Hundreds of far-right activists burned a rainbow flag and cried "Shame!" during a protest in the Georgian capital against an Oscar-nominated Swedish-Georgian gay-themed film which premiered amid a heavy police presence.
Set in Georgia, "And Then We Danced" -- Sweden's official Oscar submission in the best international feature film category -- is a love story about two male dancers in Georgia's national ballet company.
The drama has won worldwide critical acclaim but was denounced by the Caucasus country's influential Orthodox Church as an "affront to the traditional Georgian values".
In front of the Amirani cinema in the capital Tbilisi, the anti-gay protesters chanted "Long live Georgia!" and "Shame!". They burned the rainbow flag as an Orthodox priest recited a prayer.
The interior ministry said 11 protesters were arrested for "disobeying police".
Director Levan Akin said some far right groups and the Church "are planning to stop people from entering the sold-out screenings" / © GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File
The cinema, which had earlier posted a video on Facebook of policemen checking the cinema's seats with sniffer dogs. let ticket holders inside for the evening premiere showing and then shut the doors.
"Georgian folk dance is an epitome of the Georgian spiritual values, we will not let them defile our national traditions," said one of the far-right protesters, 35-year-old housewife Teona Gogava.
Maka Kiladze, a forty-year-old choreographer who was among the audience in the cinema, said: "There is huge interest towards the film in Georgia. It's anomaly that we have to face an angry mob to attend a film screening".
- 'Dark times' -
Earlier this week, Sandro Bregadze, a former junior minister in the ruling Georgian Dream party's government, said his nationalist Georgian March group would not allow the film to be screened in Tbilisi, calling it "propaganda of sodomy".
Levan Vasadze, a Georgian businessman with links to Russia's anti-Western and far-right groups, said his supporters will "enter screening rooms in the six cinemas in Tbilisi and turn off the projectors," also vowing to "shove back police if need be".
"Some far right groups and the Church have basically condemned the film and are planning to stop people from entering the sold out screenings," the film's director Levan Akin, a Swede with Georgian roots, wrote on his Facebook page earlier Friday.
These are "dark times we live in," he wrote, adding that it is important to "stand up against these shadowy forces in any way we can".
Georgia's interior ministry issued a statement, promising to ensure "the protection of public safety and order, as well as the freedom of self-expression".
"We address everyone: obey the law. Otherwise, police will use their lawful mandate and suppress unlawful acts immediately," the statement said.
Homosexuality is still highly stigmatised in Georgia, a socially conservative Black Sea nation where the immensely influential Orthodox Church has previously clashed with Western-leaning governments over social issues.
Homosexuality was banned in Georgia after the country was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1921.
After the Soviet Union's collapse, the ban was not enforced, but officially homosexuality was only decriminalised in 2000, with anti-discrimination laws adopted in 2006.
Critics of the ruling Georgian Dream party have accused the government of giving tacit support to homophobic and nationalist groups which traditionally support the party in elections and have staged protest rallies against pro-Western opposition parties.