Interview on homosexuality in Georgia: “We got death threats”

Levan Gelbakhiani is the main actor in the gay Georgian film “When we danced”. He talks about homophobia and wavering waiters.

Intimate Fatigue: Levan Gelbakhiani (center) in a scene from the movie “When We Dance” Photo: Editon Salzgeber

taz: Mr. Gelbakhiani, you initially hesitated to take on the role of the gay dance student Merab in the film “When we danced”.

Levan Gelbakhiani: The main reason was society. The fear. Actually, the fear of exactly what actually happened at our film premiere in Georgia: people stood in front of the cinema and betted. I was afraid that it would be as disgusting as in 2013 when the counter-protests to the first Pride parade in Georgia took place. When you play in a film like this as a young Georgian, you think of a lot of people: your mother, your father, your friends. You are not alone in your world. It was clear that questions would come from outside. The people around me had to be prepared for these questions – and ready for them.

What did they have to prepare for?

A negative vibe from society. Hostilities, threats.

The actor was born in Chiatura in 1997. After the first theater roles, he learned classical ballet, contemporary dance and acrobatics. He was rejected at the drama school, but celebrated in Cannes and at the Sundance Film Festival for his cinema debut in “When we danced”.

And why did you ultimately decide to play along?

I had this discussion with my family, especially my mother. In the end, she said: “Just do it if it feels right to you and that’s something that you have to do.” In Georgia you don’t have as many means to say something, to change something – through the pressure of Government. I realized that this film would be the medium through which I can say things that are important to me. To protect minorities. With this film it seemed realistic to put such an important topic on page 1.

On the front page of a newspaper?

Generally on top of the agenda of Georgian society. It has to be talked about. Of course, there have always been gay people in Georgia. But now you can’t pretend anymore.

Homosexuality is legal in Georgia.

Theoretically, since 2000. But in practice, the government doesn’t do much to protect minorities. This film seemed to me the best way to show people that homosexuality is not something to be afraid of. We can live together, no problem! There are people in Georgia who seriously think of homosexuality as a disease that is spreading: you touch a gay person and then become gay yourself. That’s not how it works, and we have to talk about it, we have to show it.

There were problems with the shoot: they had bodyguards. And some dance ensembles have refused to take part in the shooting.

We got death threats while filming. We were spontaneously withdrawn from filming permits the day before. Many dancers: did not want to be associated with the film. To make filming easier, we had an alibi storyline so we didn’t always have to explain what it was really about. We then said: “A French tourist comes to Georgia and falls in love with Georgian culture.”

Opinions differ on the gay drama “When we danced”, which takes place in Georgia: in 2019 the film was celebrated in Cannes. The co-production country Sweden sent him (unfortunately unsuccessfully) into the race for the Oscar for best foreign language film. The main actor Levan Gelbakhiani, 22, was one of the European shooting stars at the Berlinale 2020, where we met him. On the other hand, the film in Georgia could only be shown under massive police protection, the size of the violent homophobic mob. Because yes: the two dance students Merab and Irakli desire each other. And they both want to join the National Ensemble for Georgian Dance. On the surface, this dance celebrates freedom and pride, but under the facade, the conventions are uncompromising.

How was the riot at the premiere in Georgia for you?

I wasn’t there myself. We were on the plane to Los Angeles to promote the film’s Oscar campaign. We had another premiere before. The premiere with the riots was the public premiere for which everyone could buy tickets. 6,000 tickets were sold in one day. I heard that some were traded on the black market. Ultimately, the reactions were really positive: people liked the film. You understood what we were about.

But there were, right-wing extremists and the Orthodox Church protests against the film.

I feel sorry for them.

With the demonstrators against your film?

Yes, because these are people who don’t understand what they’re actually doing. The government pulls the strings. The church. Russia. The right-wing extremist groups use unsuspecting people, who then end up carrying a blind ignorant anger on the street.

What is Georgian society’s attitude towards homosexuality?

Thankfully, the young generation is very open. So much has changed in the past ten years. Before that it was really taboo. Nobody would have spoken about it in public or in solidarity. But now the young generation in Georgia is open-minded and helpful when it comes to the topic. But if you look at the older generation: Sometimes that’s creepy.

However, the film also shows queer phobia from young dancers.

You can also hear small children who are homophobic. You have to understand that they grew up in a homophobic environment with homophobic parents. It can be damn hard to be tolerant in an intolerant environment. I would not say that everyone is open minded. But the majority. Many young people also feel connected to the European Union.

At the beginning of the film, the dance teacher tells your character that she is too feminine. You are a dancer yourself. How is Georgian dance about posing with masculinity?

Georgian dance shows hetero couples: man and woman. The women must appear sexually innocent. Virgin. Georgian dance is based on masculinity, it is often said. Which has been changing for a while. People notice that the history of Georgian dance has queer origins, initiated by the then still secret LGBT community about a hundred years ago. These are basically queer dance figures that found their way into traditional Georgian dance. What we now see as “normal Georgian dance” was originally queer dance. The inspiration originally came, flatly speaking, from waiters in the restaurant who swung their sexy asses sexy.

Are people in Georgia aware of this?

It is not a secret. But there is this brainwashing that everything would be super masculine. Humbug! People lack information. However, Georgia is also strongly regional. Each region has its own dances and songs. Some are macho in the conventional sense, but others are more feminine, so to speak.

The film also shows traditional dances with male couples.

There’s also that. However, some of them are based on figures from the war. Fight scenes.

The dance teacher at the beginning of the film says: “Georgian dance has no sexuality. We’re not at the Lambada here! ”

That’s right. You keep a certain distance from your partner. As a man you lead your wife. Different societies have different ideas about what it can mean to be a man. But in Georgia it is clear: the man works, the woman sits at home and brings up the children.

They were in Cannes with the film and at the Sundance Film Festival. Does the Georgian media report about it?

All the media, newspapers and television, support our film very much. All. Even the government-related media. This is the good side of the coin when it comes to Georgian media.

Why are the media so open-minded?

I think the journalists are well informed and therefore more open. Of the Hollywood Reporter and the BBC praised the film. As a Georgian medium, you would make yourself a little ridiculous if you said that the film was shit.

And the church and the far right? Do they give rest now?

They are still typing their comments, mostly on Facebook, because that’s a big deal in Georgia. Sayings like that the film harms Georgian society and stuff. One thing I found funny with an online group of right-wing extremists: someone had written “Caution: if you watch this film, you will be gay!” Oh dear, people still believe this shit!

The CSD in Georgia was officially canceled last year. Will there be another CSD there soon?

“When we danced”. Directed by Levan Akin. With Levan Gelbakhiani, Bachi Valishvili and others Georgia / Sweden 2019, 113 min.

I hope so. Things are changing for the better. A few days ago I was in a kiosk in Tbilisi to buy butts. An old woman there told me that she saw the film and fell in love with it. On social media I heard about another old woman who is 92 years old. She noticed the turmoil surrounding the film and wanted to get her own picture. She later posted a video saying, “Guys, what’s up? I can’t find anything bad in this film! ”If a woman of 92 says that, then I have hope.