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ScreenTalks Archive: Levin Akin on And Then We Danced

two dancers sit next to each other in a dance studio
12 Oct 2021
22 min listen

Dancer turned actor and director Levin Akin discusses the stories and meaning behind the critically-acclaimed Georgian drama, And Then We Danced.  

It's part of this podcast mission to give you insider information and background detail on underseen cinema gems. Our offering this episode certainly fits into that category. 'And Then We Danced' is a coming-of-age film about a young Georgian man named Merab (played by Levan Akin). A forbidden romance blossoms between Merab and Irakli, a fellow male dancer in the National Dance ensemble of which they are both part. This is despite the fact that according to their very stern instructor, there is no sex in Georgian dance. This may be an unfamiliar culture to ScreenTalks listeners, but filmmaker Levin Akin does an excellent job of situating us in the conversation you're about to hear. 

The Barbican ScreenTalks Archive podcast is presented by Ellen E Jones and produced by Jane Long for Loftus Media. Listen to more episodes on: 

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‘For Georgia, there’s sort of five things - it's the church, it's the wine, it's the food, it's the polyphonic singing. And then it's the dance. ‘


Ellen E Jones: Welcome to the Barbican ScreenTalks Archive podcast. It's part of this podcast mission to give you insider information and background detail on underseen cinema gems. Our offering this episode certainly fits into that category. 'And Then We Danced' is a coming-of-age film about a young Georgian man named Merab. A forbidden romance blossoms between Merab and Irakli, a fellow male dancer in the National Dance ensemble of which they are both part. This is despite the fact that according to their very stern instructor, there is no sex in Georgian dance. This may be an unfamiliar culture to ScreenTalks listeners, but filmmaker Levin Akin does an excellent job of situating us in the conversation you're about to hear. 

As he explains to Barbican Curator Alex Davidson, Akin himself has something of an outsider perspective, having been raised in Sweden by his Georgian parents. It seems like there were plenty of Georgians in the Barbican audience on the day this was recorded, and in answer to a question from a fellow countryman, Akin describes how he captured the authentic feel of life in this fast changing nation. Some aspects of Georgian life are progressing slower than others, however, Akin describes how it was the violent attack on Tbilisi's first LGBT Pride March in 2013 that inspired the film, and how the fear of homophobic discrimination forced him and his crew into a kind of on-the-fly guerrilla style of filmmaking. 

One of the film's key choreographers even chose to go uncredited due to safety concerns. Yet despite these very real worries, And Then We Danced is a film that's full of joy and romance communicated by a cast of mostly first-time actors live. Levan Gelbakhiani plays Merab alongside Bachi Valishvili as Irakli.  Gelbakhiani may have never seen John Hughes Some Kind of Wondeful, but he still seems like perfect casting for an 80s teen movie as Akin says. Merab might well be Tbilisi's answer to Alex from Flashdance or Baby from Dirty Dancing. The film even culminates with a rebellious and triumphant solo performance, in which our hero puts his own spin on stiff Georgian traditions. Clearly, nobody puts Merab in a corner. 

I'm Ellen E Jones, and this is Barbican ScreenTalks on 'And Then We Danced' with writer-director Levan Akin speaking just before lockdown in 2020, via a surprisingly good Skype connection.

Alex Davidson: Hello, Levan.

Levan Akin: Hey

AD: Please welcome Levan to the Barbican. 

LA: Hi guys.

AD: We're a full house here so thank you very much

LA: It's my first Skype Q&A

AD: Fantastic. Congratulations, your first one is here tonight. Just to start I wanted to ask you, before we even get into the film itself, a little bit about the origins of the film. And I've read that you said that the film was made in part as a reaction to what happened when there was a Pride parade in Tbilisi a few years ago. Could you just talk a little bit about what happened at that march and what your reaction was?

AL: Of course, so that was in 2013. 50 people in Tbilisi in Georgia decided to have Georgia's first Pride parade. And they were attacked by a counter demonstration of 20,000 people, I believe, organised by the Orthodox Church, some other conservative groups and the far right. And the images of you know, this attack, as it became, on these 50 people. were all over the news. 
And I saw it in Sweden, in Stockholm where I live, I was working on another movie at that time. And fortunately, nobody, you know, was killed or anything but 12 of them were injured and they took refuge in a bus. So that's how they sort of survived. And yeah, it was shocking to me, I have Georgian origins. My parents are from Georgia, but I was born in Sweden, and I just never thought that it would be you know, that. I don't know what happened. You know, I was shocked that it was so brutal. I knew that it wasn't the most, you know, LGBT friendly place in Europe. But you know, I never knew it was that bad. So that's what made me decide to you know, do something on this topic.

AD: And there are a lot of polarising opinions represented in And Then We Danced, which bounces off what you just said, there are a lot of contrasts. There's the contrast between the new and the old, the young and the old. What was perceived as traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine, what's new and what's traditional. And although there's a lot of love towards Georgian culture in this film, in fact, you've described it as a love letter to Georgian culture, and tradition. Could you just talk a bit about how important dances to Georgian culture and how it fits in with some of the other tenets that you might describe as being integral to Georgian culture?

LA: Sure. You know, I think, for Georgia's there’s sort of five things, it's the church, it's the wine, it's the food, it's the polyphonic singing. And then it's the dance. And I think the Georgian dance, you know, which is actually based off of Caucasian dances, you know, somewhere from Northern Caucasus, you know, even outside Georgia, the Georgian dance as we know it today, and the dance that you see in the film is actually already a reinterpretation of these old folk dances that were appropriated by firstly, this one big National Dance ensemble, which during Soviet time sort of made this, almost I wouldn't say it's, you know, pastiche, but it sort of became, you know, this big show, almost like river dance, where they did versions of the costumes. I mean, the real folk costumes don't look like the ones that they have. 

So you know, there was there was this designer who sort of re-imagined the outfits and everything. And they toured during Soviet times, they toured all over the world. And they became, you know, a really big deal. And like they talked about in the movie, they perform at La Scala, you know, everywhere. And then as you know, the Soviet Union fell, they sort of faded a little, and now they mostly perform in, you know, Eastern European countries. But, you know, like, he says, in the film, the teacher, the dances were sort of changed 50 years ago, and a lot of them that dances from Adjara, where Iraklis' character comes from originally, they were more gender fluid, there were more oriental influences, there were more feminine influences. And this dance that came to the dance that they do when they danced together, was actually a dance that came out of underground gay community in the turn of the last century. And that has also been appropriated into this, you know, so he sort of if you know, the history of the Kinto dance, which a lot of Georgian especially a lot of LGBTQ Georgians know of, he sort of takes that dance back, Merab, in the end of the movie, when he you know, does those moves and sort of does his thing with it.

AD: I have loads more questions, I'd love to ask, but I'd love to throw it open to the audience. So does anyone have a question for Levan Akin?

Q1: Was the film all shot in Georgia? 

LA: Yes, yes, it was, everything was shot on location in Tbilisi. We shot for I think, 25 days or something in the fall of 2018. And it was a very challenging shoot, in many ways, we had to film you know, we had like an alternate story that we would say that we were doing in order to get, it's not illegal to be gay or anything in Georgia, not anymore. However, you know, it's frowned upon in society, and it's not accepted. 
So we would, you know, say that we were making a film about a French tourist who comes to visit Georgia and falls in love with the culture. But then inevitably, you know, it's still spread, because sometimes when we had to get into places that were owned by the municipality of Tbilisi, we would be honest, and they would say, you know, okay, and then the last minute, they would say, they're renovating or something, and we couldn't film there. So we had to be very flexible. A lot of the film is really shot in the moment, I think you can feel that it has this sort of documentary feel to it. Like the scene with the prostitutes, or when he was working in the restaurant, the restaurant was open while we were filming, we just, you know, would run out of our buses and film, basically, it's very, you know, became this sort of neo-realist approach. 
We hadn't planned it that way. But that's how we had to shoot the film and be very, very flexible. 

Q2: Thank you for sharing. It's a really nice movie. Can you share a little bit about the casting because the main character is, I mean, this is his first film. And so a little bit about the challenges of casting this film. 

LA: It was pretty challenging. It's a mix of, you know, people that I actually interviewed while I was doing research, some people I, you know, found in, you know, while I was doing research, also, and then some of them were actors. Some of the older actors that we approached, didn't want to do the film because of the topic, but that was some of them were really okay with it. Like the old man who unfortunately passed away, last year, the old dance teacher, the head of the company, he never got a chance to see the film. He is, you know, sort of a legend in Georgia and he had no problems in making this film at all. And he thought his peers were ridiculous, some of them who said no to being this film. 
And the main actor Levan, I found actually on Instagram because I was doing a lot of interviews with young people and the algorithm suggested him. So that was one good thing from social media and he, I saw that he was a dancer, and by then I knew I was looking for a dancer. But it was a risk also, because it was such a, you know, pivotal part of the film. And I had to work a lot with him, to get him to these places that he needed to be in, because he didn't have the tools of an actor. So it was, you know, it was a very, I had to have a different approach with you know, all of them somehow to make it work.

Q3: Is he going to start anything else as you continue to work?

LA: He wants to, I think he's going to be in a feel like some European film, I think in like, one year, I think this shoot is, but nothing now. No, not that I know.

Q4: Hi, I'm from Georgia. And first of all, thank you for this feeling. First of all, thank you and Barbican Cinema, and I feel so proud. I'm not reading subtitles, and I'm just watching the film, and I really loved it. Thank you for that. Now the question. So as I know, you have never lived in Georgia. And everything in the film is so real. It's so Georgian. It's like a surprise for me, so how did this happen? Your family told you a lot about Georgia, or there was many people who helped you to make this film?

LA: Sure. So actually, I used to go to Georgia every summer as a child during the Soviet times. So, every summer up until you know, the Civil War. I used to be in Georgia in the summers. And then I started going again on my own in the early 2000s. So I visit Georgia a lot. 

Apart from my family who's lived in Sweden for 50 years, I also have like aunts and uncles, and cousins, and some of them live in Sweden, and they came later. So I have a very strong connection to Georgia and Georgian culture. However, you know, Georgian culture, as we know, has changed so much during just the last 30 years. It's like, you know, every decade, it's, you know, like a new country in many ways. So I spent a lot of time in Georgia doing research, interviewing people. 

I spent six months with Levan and his friends just, you know, getting to know their life. And I also had assistant director, I had, you know, people helping me with localization and things like that. So, I think, you know, all in all, that probably helped. And, you know, just being curious and asking questions and sort of observing things. I mean, this, a lot of the things in the movies, things that I heard while I was working on it, like, you know, they were always talking about these cigarettes and how they got the shitty cigarettes that the Europeans wouldn't smoke. And I was like, okay, that's funny. I'll put that in the movie. So a lot of it was very, very organic, how the film sort of came together. 

Q5: Hi. Thank you very much for the movie. Like, this is the fifth time I've watched it. 

LA: Oh, really? 

Q5: Yeah, my friends and I are a big fan. And I'm from Armenia and the Orthodox Church and others maybe have more popularity or whatever, on behalf of me, I'm 18, and my friends, we really want to thank you. There's been a lot of references to like Armenia in the movie. Is this because, I don't understand really, is there like some systematic racism? What is the story behind so many references? 

LA: Yeah I wouldn't say that it's racism. But I think there is this sort of cheeky competition between Georgians and Armenians as I can see it when I hear the Georgians talk, and when I hear that, it's like, it's like Sweden and Norway, we are always making fun of each other. And also, I think, you know, there's a lot of history between Armenia and Georgia and I think, possibly some friendly banter and some unfriendly stuff to, unfortunately, especially with some of the older generation. I mean, Georgians are very, very nationalistic, as are Armenians. And there's always this thing between Georgia and Armenia where, you know, Armenians are like, well, we built Tbilisi, because during the turn of the century, a lot of Armenians lived in Tbilisi, and they actually did build a lot of neighbourhoods in Tbilisi, and they were also very successful. And they owned a lot of the buildings and things in Tbilisi. So I think a lot of this sort of resentment or racism, I'm going to call it comes from Georgians feeling you know that Armenians sort of, I mean, they even mentioned it in the film with when they're in the cemetery, when he's like, actually, this was an Armenian cemetery. That's a very provocative thing to say in Georgia, but it was an Armenian cemetery.

Q6: Hi, could you talk a little bit about how you integrated dance in the film? Are you a dancer yourself? Did you have a choreographer, did you work with a choreographer and?

LA: Sure. I used to dance a little, I was never like a dancer dancer, but I danced in my late teens. Modern Dance and some ballet. But I always loved dance. And I still do. We had a Georgian choreographer for the Georgian dance scenes, and he chose to remain anonymous. So he's not in the end credits because of fear of being sort of ostracised, and not getting work after this film. And then we had also a contemporary dance choreographer called Nadia Chiclaze, who did the final dance in the end. 

Q7: Can you tell us how the movie was received in Georgia? 

LA: Well, are you Georgian? 

Q7: Yes, of course.

LA: Well, I mean, we tried to screen the film in Georgia, we were gonna, you know, we had first three days of screening, and we were gonna actually prolong it, because there was so much interest from Georgia, people and a lot of support from Georgian society. So I want just to say that I mean, there is this loud mouth, in a way a minority that sort of, you know, screams the loudest. But there's also been a lot of support for the film. And, well, we tried to have three days of screenings in November, but the church condemned the film. And then these far right people decided to sort of stand outside the cinema and prevent people from seeing the film. And we had to have police there and weapon detectors and, you know, policeman in every screening room. So it just became too big of a hassle for the cinema owners to screen the film. So after three days, we had to cancel the screenings. But I think we sold like 5000-6000 tickets anyway. So they got to see the film. And hopefully, you know, it will be available soon for people to see. Unfortunately, there was a pirated version also that leaked of the film, which was my working copy of the film, so it wasn't even the finished film. And a lot of people saw that instead.

Q8: Hi, as someone who previously has never seen any Georgian dance before, it felt like that last dance was really significant. But I didn't understand the significance of it. Could you talk us through the symbolism that you might understand if you knew that more about Georgian dance?

LA: Yeah, I think actually, I don't know if you need to know that much about Georgian dance to understand the significance of it, because he was, you know, his personal reinterpretation of dance and his part in Georgian dance and his masculinity. And that was his way of reclaiming his tradition, and doing his own thing with the dance. So there's actually no template that he breaks, in a way like he's just doing his thing with the dance.

Q9: One question I wanted to ask. I've seen this film a few times now. But the first time I saw it, I was really kind of waiting for something horrible to happen. Especially the scene where they leave the club and you see the man on the streets outside. But it really subverted my expectations. Obviously, there's a lot of bleakness in the film as love and joy. I mean, was it important for you to show some moments of happiness and bliss in the film? 

LA: Yeah, I mean, I wanted to make a hopeful, positive film from all the darkness around this topic. And I never wanted to do something where our main, I mean, I would never, like create such an adorable character as Merab and then have something bad happened to him. I think that would be very, very cynical. And I think you feel that there is a threat there somewhere in the background. You just need a few lines for the audience to understand that. But I would never go there. And I think I don't like when that happens myself. In movies, I very rarely use violence or things like that, to make a point if I don't really, really need to, for some reason, and I felt in this film that it would be totally unnecessary, and I think it would have ruined the movie. 

Q9: One of my favourite scenes in the film is the scene with the brother in the bed at the end of the film, I think it's a beautifully played. The brother gives a really brilliant performance throughout the film. And in that scene in particular, I just find it very, very moving. Is he an actor? How did you find him?

LA: He is an actor. Actually, he comes from the theatre school in Tbilisi, it was his first film, as it was for many of them, except Ana Javakishvili, who plays Mary. I mean, from the young cast, it was most of their first sales. I think he's extremely talented. I would like to work with him again, somehow.

AD: Another thing that I've seen you mentioned in interviews, which I found really interesting. You've talked about your love of the John Hughes film, Some Kind of Wonderful. And there are some elements, I think, in however much the context of the time it was made. There are elements of 80s teen movies in the film. Yeah, you've talked about and do you want to talk a little bit about that?

LA: I mean, what can I say I'm a child of the 80s. I grew up, you know, watching a lot of American 80s movies, and I wanted to sort of bring that template into this somehow, because I feel like every generation, every country needs a little sort of 80s right?

I remember when I saw Some Kind of Wonderful the first time I was so young, and I remember Mary Stuart Masterson's character, you know, this sort of tomboy, she was so fascinating for me, she was the first sort of queer actually, character, even though she wasn't officially queer in the film, somehow to me, she was and I'd never seen a girl wear clothes like that or anything. It was a very, very like, eye opening experience, for me that movie, it's a great movie, if there are people out there in the audience that hasn't seen it, it's wonderful. And it also has these class elements that I always miss in the films ,now everything has become so, everybody so rich in all the movies all the time, even though they're not supposed to be the it looks like they live in these huge fancy apartments. And, you know, I like those broken homes of like, E.T with the working mom. And yeah, it's not like that anymore. I think everything has been pushed to the right, even in films.

AD: What are you working on now? What are you doing next?

LA: The thing I'm doing now, next in August is I'm shooting a TV series. And then after that, I'm also parallel working on my own film, my next film, which is actually going to be set mostly in Istanbul, and also a little in Georgia, but mostly in Istanbul. And it's based off a story that I heard while I was shooting this film.

AD: A huge, huge, massive thank you to Levan Akin. 

LA: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

EEJ: Thank you for listening to this Barbican ScreenTalk with Levan Akin. We hope you enjoy discovering the stories behind this very special film. There are plenty more film stories to come in this season of Barbican ScreenTalks. We'd love you to support us by writing and subscribing via Apple podcasts, Acast or your usual podcast providers or by visiting 

And we'd love to hear from you about this episode or any other in the series. Please come to find us at Barbican Centre on all the social media platforms and tell us your thoughts. Barbican ScreenTalks archive is presented by me, Ellen E Jones and produced by Jane Long for Loftus media. We'll be back next time with a heartfelt and surprising panel discussion of Captain Marvel and the female superheroes who save the day. Until then, be well and goodbye.

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