A 2019 movie about the story of an LGBT dancer continues to heavily polarize Georgian society.
“And then we danced,” was shot in this nation of 3.5 million people in the South Caucasus and offers a snapshot of contemporary Georgian society, including its intolerance towards members of the LGBTQ + community. . The film tells the story of Merab, a professional dancer specialized in Georgian traditional dance. In his training for a role in the prestigious Georgian National Ballet, he forms a romantic and erotic relationship with Irakli, another dancer, but the social pressure tears the lovers apart and when Merab exposes his homosexuality, he thinks of leaving the country.
Filmmaker Levan Akin's film is a tribute to a country that is undergoing rapid and contradictory changes; a country besieged by foreign tourists but also with economic difficulties for the majority of the population, which forced many to emigrate. It is a tribute to the eternal courtyards of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where the vigilant neighbors can be a blessing and also a curse.
It is a portrait of a city whose rebellious youth finds solace in drugs (and in the emblematic gay club Bassiani) and whose LGBTQ + community must live their lives in secret, and even get to contract heterosexual marriage. In this context, Merab's love for traditional dance – “soul of the nation” – and for Irakli are impregnated with tragedy, in a nation that fights against machismo and patriarchy.
The movie has made some powerful enemies.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n25XEhQ6764 (/ embed)
Georgia is a primarily Christian nation whose Orthodox Church is legally separate from the State. However, she is highly respected, wealthy, influential, and regularly comments on social and political issues. His official opinion on LGBTQ + people is that they are “deviant” people.
On May 17, 2013, LGBTQ + activists marching in Tbilisi were attacked by far-right protesters led by religious leaders on International Day Against Homophobia. Since 2014, the Georgian Orthodox Church celebrates “Family Purity Day” the same day to fight what they describe as “homosexual propaganda.” When the LGBTQ + community announced that they would be holding their first Gay Pride March in Tbilisi, religious figures voiced strong criticism. The Government announced that it would not provide any protection to the march, which led to several postponements for several months and its final cancellation.
The Orthodox Church condemned the film even before it hit the screens, with furious statements during its filming. When it opened in Tbilisi and the coastal city of Batumi on November 8, 2019, far-right protesters, once again backed by the church, tried to prevent viewers from entering theaters. This time, the government reacted: it sent the police to protect them and arrest the protesters, allowing the projections.
On November 6, the Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church made the following statement, which it later withdrew:
საქართველოს მართლმადიდებელი ეკლესია ყოველთვის იყო, არის და იქნება კატეგორიულად შეურიგებელი როგორც საერთოდ ცოდვის, ისე, მითუმეტეს, სოდომური ურთიერთობების პოპულარიზაციისა და დაკანონებისადმი. ამიტომაც ყოვლად მიუღებლად მიგვაჩნია ასეთი ფილმის კინო-თეატრებში ჩვენება.
The Georgian Orthodox Church is, has been and will always be categorically opposed to the promotion and legalization of sin in general and, in particular, of the sin of Sodom. That is why we consider it unacceptable to show such a film in theaters.
As the church emphasizes its role as guardian of the Georgian spirit and of the nation, the film was particularly sensitive given the leading role traditional dance plays. During the Soviet period until 1991, this dance became almost a symbol of anything Georgian, in keeping with Moscow's interest in representing the country's 120 ethnic groups through strong folk images. Consequently, the chokha, the garment worn by Georgian dancers, has come to visually symbolize Georgia. Clearly, the film's main choreographer chose to remain anonymous, perhaps confirming the words of the dance master who warns in the film of “the purity of Georgian dance” and “the need to be manly.”
Nor is it surprising that while the film begins with a black-and-white archive of those performances, it ends with a dramatic dance in brilliant blood-red, free of those rules and liberated in expression.
Another sensitive point was that the film was chosen as a candidate for the Oscars 2020 by Sweden; The film has already received several awards and many countries in Asia and Europe have bought the rights to broadcast it – a rare privilege for a Georgian film according to producer Ketie Daniela.
During a February interview, Levan Akin, the film's Swedish-Georgian director, whose parents left Georgia during the 1960s, was surprised by the intensity of Georgian reactions to his work. “I knew it would be controversial but I never thought it would be so controversial: there were riots, wounded people and we could only project it for three days,” said Akin.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQHSf5zEkOQ (/ embed)
The public debate on the film is just the last chapter in a long fight for LGBTQ + rights in Georgia; the first victory came in 2000, when the country decriminalized consensual same-sex relationships. To this day, among all the 15 post-Soviet states (except the three states of the Balkans that are members of the European Union), Georgia has one of the most progressive laws in this regard: in 2014 it amended its laws to make hate crimes related to sexual orientation an aggravating factor in prosecution. However, there is a huge gap between written law and the reality of community members who continue to face discrimination, hate speech and violent crime.
As Giorgi Gogia, Associate Director for Europe and Central Asia at the Human Rights Observatory, explained in an interview with Global Voices:
Georgia adopted comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in 2014 that prohibits discrimination on all grounds, including sexual orientation and gender identity. The law also puts the ombudsman’s office in charge of overseeing anti-discrimination measures. The legislation was adopted as part of Georgia’s visa liberalization action plan with the EU. At the same time, the ruling Georgian Dream party proposed constitutional amendments defining marriage “as a union of a woman and a man”, thus a ban on same-sex marriage. I am afraid that the growing polarization in the run up to the crucial parliamentary polls later in the fall might push the ruling party towards more populist stance. Homosexuality remains highly stigmatized in Georgia and is at the epicenter of “culture wars” between progressives and conservatives, with anti-gay elements backed by the Church, often with hateful rhetoric.
Georgia passed comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in 2014 that prohibits it on all grounds, including sexual orientation and gender identity. The law also charges the Ombudsman's Office to supervise anti-discrimination measures. This legislation was adopted as part of an action plan for visa liberalization with the European Union. At the same time, the ruling party Georgian Dream (the Georgian dream) proposed constitutional amendments that define marriage “as the union of a woman and a man”, for which same-sex marriage is prohibited. I am afraid that the increasing polarization in the run-up to the crucial parliamentary polls, which will take place later in the autumn, could push the ruling party towards a more populist stance. Homosexuality remains highly stigmatized in Georgia and is the epicenter of “culture wars” between progressives and conservatives, with elements backed by the Church-backed anti-gays, often with hateful rhetoric.
A more recent documentary, “March for Dignity” (released in mid-June and directed by John Eames) re-examines and reflects on the fight for LGBTQ + rights in Georgia:
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJW5tVgXnkE (/ embed)
Giorgi Tabagiri, representative of the Pride of Tbilisi, who has his own Twitter account, told Global Voices that progress, even if gradual, is still progress:
We had great plans for the 2020 Pride March, but after seeing all those events canceled in Europe, we made the tough decision to call it off. And eventually we decided to launch other activities: rainbow masks in this COVID-19 period, that became very successful to the point that celebrities wore them on state television.
We also distributed 100 large rainbow flags that people used in streets and on buildings, which is a very sensitive issue here. Our office is picketed regularly by far-right groups demanding we take them down. On May 17, we organized an online demonstration against homophobia on Zoom, collaborating with media and broadcasting live on Facebook.
About 120,000 people watched it, which is a large figure for Georgia. Overall, we do see positive changes, including in legislation, but the problem is that it does not translate into social acceptance, so we have a long way to go. The movie “And then we danced” will certainly have a long-term impact in this regard, as more people will watch it. We also need more public figures as allies, but so far very few of them who are LGBTQ + are out.
We had big plans for the Pride March 2020 but, after seeing all those activities canceled in Europe, we made the tough decision to do the same. We finally decided to launch other activities: rainbow face masks during this period of COVID-19, which were so successful that even celebrities used them on state television.
We also distributed a hundred rainbow flags that people used on the streets and (hung) on buildings, something very delicate here. We regularly attend demonstrations by right-wing groups in our office demanding that we withdraw them. On May 17, we organized an online rally against homophobia at Zoom, collaborated with the media and broadcast live on Facebook.
Some 120,000 people saw it, a huge number for Georgia. In general, we are seeing positive changes, even in legislation, but the problem is that they do not translate into social acceptance, so we have a long way to go. The movie “We only have to dance” will surely have a lasting impact in this regard, since more people will see it; we need more public figures as allies. So far, very few LGBTQ + have come out of the closet.
Akin's movie may be fiction, but the social stigma it represents is deadly real. If things can change, perhaps stories like the Merabs and Iraklis of tomorrow will look very different.