Rights activists in Tbilisi decided to skip demonstrations held on the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) over safety concerns. After having received warnings from far-right groups that anti-homophobic demonstrations would be met with violence, the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG) decided to limit itself to online campaigns, posting thousands of coloured stickers with messages against discrimination.
At the same time, on the other side of Europe, director Levan Akin (born in Sweden to Georgian parents), is defending LGBT rights, spreading the word with his new, highly-acclaimed film And Then We Danced, which premiered last week at the Cannes Film Festival.
The story revolves around Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) who has been training since a young age at the National Georgian Ensemble with his dance partner Mary. Merab is often scolded by his instructor for not being formulaic enough: his eyes are too playful, his posture too soft. But his world is suddenly turned upside down when the charismatic and carefree Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) arrives and becomes both his strongest rival and object of desire.
The movie received a standing ovation at Cannes, not only because of the topic but especially for what such a theme represents for Georgia, a country where conservative traditional dances are an emblem of Eastern European alpha-masculinity.
Also praised was the visual language Akin crafts through his collaboration with cinematographer Lisabi Fridell, whose marvellously fluid camerawork elides with the emotional states of protagonists and audience.
Akin debuted at the Tribeca Festival in 2011 with Certain People, followed by The Circle, which opened at Berlin in 2015. And Then We Danced is his first production in his Georgian mother-tongue.
“I watched a news clip in 2013 where some 40-50 young people had decided to stage a pride parade in Tbilisi. There was also a counter-demonstration by the Orthodox Church,” said Mr Akin when asked why he decided to shot a movie in Georgia, and in Georgian.
“The young people hid on a little bus, which was literally torn apart by the mob. It looked like a proper zombie movie. I’m a sensitive soul and a devoted vegan who even feels bad about flying to Cannes because of the fossil fuels, and I feel lousy when I read about the extinction of the rhinoceros in Africa. I feel like my work needs to be more than just a fun ride. When it takes some four years to make a film, it needs to mean something. I don’t know enough about the rhinoceros yet, but I know Georgia,” he continued.
The scene he described is not far away from what happened last week in the Georgian capital during the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Hundreds of people, including priests, churchgoers and far-right groups took to the streets to protest against “sodomy”. One poster read: “May God not burn Tbilisi into Sodom and Gomorrah”, while other posters called for the protection of “family purity and morality”.
“LGBT+ people in Georgia are seen as a different, exclusive group that might not even exist,” said Eka Tsereteli, director of the Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group (WISG), the organisation who launched the stickers initiative instead of attending street rallies.
The small labels affixed to posts, walls and bridges across the city, bore the words “I am your child” or “I am your friend” and a QR code that, when scanned with a mobile phone, led to a website named Meaqvar – Georgian for “I am here”.
According to the WISG, while interference in the community’s rightful enjoyment of the freedom of assembly and expression is within the interests of homophobic groups, for mainstream media and other actors, the fundamental problems concerning queer people are also reduced to one issue: how the LGBTQI community cannot afford one day per year to enjoy the freedom of assembly and expression, whether it be during a gathering in front of the parliament or the chancellery.
And Then We Danced is about all this. But although the movie got a lot of attention in Western countries, it is still uncertain if it will be shown in Georgia, a country where guarantees largely remain on paper.