Levan Akin remembers the first time he saw someone queer on-screen. He was 14 at the time, growing up in the town of Tumba, Sweden, in the early '90s. "I was at my cousin's house one afternoon, and they had cable TV. Not everyone in Sweden had cable in those days," he remembers. "On one of the channels, they screened Polyester by John Waters. I remember feeling shocked and excited, plus worried my aunt would walk into the room. I never knew such films existed."
A teenage obsession with The Pope of Trash led to Akin's own interest in filmmaking, and he would go on to garner international acclaim with 2019's And Then We Danced. One of A.frame's LGBTQ+ Filmmakers and Actors on The Rise and a member of the Academy since 2020, Akin reflects on that film's journey and looks ahead to his next movie.
Inspired by Akin's native Georgia, And Then We Danced follows Merab (newcomer Levan Gelbakhiani), an ambitious member of Georgia's National Dance Ensemble, as his rivalry with a rebellious new dancer, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), gives way to an unexpected romance. The film premiered during the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it received a 15-minute standing ovation.
"What was very apparent with And Then We Danced was that there really is a longing for non-Western queer stories," Akin explains. "From my vantage point, which are queer stories told from a non-Western context, I am eager to see more queer cinema from places I am not familiar with."
And Then We Danced was born out of images Akin saw of a 2013 rally in Georgia's capital city of Tbilisi, in which young people protesting homophobia were violently attacked by thousands of counter-protesters. Even as the film was embraced around the world, it was met with backlash in Georgia, denounced by the Georgian Orthodox Church "as an affront to traditional Georgian values" and protested upon release in Tbilisi.
Still, the filmmaker has not been deterred from shooting his next feature, titled Passage, there. Akin, who also wrote the film, set the story in Georgia and neighboring Turkey, with plans to shoot in both of the countries he feels so closely tied to.
"Filming in Georgia is always very special to me, and I'd lie if I say that my relationship to my heritage and Georgia is uncomplicated, but it's still with love and excitement I return," he says. "With Passage, I am continuing to explore themes of modernity versus tradition from a queer lens. I am a mix of many cultures and norms myself, so these themes are very personal to me and something I have struggled with myself."
"We follow two people who become unexpected allies," Akin says of the movie's plot. "It's a story about finding your family, not your blood relatives, but those that accept and love you unconditionally, without prejudice, for who you are. "
By John Boone