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Too Gay For Georgia: New Film Wows Cannes But Faces Backlash In Tbilisi

CANNES, France -- When Bachi Valishvili signed on to play the lead role in the film And Then We Danced, he knew what to expect from officials at home in Georgia.

What he didn't expect is just how strongly audiences would react in the opposite way.

The film about a young male folk dancer's homosexual awakening, which premiered at the prestigious Cannes festival on May 16, has caused a backlash in the mountainous country, where the deeply masculine tradition is woven into a conservative society.

Just don't tell that to the appreciative filmgoers on the French Riviera who gave it a standing ovation.

"There certainly was an expectation that there would be different reactions other than congratulations -- our reality at home was obvious," Valishvili told RFE/RL in an interview amid the sun and sand of the ritzy French resort.

"But we received so much positive feedback -- and I want to thank everybody who has supported us and have said good things -- that it creates a balance with the comments coming from the other side."

Demonstrators rally in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, against gay rights.
Demonstrators rally in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, against gay rights.

Wedged within the Caucasus at the crossroads between East and West, Georgia and its 3.7 million people have been caught in a cultural clash between liberal political forces and religious conservatives since it broke free from the former Soviet Union and began a series of social and economic reforms aimed at moving the country closer to the European Union.

While change on some fronts -- such as antidiscrimination laws -- has been lauded, the country has made little headway in developing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights.

Indeed, the film's director, Levan Akin, pushed to make the film after violence broke out at an LGBT pride parade in 2013 where even clerics were involved in the brutal incident.

That lack of progress, says the film's producer, Ketie Danelia, nearly derailed the project at several turns.

Funding in Georgia was pretty much a no-go from the beginning, she says, noting the Swedish director of Georgian descent eventually received money from the Swedish Film Institute.

The Produce in Georgia investment program also pledged some funding, at least until it found out what the movie was about, Danelia adds. "The Ministry of Culture called and asked the subject of the film and whether it was about gay men in a Georgian dance ensemble. I thought it was simply that they were interested in the film," she tells RFE/RL.

"The next day I was told they couldn't even give us 2,500 laris [$911], that they had no money, she adds. "It's very sad."

Such a reaction may be sad, but it's hardly a surprise in Georgia.

Studies suggest that of all the minority groups in Georgia, homosexuals are under the greatest pressure -- with more than 80 percent of survey respondents expressing strong negative attitudes toward homosexuality.

Georgia ranked as the world's third-most-homophobic country in the World Value Survey, with some 93 percent of Georgians saying they would be against the idea of having a gay neighbor.

Although homosexuality and gender change are legal in Georgia, society's view of the LGBT minority remains negative, with hostile attitudes toward gays strongly influenced by traditional stigmas, taboos, and values promoted by the Georgian Orthodox Church.

"I don't know what to feel about those people except empathy, because it's not fully their fault," says Levan Gelbakhiani, who plays Merab, a dancer with the National Georgian Ensemble who dances duets with his female partner in the movie until Valishvili's character, Irakli, joins the group.

"They grew up in the Soviet Union, in that kind of mentality, had that kind of parents, and had that kind of circle growing up, so it's difficult to change something so quickly when you are not ready. So I don't hate them, I understand them."

As they sit on the beach discussing the film, both actors stress the movie is about freedom and dreams as much as it is about the reality facing homosexuals. "I'd be happy if the movie had an impact on the people who have no connection to the theme," Valishvili says.

"If an ordinary person sees the film and says, 'I have a dream and I know what to do which is to love myself as I am, to love people around me,' then I feel as though I will have achieved my goal in this film."

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