TBILISI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ultra-nationalist protesters in Georgia clashed with police on Friday as they attempted to derail the premiere of a critically acclaimed movie about gay love in the capital, Tbilisi.
Hundreds of demonstrators blocked the road outside a movie theater in the city center ahead of the first screening of “And Then We Danced”, which tells the story of young two male Georgian ballet dancers falling in love.
Chanting “Long live Georgia” and “Shame”, the protesters, some holding crosses and religious icons, tried to force their way inside the cinema but where held back by riot police that cordoned off the premises.
“This is not just a movie. This is an insult to our faith, our traditions and all that is holy for us,” said Guram Damenia, who had come in a traditional Georgian costume.
The movie premiered at Cannes in May and has won awards at film festivals around the world.
But reception has been mixed in the conservative Caucasian nation, where same-sex relationships remain largely taboo and dance is revered as part of the nation’s heritage.
While tickets for the scheduled three days of screenings at a handful of cinemas in Tbilisi and the port city of Batumi sold out quickly, the influential Orthodox Church denounced the film as an attempt to undermine Christian values and legalize “sin”.
Demonstrators set fire to a rainbow flag and threw firecrackers and smoke bombs toward the entrance of Tblisi’s Amirani cinema, as moviegoers - many of them young people - struggled to get inside.
“I don’t think it is normal to have so many policemen here to save me and my friends from people who think that I should not watch a movie,” said 22-year-old Tina Iukhutashvili.
“I should not be scared to go to see a movie”.
One young woman trying to go watch the movie was hit by a stone and taken away in an ambulance, local media reported.
Police said they arrested 12 people, one over the stone-throwing incident and 11 for trying to force their way into the cinema.
“All movie shows scheduled for today in Tbilisi have started and are under way,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement, urging everyone to abide by the law.
About a dozen anti-LGBT+ demonstrators and several priests held prayers outside another Tbilisi cinema.
Georgia has witnessed a cultural clash between liberal forces and religious conservatives over the past decade, as it has modernized and introduced radical reforms.
It has passed anti-discrimination laws in an effort to move closer to the European Union, but homophobia remains widespread, LGBT+ rights groups have said.
Director Levan Akin has described the movie as a “love letter” to Georgia and its traditions.
“It is absurd that people who bought tickets need to be brave and risk getting harassed or even assaulted just for going to see a film,” posted the 39-year-old, who was born in Sweden to parents of Georgian descent, on social media.
Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org