Known for his films Certain People (2012), The Circle (2015) and TV series Real Humans, the Swedish director of Georgian origin has brought to Cannes a personal film which deals with sexuality and masculinity in a country ranked as the third most homophobic in the world.

In the coming of age film, the young dancer Merad is training at the conservative National Georgian Ensemble in Tbilisi with his childhood dance partner Mary. He suddenly faces the challenge of his life when the charismatic Irakli arrives and becomes both his strongest rival and desire. In the title roles are newcomers Levan Gelbakiani, Bachi Valishvili and Ana Javakishvili

The film was produced by French Quarter Films with Takes Film, Inland Film, RMV Film, Ama Productions, SVT and support from the Swedish Film Institute. Paris-based Totem Films handles world sales.  The film will be released in Sweden by TriArt and in France by Arp Selection.

The film got a standing ovation at the Directors Fortnight official screening. What did it mean to you?Levan Akin: I was so pleased and happy. I had never been in Cannes. It’s amazing to be here and the reception in Cannes has been amazing. The film was a labour of love that developed organically. We finished editing in April and still need to work on the grading!

What was the genesis for the film?
L.A: On May 2013 there was a gay pride parade organised in Tbilisi. They were violently attacked by opponents from a counter-demonstration, supported by the far right and the Georgian Orthodox Church. The images that I saw in the news just stuck with me. Since I’m of Georgian origin, I felt the urge to make a film about being gay and young in Georgia.

This is your first film set in Georgia, where your family comes from. It must have been very special for you to shoot there, and we can see through your portrayal of family life, traditional music and ballet how you’re attached to your Georgian roots…
LA: Yes thanks. I am from the Georgian diaspora. My parents were born in Turkey but were of Georgian origin and have lived in Sweden since the late 60s. Georgia has always been part of my culture and there are amazing things there that deserve to be shared. In Georgia at the moment the young generation hates the traditional dance, music etc as it represents the oppressive patriarchal society they don’t want to be part of.

With the film I show that this is part of my culture. I’m gay and I love it! At the same time I also feel a bit ashamed of the direction the country is taking. Georgia used to be tolerant, towards minorities, religions etc, but now there is a big movement saying that to be a true Georgian you have to be an Orthodox Christian!  I do hope the film will make a difference. 

The film is set in the tradition National Georgian ballet. How much research did you do to draw such a realistic portrait and how did you find the fantastic main actor Levan Galbakhiani who plays Merab? LA: Levan Gelbakhiani is a dancer, and non-professional actor, like most of the cast from Tbilisi. I found Levan on Instagram while researching about the situation in Georgia. He’s a typical dancer, very hard with himself. But I knew he would be amazing on screen. 

I did like a template story line and gradually filled it with what was happening, weaning together a story. We worked with the cast in a neo-realistic way, filming real people in their environment. For a period of three months, I just followed Merab, in his small grocery shop, the restaurant where he works, which actually stayed open while we were filming.

How much of Levan is in his character Merab?
LA: There is a lot of him. What you see is very real which is why he is wonderful. An actor has the tools to bring things out and take them back. He didn’t have that privilege and lived a lot of scenes. It was hard for him.

Did you have reference dance movies in mind?
L.A: No. the only movie we watched is Y tu mama también as it’s such a good movie. But I must say that the movie is influenced by my upbringing in the 80s, movies and dance movies. For instance Howard Deutch’s Some Kind of Wonderful written by John Hughes. 

Besides the traditional Georgian music, can you tells us about your choice of music such as Abba, Robyn…
L.A: During the Soviet Union era Abba was one of few Western bands that could be played and on New Year’s Eve in former Soviet countries they would play Abba on the main channels. In Georgia they love Abba!  We were very lucky to be able to use one Abba song for free as  Benny Andersson [one of the Abba founding members] and his son Ludvig Andersson are actually co-producers of the film [through their company RMV Films that produced Levan Akin’s previous film The Circle]. The film was a passion project for Ludvig Andersson. Then Robyn, Kite are featured in the movie because we love their music. 

Was it difficult to get the film financed?
LA: It was a super low budget. No one was interested in a film set in Georgia. We got support from the Swedish Film Institute with quite a low support. Then I got in touch with producer Mathilde Dedye [French Quarter] through a close friend of mine who knew that Mathilde loves dance. 

There is a mention of Eduard Shevardnadze in the film. How is the soviet influence in today’s Georgia?
L.A.: The Soviet shadow is still very strong. There is a generational divide between people born under Soviet times, some of them feeling nostalgic about that era, and younger kids who grew up with internet, TV series like Rick & Morty. In the film, people mention the border with Russia being moved. It’s always present in conversations. Every 10-15 years Russia takes pieces of the country. Who knows what will be left…

What reaction do you expect from the film in Georgia?
L.A.: As the film was selected at the Directors Fortnight, it got a lot of attention in Georgia as it’s the fourth or fifth film in Georgian language ever accepted in Cannes. But as we did not get any public money from Georgia, it is politically a bit complicated. Otherwise we got an amazing support from people on Instagram. Levan Gelbakhiani gets perhaps 400 messages a day, but unfortunately a lot of hate messages as well. It’s the same for me...

What’s next?
L.A.: My next film will be set in Turkey. It will feature one of the characters mentioned in And Then We Danced, Zaza. It will be like a road trip from Georgia to Istanbul. I’m hoping to do the film in the fall 2020. Before that, I will do a TV series for SVT called Dough.