CIFF 2019: And Then We Danced, by Jonathan Leithold-Patt
It’s telling that Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced was submitted by Sweden, and not Georgia, for Oscar’s Best International Feature Film category. No amount of festival plaudits could have likely convinced the latter country to represent an LGBT film on the global awards stage; that the film also frames its story of queer youth within the contemporary context of an ultra-conservative Georgian society would most certainly disqualify it. So it was prudent for Akin to have the more progressive Sweden on board to co-produce this sensitive, somewhat formulaic, but finally rousing portrait of a young gay man negotiating the tensions between his identity and his artistic aspirations.
The issue around national ownership gives one some idea of the degree to which homosexuality is censured in Georgia, making the existence of And Then We Danced reason enough to celebrate. It also imparts a sense of just how much is at stake for its protagonist, Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani, in a remarkable debut performance). When the film opens, he’s practicing in studio with the Georgian National Ensemble, dancing alongside his childhood friend and partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili). Immediately, he’s chastised by his stern dance director for his “soft” style. “You need to be more like a monument,” he’s told, the first of many lines linking traditional Georgian dance to a nationalistic, platonic ideal of masculinity. Just then, new dancer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) shuffles through the door, sporting an earring that’s met with similar disapproval by the director. Merab is intrigued.
Soon after, we learn that the main ensemble is looking to replace a member who was ostensibly expelled for being caught in a homosexual relationship. Merab and Irakli are among those selected to audition for the spot. As the two rehearse with the other candidates, a relationship develops between them that threatens to derail both of their chances. Merab pushes on doggedly with his routines, his romance with Irakli a catalyst to prove himself and a secret he knows he can’t keep for long. Threading through this is the drama of Merab’s more stereotypically masculine brother, who in his own way is also chafing against societal expectations.
Rather than aim for easy pathos by amping up the sense of cultural repressiveness, Akin instead emphasizes how a young generation’s growing worldliness and self-possession act as buffers against it. Traditional dance may be Merab’s specialty, but outside of the studio his experiences are fueled by ABBA and Robyn; even in scenes not featuring dance or song, Akin and his DP convey a sense of elating movement through a camera that glides and swoops with an agility befitting the film’s titular activity. None of this would work so well, however, if it weren’t anchored in Gelbakhiani’s responsive, limber physical presence. Through a nervous wringing of the hands, a sultry nighttime slink, or a bashful recoil following a first sexual encounter, the actor conveys everything about his emotional state through gestures and adjustments in comportment that feel practically musical. Merab’s dilemma, and the dramatic beats that structure it, may be familiar to other LGBT and sports-themed narratives, but Gelbakhiani brings an energy and emotional accessibility that lifts everything around him. The tenacity he embodies is infectious, and the fact that it’s being extolled in a film from this particular country only enhances the bittersweetness of his triumphs.