We’re all Golden Eagles here. Gemma is away on festival assignment, so Slim and Mitchell are joined by Julian Higgins, director and co-writer of God’s Country—his neo-Western debut feature which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. We also dive deep into Julian’s four favorite films: Rashomon; Chimes at Midnight; The Return and Foxcatcher. Plus: Julian growing up with college professor cinephile parents; why he’s never seen a Star Wars movie; Toshiro Mifune is the last 30 seconds of a bag of Skittles; Slim (still) isn’t a Shakespeare person; going “full-on Orson Welles”; Julian being afraid of reading reviews from writers he loves; Mitchell watching Foxcatcher in the heart of du Pont country; and Julian’s childhood hero Basil Rathbone.Read transcript
Levan Akin, writer and director of And Then We Danced, talks to Ella Kemp about masculinity, queer love stories, Georgian cinema and the ever-quotable joys of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.
“Someone told me, ‘You are one person when you make the film, another when it’s over’. And that’s really the case with this film, it’s changed me fundamentally.” —⁠Levan Akin
Love stories come and go, but few have the golden warmth of Levan Akin’s dance-romance, And Then We Danced, which has captivated Letterboxd members enough to garner an impressive 4.0 rating out of 5. The film follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a dancer who has grown up training at the National Georgian Ensemble, and is moved to examine the structures and traditions he exists within when the charismatic Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) arrives at the company.
Akin was born and raised in Sweden, the son of a Georgian family who emigrated in the 1960s. Following the attacks at the 2013 Pride parade in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the solidarity among the country’s gay and queer communities became more urgent. Akin was moved to turn away from the big-budget Swedish TV productions he has made a name directing, in order to connect back to his roots for this project. But And Then We Danced isn’t solely a political commentary—it moves and feels freely.
Akin’s film gives audiences a long-overdue education on traditions far outside Hollywood: we see the rigid rules of Georgian dance, the way a body is taught to bend and extend and survive, and how spontaneous feelings have no place in that education.
If the film, told from such a unique perspective, also feels somehow familiar, it’s because Akin, who wrote, directed and co-edited, is a magnanimous cinephile. He’s been watching and understanding love stories since he can remember, and speaks of them with immense enthusiasm. There are years of wisdom and observation in the details of And Then We Danced. Every time I admit to him I haven’t seen a film he mentions, he looks sincerely happy for me that my world is yet to experience it.
Answering our Life in Film questionnaire, Akin shares memories of ABBA as a national treasure, the first film that blew him away in cinemas as a child, and why Tarkovsky could have done with being a little more queer.
This is quite a departure from the scale of your television projects. What drew you back to Georgia and those difficult circumstances?
Levan Akin: I come from a background of making bigger projects, and this wasn’t obviously what a person like me should be doing next. I did a lot of Swedish TV, but I had grown tired of working the way I did. I started working for [Swedish film and commercial director] Roy Andersson when I was 22 and then I went into TV—I never went to film school. I applied twice and I didn’t get in! I was brought up in the SVT [Swedish public broadcasting service] way of making TV series. You have a script, you break it down, sometimes you write it yourself, sometimes you don’t, you do the shot list, you work with the actors, you block the scene and you move on and that’s all fine and good.
But after my previous film I was very tired. I was 36 then, and had sort of forgotten why I was making films. I had seen this Pride parade, the one where they were attacked in Georgia in 2013, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I went to Georgia and did some research with my own little camera, and it very organically developed into this film. I never sat down and thought I’d write a story about this dancer. I used what happened around me, and I found a lot of real people. We often weren’t allowed to film in places a lot of the time—we made up stories about what we were doing. We had to have bodyguards, we’d lose locations on a day’s notice. It was insane, so I couldn’t plan out the movie like I would normally.
I wanted to make a very classical story, a very universal story and have the motor be [Merab’s] first love for Irakli and that setting him free. And then I filled it with things that happened while I was working. I’ve never worked like that, but I think it’s the best film I’ve made, and it’s really been a rejuvenation of my creative energy. Someone told me, “You are one person when you make the film, another when it’s over”. And that’s really the case with this film, it’s changed me fundamentally.
One character in And Then We Danced says, “Georgian dance is based on masculinity”. What are the defining traits of masculinity in Georgia?
The definition of masculinity is so different in different cultures. In Sweden, where I live, if two men just hug too much or walk arm in arm, it’s considered super un-masculine. It’s like the whole thing about how young boys fight each other because that’s the only way they can be close in Western society. Whereas in Georgia, you can sit in someone’s lap and it’s not considered gay or un-masculine. Over there, traits like being very poetic, being a dancer, being a good singer, things that might be feminine in our culture are considered very masculine.
I thought that was interesting for the film because the regular story might have been, “I want to be a dancer but my family doesn’t want me to because it’s considered to be a feminine job”. Whereas here it’s the opposite, it’s, “I am a dancer, and I can’t be gay”.
Why was it important to use dance as a narrative vehicle to show these changing identities?
What they say in the film is that Georgian dance has evolved. It’s based on old folk dances from different regions of the Caucasus, other Caucasian countries too, as well as Georgia. The dances from Batumi have a lot of oriental influences, originally even more than now. And the Kintouri dance was originally created by a queer group of people who lived in Georgia 100 years ago, and they were people working in service jobs.
Men wouldn’t take those jobs because it was considered unmanly, so the ones who worked in those jobs were gay guys or queer, some were even trans. They developed this dance and it’s sort of like a Paris Is Burning. Everybody knew they were gay. That’s what the teacher says in the film, when he says “they were softer but we made them harder”, because then these dances were appropriated by three big ensembles, and they did alterations to them.
How did that influence the message you ultimately wanted to share?
The film is about finding your own place in a traditional society, and not letting anyone tell you what your traditions ought to be, or how you ought to define yourself, to be accepted as a Georgian. That discourse is all around us now. I’m really frankly tired of people telling me that, for instance, I’m not really Swedish because my parents came from Georgia, and I have a Muslim background. Also, Georgia is 90 percent predominantly Christian Orthodox now, so a lot of Georgians think you can’t be Georgian if you’re not a Christian.
There are two major contemporary music cues in the film—ABBA’s ‘Take A Chance on Me’ and Robyn’s ‘Honey’. How did those two come to be?
During the Soviet Union, there was an ABBA concert on TV and I think that was one of the only one Western pop concerts that was broadcast in Soviet. I think it had to do with Sweden being social democratic, and we had sort of a good relationship with the Soviet Union so they thought, “Ok, we can show this, at least it’s not American”. It would be on every New Year’s Eve and it would be like a tradition.
So when the Soviet Union fell, ABBA had a new market with new people who also loved ABBA. So ABBA is actually very popular in Georgia! Of course ABBA is super-expensive to [license], and we had literally no money when we made this film—it was a very hard shoot. But one of the producers of the film is the son of Benny Andersson of ABBA… I figured if he likes the film, for them it’s not a big risk. I thought, I’ll try it in the rough cut and either he’ll like it and say yes or he won’t—but he loved the movie, he was crying afterwards.
I’d also taken a risk with Robyn because that album had just come out, and we all love Robyn. We just hoped she’d like it and accept it, because we couldn’t pay her very much. Thankfully she did, and also we actually got help from Jen Malone. She’s a music supervisor and she’s so talented, and she’s the one who does the music supervision for [bands including] Euphoria, Creed and so on, so once she also got in touch she made it work for us. I’m eternally grateful to Jen.
[The following answers contain spoilers for several of the movies mentioned by Akin.]
And Then We Danced has many beautiful dance sequences. Which specific dance scenes, or dance movies broadly, inspire you?
I love The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as a whole, and it has dancing in it, so that’s an easy one. In Dirty Dancing, I love the last dance, I can watch it over and over. It’s an amazing scene in every way. I also love the scene in Ex Machina where [Oscar Isaac] is dancing. It’s so nice, and so sexy.
I don’t know if there was dancing in it but I really want to mention this film—I love The Diary of A Teenage Girl. Marielle Heller is a genius. And Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård, they’re just so good in those parts. He was incredible! That should have won all the Oscars. In my films I never have clear antagonists, even if there are characters antagonizing the main character. I love them all, there’s no clear moral compass, everyone is just trying to do their best with the circumstances. It’s the same with this film. I love that you understand and love Alexander Skarsgård, and the guilt Minnie must have been feeling. It’s just so sensitively directed, with such a precise feeling of how to not veer in any one direction. If anyone is just shaking somewhere in that film, let’s put it in this ranking!
There’s this amazing documentary made by a Swedish documentarian, Martha & Niki. It’s about two friends who are dancers, two black girls from Sweden. Their friendship is really complicated, and they’re competing in a special dance, and you just follow them as they’re touring and competing. One of the girls is from Uganda, if I remember correctly, and another one is adopted, so they also have very different social backgrounds. I saw it in cinemas and I was just sitting and crying.
What are your favorite on-screen gay love stories?
Brokeback Mountain. I saw that movie in New York in 2005 and I was so shocked. I just thought, “What the fuck have I just been through”? The ending… Nowadays, I would never want to kill off a character in a gay movie, but then, it’s so vague that you don’t even know what happens to them. It breaks my heart, it still does.
I really enjoyed God’s Own Country. I thought it was really moving and touching. Josh O’Connor is a revelation, and the other guy [Alec Secareanu] is amazing too. They have great chemistry. It’s just so delicately made.
I also love the Wachowski sisters’ Bound. I remember when I saw it, oh my god. Back then, seeing that was really something. I love Jennifer Tilly, what a star!
In terms of a movie that gay communities really love: Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. I’ve seen it literally a thousand times, I just rewind it and watch it again. It’s so amazing. When we were younger, 50 percent of the lines we would say would be lines from that film. It’s hilarious. It’s such a great story about friendship. If you haven’t seen it, congratulations, you have so much to look forward to!
And how did I almost forget My Own Private Idaho?! I saw that as a kid in the 90s, and it’s just so amazing. River Phoenix. What a movie.
Could you give the Letterboxd community a primer to some great Georgian films?
I love My Happy Family, a film by Simon Groß and Nana Ekvtimishvili. They’re a directing couple. They did another film called In Bloom; about a teenage girl, it’s sort of autobiographical I can imagine, as it feels very lived. It’s about a Georgian girl in the 90s. Both films were at Sundance—My Happy Family was there three years ago and I think it won an award. [It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, and was Georgia’s entry for the 2013 best foreign language Academy Award]. Netflix bought it, so it’s on there now.
It really shows this thing in Georgia where there is no private sphere. Families live together inter-generationally for life for many reasons—financial ones for sure. It’s the story of this woman who lives with her mother, her father, her children, everybody is in that house. She decides that one day she wants to move into her own apartment, and it’s the most shocking thing anyone has ever heard of. She says she just wants to sit alone and read books and have her own space, and everyone is so provoked by that because that can’t happen in Georgia.
There’s another Georgian film I love called Street Days, by Levan Koguashvili, which came out in 2010. It was one of the first new-generation movies in Georgia showing the reality of Georgia the way it was then. It’s the story of a man who is struggling to support his family, but he’s also a drug addict. It sounds really bleak but it’s made with such dark humor.
To go really far back to the directors working through the Soviet time, there’s The Wishing Tree by Tengiz Abuladze. So many shots from that film are so, so beautiful. It’s set in the rural parts of Georgia, and it’s about a young girl who falls in love with a boy, but they can’t be married because she has to marry an older person because it’s better for the family. And the boy she was in love with was killed by the husband. She goes insane, because she keeps thinking about it all the time; she’s talking to his ghost. This old woman in the village hears her and thinks she’s cheating on her husband, so they decide to do this ritual where they stone her. It’s so sad and so beautiful, and there’s a woman in the village who’s like the town fool but she’s the only one making sense. It’s so poetic.
Sergei Parajanov is another of my all-time favorite directors—I love The Color of Pomegranates and Ashik Kerib. He’s a great surrealist director and has inspired many directors since, such as Tarsem Singh and Mark Romanek, who did a lot of music videos in the 90s. Madonna’s video for ‘Bedtime Stories’ was really inspired by Parajanov. He worked a lot with tableaux, and it’s so queer. [Parajanov] was gay and he was imprisoned for it many times. He was very close friends with [Andrei] Tarkovsky and he attributes his artistry to being inspired by him, saying that Tarkovsky released his creativity. They were close, but they’d also fight a lot. One time Parajanov told Tarkovsky, “You can never be as amazing a director as me, because you’re not a homosexual”, which is funny!
Finally, what was the film first made you want to be a filmmaker?
I love that question. It feels like I’m closing a circle because I think the movie I’m thinking of has some similarities with my movie. It’s Some Kind of Wonderful, [written] by John Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch. It’s not one of the most famous John Hughes movies but it’s one of the first ones I saw in the cinema. I think I was seven years old, I went with my older sister who was eleven at the time.
It’s a love triangle between Eric Stoltz, Mary Stuart Masterson and Lea Thompson. Stoltz plays this working-class kid, he lives on the wrong side of the tracks, the classic perspective that’s always in John Hughes movies. He’s in love with the popular girl in school, Amanda Jones. She is also from his part of the town but is dating the rich guys. He’s really in love with her, and his best friend is played by Masterson, she’s called Watts but her nickname is Drummer Girl, and she’s a tomboy. When I was little I thought she was a boy who was a gay character. I didn’t understand that she was a girl because I’d never seen a girl like that as a kid. It’s just a great movie, it was a love triangle before love triangles were boring. I don’t know if it consciously made me want to direct films, but it was the first film that I saw that that stuck with me.
We didn’t have a lot of movie culture in my house, my parents emigrated to Sweden in the late 60s. My father read a lot, but we didn’t come from any culture. The films I’d find were the ones you could rent in the local store. Mostly American movies. The more highbrow stuff came later when I was older and could search them out myself.
‘And Then We Danced’ premiered in Director’s Fortnight in Cannes last May, and has won several prizes at other prestigious festivals since. The film is currently showing in select cinemas on the east and west coasts of America, and opens in UK cinemas on March 13.