Swedish-Georgian director Levan Akin had been wanting to make something set in Georgia for some time when he was inspired, a few years ago,  by 50 young people holding the first Georgian Pride. They were subjected to a violent counter-protest of thousands of people, whipped up by the Church. This inspired Akin to go to Georgia with his camera in the hope of telling a story centred around the gay community. Through collaborations and shooting some documentary footage, he eventually decided to set his story in the world of folk dance. Much of the eventual film would be based in reality – when shooting in a restaurant, the restaurant was open and serving customers, when shooting prostitutes, they were really working on the streets at that time. Through this neo-realist backdrop, Akin weaves a beautiful love story, as well as showcasing the protagonist Merab’s (Levan Gelbakhiani) family and friends, giving us an insight into a culture not often seen in the West. This is And Then We Danced.

Merab has been dancing with his partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili) at the National Georgian Ensemble since he was a child. He is desperate to break into the principal company and travel the world, but in the meantime, he must work in a restaurant to support his mother and grandmother. His older brother is also in the ensemble, but he goes out most nights drinking and turns up late or not at all. Dance is the family business – both his mother and grandmother did it, as well as his estranged father. One day, a new dancer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) arrives at the Ensemble. Initially, Merab views him as a competitor, especially with the upcoming auditions to break into the main company. However, when they go away for the weekend to Mary’s country house, things take a turn between them and they start an illicit romance.

Levan Gelbakhiani, Ana Javakishvili, and Giorgi Tsereteli in And Then We Danced (2019)

The camerawork by Lisabi Fridell has an intimate, verite style that really helps the audience connect with Merab and his experiences. This is a film that feels centred around its protagonist and his point of view. The folk music is beautiful – the traditional songs had to be re-recorded because people did not want to grant permission to a film with this subject matter in Georgia. The soundtrack is punctuated with pop – some of the most memorable scenes are set to ABBA and Robyn tracks. Of course, the dancing itself is a huge part of the appeal (again, the choreographer asked to remain anonymous due to fear of being associated with the film). Merab expresses his frustrations through dance and the audition towards the end certainly has his own unique style to it. I was struck by how many of the gestures reminded me of voguing (a style of dance strongly associated with gay culture, specifically the balls in New York which are a huge focal-point for the trans community).

The performances of the two inexperienced main actors are extraordinary, making their gazes erotically charged and their body language bristle with meaning. The close community surrounding Merab is made evident through highlighting revealing details – his nosy neighbour, his grandmother ensuring he has something warm to eat, his father working in the marketplace sharing his cucumbers and tomatoes and the energy of the young dancers, who just want to drink and smoke English cigarettes. The work of the location scout (Marie Jachvadze) and the production designer (Teo Baramidze) are to be applauded here. Akin shares this real, lived-in world with us and explores this community with such warmth, we are left with the feeling of having spent time with real people and have got to know to them and care for them.

There are inevitable comparisons to be made with Call Me By Your Name here, but this is a rare example of them being justified. Few films really capture and convey that feeling of yearning that comes with a fleeting romance, which will leave a lasting impression on both the characters and the audience. And Then We Danced achieves something truly special, in terms of us investing in the characters and urging them on. It is brave film-making, with the climate in which the team worked in Georgia and tells an important story. This is exactly what cinema should be – opening up our world and giving us an experience of people in a different culture to our own, whilst connecting us on a human level through that most universal of themes – first love.

Rating: ★★★★★

Directed by: Levan Akin
Written by: Levan Akin
Cast: Levan Gelbakhiani, Bachi Valishvili, Ana Javakishvili