When a Film Shows Gay Romance in Georgia, Going to See It Is a Risk

When a Film Shows Gay Romance in Georgia, Going to See It Is a Risk
By: WNG NYT Posted On: December 06, 2019 View: 46

When a Film Shows Gay Romance in Georgia, Going to See It Is a Risk

TBILISI, Georgia — Ana Subeliani arrived at the film premiere for “And Then We Danced” by foot, but left in an ambulance, blood running down her face.

A protester had thrown a cellphone, she said, which struck her on the head, despite a cordon of police officers in riot gear holding demonstrators back. The injury required seven stitches.

Subeliani, 30, a civil rights activist, came to the screening on Nov. 8 to escort audience members through the crowd of protesters outside the Amirani Cinema. “They were really frightened,” she said. “But they wanted to enjoy their rights.”

The movie that occasioned such furious protest, “And Then We Danced,” is a love story about two male members of the Georgian National Ensemble, a traditional dance troupe. As auditions to replace a disgraced member of the group approach, the dancers are torn between adhering to the institution’s strict, macho codes and their desires for each other.

It had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and will be Sweden’s contender for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars. (The director, Levan Akin, is of Georgian heritage, but grew up in Stockholm.) Yet “And Then We Danced” is noticeably absent from the Tbilisi International Film Festival, which began on Dec. 1 and runs through Sunday. The most prominent Georgian films of the year are usually screened in the festival’s Georgian Panorama section.

“With the situation as it is now, I don’t think it would be good to show it in any festivals in Georgia — it would go crazy again,” Akin said. “At least we were able to screen it for three days, but no more than that, unfortunately.”

Before screenings in November, far-right protesters and members of the Georgian Orthodox Church, some holding religious icons aloft, tried to stop moviegoers entering theaters in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and Batumi, a coastal resort on the Black Sea.

Nino Tsatsiashvili, Georgia’s deputy interior minister, said in an email that the police in Tbilisi and Batumi had intervened to make sure the movie could be screened, including detaining 27 demonstrators.

One of the protest organizers, Levan Vasadze, said in an interview that Akin’s film was “a moral threat to the fabric of our society.”

“Georgian national dance is the pinnacle of the beauty of our tradition of manhood, warrior spirit and purity,” Vasadze said. “To pick that very sanctuary and create something as heartbreaking and offensive to our culture as this is 10 times more hurtful than if it was just an anti-traditional movie.”

This week, For a United and Moral Georgia, an anti-gay group, staged sparsely attended protests outside screenings of “Comets,” a Georgian movie in the film festival in which two women reminisce about a lesbian romance. In an interview on Wednesday, Guram Palavandishvili, a spokesman for the group, condemned “Comets,” which had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, as “homosexual propaganda.”

The demonstrations against gay and lesbian movies are the latest flash point in a fierce culture war between citizens who want to safeguard the traditional values of Georgia, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991, and those with more liberal attitudes associated with the European Union, which many Georgian politicians wish the country to join.

Subeliani said the protesters at the “And Then We Danced” premiere became incensed when they recognized her as the woman who had danced on top of the Heroes Memorial in front of Georgia’s Parliament in May 2018, an image that circulated around the world. She was part of a protest rave after police officers with machine guns stormed Tbilisi’s famous nightclub, Bassiani, in a drug raid.

Tbilisi has a thriving electronic music scene, but its association with drugs and L.G.B.T. visibility has led conservatives to think of venues like Bassiani, which appears in a scene in “And Then We Danced,” as “Sodom and Gomorrah,” Akin said.

The inaugural Tbilisi Pride event in June, which included a theater performance, talks and debates, went ahead despite threats to its organizers. A scheduled parade was scaled back to a smaller, impromptu march after the planned time and location were leaked online.

But in a country edging toward greater acceptance of L.G.B.T. rights, curiosity about “And Then We Danced” has rippled through mainstream society.

In Batumi, Gvantsa Basilia, 29, a hotel employee, braved a screening at the Apollo Cinema with her mother, Lilly, an elementary schoolteacher, despite shouting protesters throwing eggs.

“For the new generation, the film is a good step forward,” said Basilia. Her hotel co-workers asked about the movie with open minds, she said, but her mother had faced criticism from teachers and parents for attending. “They thought it was very progressive for her to be there,” she added.

“And Then We Danced” is not the first L.G.B.T.-themed movie made in Georgia to attract international attention. “Prisoner of Society,” a 2018 short film, documents the family life of a trans woman, Adelina, who does not leave her house for fear of persecution. It was nominated for best short film at the European Film Awards, but, at the request of the family it depicts, was not screened in Georgia.

Gaga Chkheidze, the Tbilisi International Film Festival’s artistic director, said he regularly programmed movies with L.G.B.T. story lines by foreign directors, such as Pedro Almodóvar and Xavier Dolan, without incident. It was the conflation of homosexuality and Georgian tradition in “And Then We Danced” that had so angered conservative groups, he said.

As well as flouting traditional gender roles in dance, the film “has a sex scene in front of a big wine jug, a symbol of Georgian culture. For these groups, this was also very insulting,” said Chkheidze.

Priests from Georgia’s Orthodox Church have marched annually with far-right groups on May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, in a “Family Purity Day” counter-demonstration that has turned violent several times. In 2013, a mob led by Orthodox clergy chased and attacked L.G.B.T. activists.

It was seeing footage of this on YouTube that prompted Akin to make “And Then We Danced,” he said. “When I saw the level of hostility I was really surprised, and I felt ashamed, because the Georgia that I knew was much more tolerant and open than that,” he said.

Tamar Shavgulidze, the director of “Comets,” said before a screening on Wednesday that being tolerant also meant listening to unpleasant views. “Everyone has a right to express themselves — even the protesters,” she said.

“I want to live in a country where everybody can say what they think,” said Shavgulidze. “But that doesn’t mean harming others.”

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