There is great power in visibility. Director Ketevani Kapanadze completely grasps this sentiment with her debut feature How the Room Felt. The film, which Hot Docs programmer Myrocia Watamaniuk described as signalling “a new artist at work” in the festival’s The Changing Face of Europe program, affords audiences the privilege of entering a uniquely safe and unabashedly queer space. How the Room Felt invites one to observe the community that queer women and non-binary people create for themselves in Georgia as Kapanadze observes members of a soccer team who find strength in numbers.
There are few exterior shots in the film outside of the soccer field as Kapanadze inhabits the rooms that create a comforting enclosure and protect the characters from a deeply homophobic/transphobic society. In doing soon, How the Room Felt captures revelatory moments as the young characters navigate questions of gender, identity, and queerness. There are hugs, there are tears, and there is heartache—but the film also captures the great catharsis that comes with finding a group of people who understand and share one’s experience.
The borders of the room make the soccer team’s gatherings a microcosm for Europe and the world more broadly. As political winds spin and attitudes sharpen, particularly in countries bordering the vehemently anti-queer Russian state, Kapanadze’s film uses these safe spaces to ask audiences what environment they hope to create and share for others. By letting audiences witness moments of growth and collective strength, the film invites an inclusive, expansive, and empathetic gaze.
POV contacted How the Room Felt directed Ketevani Kapanadze via email to learn more about the film, including how she met her characters, how they navigate queer spaces together, and how the situation is for her and other queer people during this tumultuous period in Europe’s history.
POV: Patrick Mullen
KK: Ketevani Kapanadze
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: What drew your attention to the female and non-binary players?
KK: It was my first day in Kutaisi when I accidentally encountered a small group of young people. It was late at night. They invited me to them. We drank cheap liquor and chainsmoked all the cigarettes in the world.
The old red radio in the corner of the kitchen where we were squeezed would lose its signal from time to time, cutting the bits of music out. There were four of them: Lana, Anuka, Sopho and Anano. Through the conversation, I discovered that Lana and Anuka were professional [soccer] players. The smoky kitchen with wooden walls and soft warm lights felt cozy. “Sometimes I am a woman, sometimes I am a man, more like I’m both and none,” Lana said. The red radio went on again playing “Within” by Daft Punk. I suddenly felt at home, in a city I had never been to before, among the people I had never met before.
Very soon after this precious encounter, I started to film. I wanted to capture the atmosphere, the feeling there. And I wanted to make their environment visible. The struggles, dialogue, and small stories of this unique community reflected the social and political situation of the country and their city.
POV: The film takes place almost entirely within interiors: locker rooms, living rooms, apartments. We see fairly little of the world outside. What inspired this decision?
KK: Going back to my very first meeting with the protagonists, the atmosphere of that room was my main interest from the beginning. As a queer person myself, have always been searching for a space where I would feel comfortable, loved, and accepted. I come from the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. In Tbilisi, there are quite a few spaces that are ”queer-friendly” or ”LGBTQIA” (bars, clubs, etc.) but you always feel that there is a hierarchical atmosphere, somehow those “queer” doors are closed to people who face poverty, are from the periphery, are “not cool enough”… Depicting an atmosphere that was built by these groups of friends was therefore the core of this film.
What inspired this decision was also the idea of keeping the audience close to the protagonists, as if they were in the same space that queer women and non-binary people carve out in the oppressive system. It shows the importance of those everyday forms of resistance, which are mostly invisible. I wanted to depict and show those spaces that are not disciplined and governed by the oppressive rules, but rather to try to create something that stands on solidarity and boundless forms of queer love. Thirdly, an obvious thing: in an oppressive hetero patriarchal system, protagonists would also spend time together in interiors.
POV: The film takes care to avoid repeating or depicting many of the same derogatory words or discriminatory behaviour that the characters likely encounter. Why was this important?
KK: In the film, the oppressive society is not seen but heard in a few scenes. Viewers can hear anti-LGBTQIA groups from the streets shouting homophobic texts. But the camera stays concentrated on the protagonists.
The film concentrates on the safe space that the protagonists have carved out rather than the conservative, homophobic society. The self-made family that the characters have created around them is, for me, a form of resistance to the heteronormative, patriarchal world that is much more powerful than homo/bi/transphobia. I wanted to stay with them because the patriarchal system wants queer people gone. The characters find a way to survive: to love each other, to care about each other and to share the limited recourses they have with each other.
If I wanted to make a film about homo/bi/transphobia and not about the resistance to it, that would be a totally different film. A research documentary about all the aspects like church, nationalism, right-wing groups, western influences etc. Of course, the environment could not be and is not ignored in the film, but I simply preferred to stay with what the characters have built and created and what had a bigger value for me.
POV: How did you work with your characters to ensure a safe space in which they could share their stories? What about as the film premieres and finds an audience?
KK: From the very beginning, there was a mutual trust. They let me into their community as a friend, maybe because we had a lot in common, we are the same age, queer, and with similar interests. We talked a lot about the film, what it was going to be like. They had my word that nothing would end up in the film without their permission.
To ensure their safety, we won’t show the film in Georgia, we won’t translate or share any news in the Georgian web. Basically, nobody except a few friends and a small film industry know about the film in Georgia. However, there is still a risk—a small one—that society finds out about the film. This is also discussed with the characters and we take on this small risk together.
POV: Overall, how do you feel Georgia is progressing in terms of LGBTQIA rights?
KK: LGBTQIA activism in Georgia is very much influenced by Western ideas, and we see that there is a tendency to follow the same path, which is mostly liberal and does not go deep in all aspects of oppression. It criticizes only homophobia and leaves behind economic oppression, NGOisation, centrism, and continues to leave behind the most marginalized and vulnerable groups of queer people. LGBTQIA activism that is dominated by NGOs accounts for making activism “elitist” and open to only a privileged few professional strategists or negotiators.
There is a certain level of progress but at the same time, we see that anti-gender, anti LGBTQIA politics and groups are gaining more power. The activism that is solely driven and based on visibility politics is a mistake because in the peripheries and in the rural parts those visibility politics simply do not work.
It is difficult to talk about progress because we need to agree on the categories by which we evaluate and define progress. During the past 10 years, when the first LGBTQIA public action/gathering took place, the movement got stronger. We now see more and more groups, activists, artists speak and devote their work to sexuality and gender-related issues, also we see more spaces that are run by LGBTQIA people and therefore create safer spaces. However, progress cannot be defined solely by these. At the same time, the increased homo/bi/transphobia and strengthened fascist, right-wing groups, create higher risks for the most vulnerable groups of our society. Every time Tbilisi Pride tries to organise the march, trans women simply cannot go out in the streets and they stop working. It is very difficult to evaluate whether we have progressed or not. We need a deeper analysis, instead of a shallow and narrow evaluation of the processes that’s been happening.
POV: How does neighbouring Russia affect the rights and freedoms of women and queer people in your country?
KK: Russia has always tried to keep its political influence in neighbouring countries. There are quite a few pro-Russian political parties in the Georgian political scene. In the past decade or more, Russia has been funding ultra-radical right-wing groups. The one that has been attacking LGBTQIA people on the streets is receiving financial support directly from Russia. These radical groups have offices in almost every town in Georgia and a lot of social networks and TV channels. Russia affects the situation in Georgia and especially LGBTQIA people feel threatened by the future, especially now when we see what is happening in Ukraine.
To say a couple of words about the very recent history: The limited liberalisation, which happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1990s, was followed by a backlash from the conservative side. Increased visibility and liberalisation were the sources of anxieties and moral panics about its effects on the demographic crisis and young people. One of the characteristics of the discourse was the perception of homosexuality as a “Western” and “new phenomenon,” which did not exist in the Soviet Union earlier. In Georgia, it is still referred to as “non-traditional sexual orientation” (aratradiciuli orientatsia) and refers to how it does not align with traditions. The discourses on “homosexuality that threatens the existence of the Georgian nation” have been transformed to the political context.
In these conflicting and overlapping “pro-Western”/”anti-Russian,” “anti-Western”/”pro- Russian,” and nationalistic discourses, one of the major dividing lines has been laid on the issues surrounding gender and sexuality in Georgia. Using LGBTQIA issues and attacking homosexuality has been a successful and prevalent tool for Georgian politicians. Portraying political opponents as “gay supporters” has been used as a strategy to discredit them. But most importantly, governments have used society’s hatred towards homosexuality as a lightning rod to distract attention from political events, and economic and social problems, especially during elections. Homosexuality is central to the anti-Western narrative, where Europe is portrayed as a “pit of corrosion and sin.”
In Georgia, nationality is closely tied to the Orthodox religion and represents the strongest opposition to the LGBTQIA community. The Orthodox Church, which holds the highest authority in the country, has been highly vocal in condemnation of non-heteronormative sexuality.
Even though homosexuality was decriminalised in Georgia in 2000, that did not come from changing public attitudes, but was implemented top-down. These legislative changes were driven by Georgia’s eagerness to join the Council of Europe. Thus we see, at the same time relatively progressive legislation, but an extremely homo/bi/transphobic environment.
POV: How is the situation in Georgia now given the war in Ukraine? How are you doing personally?
KK: Georgia and Ukraine have strong political, economical and emotional bonds and a common enemy: Russia. The war in Ukraine is a huge tragedy for me personally and for most of the population of Georgia. I have many friends and colleagues who had to flee the country or join the army. Nothing can be more tragic than a war. Georgia has also recently experienced Russian invasion in 2008.
Now Georgia has become a shelter for many UA refugees. At the same time, we have to face our government being not so critical of the Russian invasion, which is extremely frustrating. Because the UA, as Zelenskyy and other officials have said, expects more support from the Georgian government. The future is very unclear and most of the time scary for queer people. Pro-Russia sentiments have hugely affected our lives negatively and even imagining that we might become invaded by Russia, which actually is not that unlikely, leaves us in despair.
How the Room Felt premieres at Hot Docs on May 4.