring the person who catches it luck for a full year. Of course, Petrunya’s dive and victory cause wide-spread hysteria among the clergy and the half-naked men in and around the water.

Director Teona Struar Mitevska has made a sharp and uncomfortably funny film about the hypocrisy of patriarchal structures in society as well as the church. Petrunya is played with the utmost resilience by newcomer Zorica Nusheva, while her male counterparts are almost without exception ridiculous in their conservative naivety. As Petrunya is confined to the local police station, first under the pretense of an arrest—albeit nobody answers her when she asks if she indeed is under arrest—then for her own protection as an angry mob of men demands justice and that she delivers the cross back to them or the church. Petrunya remains strong-willed and determined for the most part, sure in her case that she won the cross fair and square and that she will keep it for a year to reap the benefits. It is only towards the end that she opens up to a police officer who is actually sympathetic to her cause, and their interactions are as heartfelt as her run-ins with the hysterics are shocking. Once the film approaches its final moments, we’ve seen the high priest, the police officers, and the angry mob demand and negotiate with Petrunya about the cross for almost 90 minutes. When she is eventually released, because she has not broken any laws and she has remained steadfast that the cross is hers to keep, she meets the high priest in the door. She turns around and faces him before she returns the cross. She doesn’t need it anymore, but he does.

These films could’ve easily been reduced to simple and shallow condemnations of the cultures and traditions at their center, but both Akin and Mitevska understand the reductive nature of such a stance. They understand that for Georgians, it isn’t as simple as running away—from country or from dance—and that Petrunya’s self-realization shouldn’t come at the expense of herself. They understand that it is the hateful and backward people that has to go, not the traditions themselves. Both films present us with hope. Hope for a future in which traditions can evolve. Hope for a time where we don’t have to kill our past to move on to our future—although the idea may be seductive at times—where our traditions and cultures are not only more inclusive but also more open for change and progession.

Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

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