AFI FEST Interview: AND THEN WE DANCED Writer/Director Levan Akin
AND THEN WE DANCED plays as part of the World Cinema section at AFI FEST at the TCL Chinese Theatres on Wednesday, November 20 and Thursday, November 21. Buy tickets to the screening here.
Premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, Levan Akin’s third feature, AND THEN WE DANCED, is about a young dancer struggling with the confines of tradition and forbidden love. It is also Akin’s first filmmaking foray in his native Georgian tongue. With a strong festival run, the film took home three top awards at the Odessa Film Festival, including best film and best actor for lead actor Levan Gelbakhiani.
Akin was born in Stockholm to Georgian immigrants. After interning at SVT, the Swedish Broadcasting Network, he became a handyman at director Roy Andersson’s Studio 24 before becoming an assistant director. His previous credits include CERTAIN PEOPLE and THE CIRCLE.
We spoke with Akin about the catalyst behind his film and the challenges of making an LGBTQ film in a conservative country.
AFI: What initially sparked the idea for this story?
LA: In 2013, 50 people in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, tried to hold the country’s first Pride parade. A counter demonstration was organized by the Orthodox Church and some far-right wing groups. They attacked the Pride parade, and these images and videos were shown on the news throughout the world. I saw it back home in Sweden and was deeply disturbed by what I saw. Being of Georgian descent myself I also felt ashamed. I was making another film in Sweden at the time, but as soon as I finished, I went to Tbilisi and began doing research for what became AND THEN WE DANCED.
AFI: Why did you decide to focus the story around dance?
LA: I wanted a setting that showed the traditions and norms of Georgian culture without having to explain too much. Also, I have always loved folk dance, and Georgian folk dance is very expressive and explosive. It was also a way for me to tell the story and the emotional journey of the lead characters without dialogue.
AFI: What was it like to direct lead actor Levan Gelbakhiani in his first acting role?
LA: I found Levan on Instagram, and once I met him I was instantly very curious to see how he would behave in front of the camera. He has a very expressive face and, because he is a dancer, I used to direct him a lot through choreography, helping him find the right emotions with gestures and body movement. I had to deploy an array of tricks to get him where I wanted somehow as he was not a seasoned actor and did not have all the tools an actor has. It was very fun and challenging, and I think Levan is very proud of the result.
AFI: What challenges did you experience filming a gay-themed film in a country that has a pretty anti-gay public sentiment?
LA: We had to shoot this film secretly. We would tell a different story of what we were filming to be allowed to film in certain locations. Later, it spread anyway what we were doing, so we had to have security guards on set as we received death threats.
AFI: What has the reaction to the film been like in Georgia?
LA: It is currently supposed to come out in Georgia on November 8. Many people want to see the film. In fact, all the tickets sold out in mere minutes, but the reception has been very contentious. Right-wing groups and the church have vowed to stand outside all the cinemas and stop people from entering. So far, no representative from the government has expressed any type of support for the film.
AFI: Who would you describe as some of your biggest filmmaking and/or storytelling influences?
LA: Oh, I have so many and they are all over the place but I always return to a few artists: Astrid Lindgren, Martin Scorsese, Joni Mitchell, Tennessee Williams, Chantal Akerman, Parajanov just to name a few.
AFI: What does it feel like to bring the film to AFI FEST?
LA: Very exciting. The films’ producers, actors and I are very honored to attend and be able to screen the film for an American audience.
Tickets to AND THEN WE DANCED are now available.
Watch the trailer: