Conflicts around gender and sexuality are often indicators of social tension. A recent public clash over the screening of a film in Tbilisi gives insight into the fault lines of contemporary politics in Georgia.
Georgia’s democratic gains have been seriously tested by the ruling party backtracking on electoral reforms. Politics is growing increasingly polarized, and last month the gulf between the far-right and progressive values erupted in violent confrontation outside a cinema where the story of a romance between two men unfolded on screen.
The film And Then We Danced, which plunges viewers into the world of the Georgian National Ballet, is by Swedish-born filmmaker Levan Akin, (who is of Georgian descent), and is Sweden’s “Best International Feature” entry for the 2020 Oscars.
And Then We Danced opened for a limited, three-day screening on November 8, prompting fervent backlash from far right and religious groups, who reacted to the gay theme as a threat to their way of life and to Georgian tradition.
Traditional dance is fundamental to Georgia’s heritage and the National Ballet is a source of national pride. Any Georgian describing traditional dance will tell you how they’re moved by the beating drums and dancers’ movement. It hits your soul. It’s the sound of home.
Akin’s film is a commentary on masculinity and tradition in Georgian culture. As the film’s opening sequence eloquently explains, “Georgian dancing is based on masculinity. There is no room for weakness.” The plot follows a young dancer as he grapples with traditional ideals of masculinity, his passion for dance, and his growing desire for his male rival.
Akin approaches culture and tradition as dynamic, not static, and encourages the audience to rethink gender norms in light of his expansive and inclusive vision of tradition.
As the film was screened in November, protesters took to the streets. They attempted to stop moviegoers from entering the cinema and tried to storm the area but were held back by police who had the area cordoned off. They burned an LGBT flag while a priest recited a prayer, set off firecrackers, and threw smoke bombs at moviegoers. Protesters chanted “long live Georgia” and “shame,” some holding crosses and religious icons.
The Interior Ministry deployed police at the cinema to protect public safety and free expression.
Ana Subeliani was hospitalized after being struck by a stone outside the cinema, where she stood in solidarity with the rights of LGBT people. She described being suddenly hit by “a heavy object to the head.” She felt extreme pain, with blood gushing from her head, and even thought she had lost an eye. Describing it as the “most aggressive protest of this kind” that she had seen in recent years, Ana told me, “As soon as we showed up, homophobic protesters surrounded our group and insulted us. They are focused on demonizing and marginalizing LGBT people.”
Ana’s Facebook post detailing the incident soon attracted media attention.
One person is facing criminal charges for the attack on Subeliani, while 27 others were detained by police on misdemeanor disobedience charges.
The controversy surrounding Akin’s film echoes the violent disruption by thousands of protesters, including Orthodox clergy, of a gathering in Tbilisi marking the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia in May 2013. Police evacuated LGBT activists to safety, but failed to contain the mob, who threw stones and other objects at a van carrying the activists and injured a journalist.
As the country stepped closer to the EU, Georgia adopted anti-discrimination laws in 2014. However, homosexuality remains highly stigmatized, and is at the epicenter of “culture wars” between progressives and conservatives, with antigay elements backed by the massively influential church, at times with hateful rhetoric. Georgia’s ombudsman says that LGBT people experience abuse, intolerance, and discrimination in every sphere of life.
Protecting minority rights is a cornerstone of democracy. But the government is falling short on its obligations. As Georgian authorities look for allies in this polarized political environment, they should be mindful of the high stakes and real fault lines on human rights and should not condone or encourage violence against LGBT people and their supporters. More needs to be done to deter and condemn homophobic statements by public officials. Tiptoeing around ultra-nationalists, and sometimes portraying their statements as legitimate speech encourages further homophobia and violence.
“I made this film with love and compassion,” Akin said after the violent protests against his film. “It is my love letter to Georgia and to my heritage. With this story I wanted to reclaim and redefine Georgian culture to include all, not just some.”
These are the values the Georgian government should embrace and protect.
Catherine Pilishvili is a senior Europe and Central Asia associate at Human Rights Watch.