Interview: Hari Sama on the Healing Powers of Art in “This is Not Berlin”

When Hari Sama began casting for “This is Not Berlin,” he had made sure not to send out notices for the part of the cool Uncle Esteban, the pot-smoking, motorcycle-riding Bohemian who gives comfort to Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), a 17-year-old struggling to figure out who he is in his tumultuous high school years in 1980s Mexico City. It’s a juicy character that no doubt could’ve attracted an actor that might’ve helped get a bigger budget for the film, yet he wanted to reserve the role for himself, not as an act of vanity or hubris – he never fancied himself as an actor – but instead a way to help himself heal.

“I felt a little nervous about doing it, but I always wanted to provide myself with my perfect uncle and with fatherly figure because I don’t feel I had one,” says Sama, who may have been playing Esteban, but had once played the part of Carlos in real life. “I wanted to give that to me in the past through this crazy project that became therapy in a way.”

He’s given a gift to everyone else with “This is Not Berlin,” even when the underground art scene where Carlos ultimately finds a home in “This is Not Berlin” may feel wild to even those who were living alongside Sama in Mexico City. Vividly recreating a time and place in which loud, passionate voices became necessary to raise awareness about the spread of AIDS, Sama follows Carlos and his friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano), whose sister Rita (Ximena Romo) sneaks them into gay bars in the evenings after spending the day at their strait-laced school to listen to punk music and see rebellious performance art pieces that become a precursor to public protest. Carlos, ready to live independently as the product of a broken marriage, is quickly intoxicated by the night life, but uncertain whether he fits in, not really considering himself as a serious artist or knowing if he’s gay, and with few people in his life to guide him besides Uncle Esteban when he’s around — his mother (Marina De Tavira) remains hopelessly depressed after her husband left — he struggles with figuring out who he is, excited by all the possibilities he’s only learning of for the first time at the clubs under the wing of a photographer named Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro), but coming to find out he’d be doing himself a disservice by attempting to follow anyone else’s path.

The adrenaline that Carlos experiences on his road to self-discovery can be felt coursing directly into your own veins while watching “This is Not Berlin,” as Sama stages concert scenes in the club and protests out on the streets with electrifying energy, but that is hardly the only way in which Sama brings us closer to his main character, summoning the self-doubt and introspection with an attention to detail emotionally on par with the accuracy he sought in bringing the places of his youth back to life. With the film making its way around the world and into America following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the filmmaker spoke about this breakthrough film, acquainting a cast that was not yet born with the time in which it’s set, and empowering his actors to spread their wings as artists.

Why was this the right time to revisit your past in this way?

Actually, I have been thinking of doing a film like this for a long time, but for some reason I thought it wouldbe safer for me to do more of a collaborative writing experience with someone, so it took a while to find the right people to do it. But when I found my co-writers, [we] started working immediately, and there were a couple reasons why I wanted to revisit this time. First of all, our teenage years are probably the most important period of our lives in terms of forming an idea of who we want to become, so it’s a very dramatic time. That’s why I believe the coming-of-age genre is never going to stop because it’s such a powerful, extreme and interesting part of people’s lives, so I wanted to revisit my own. I also knew the ‘80s and my particular of way of living the ‘80s in Mexico City, with the influence of what was happening in New York City and Berlin and London and this very tiny underground piece of life, would be relevant to more people. It was particular enough and interesting enough to make an echo. I feel very fortunate that that so many people from anywhere in the world have come to me and said either “This is what I lived” or “I feel so closely to the character Serge, in terms of identity,” so I couldn’t be happier.

You’ve said reproducing memories you had proved to be a challenge. Were there any references you could fall back on?

Yeah, something that was very important to me was to have the audience go through what I went through when I arrived at this community and just started seeing all these performances and this new way of dressing — this universe in which dress code was almost a political issue, but it was still very aesthetic and mind-blowing, really. I wanted to translate that into images and if the audience is willing to open their hearts, it would almost feel a little bit of that mind-blowing and mesmerizing experience of seeing something completely new for the first time. For instance, that first performance those two [main] kids see when the group is destroying somebody’s car [in a piece of performance art], making music with motors and metallic noises and shouting at the same time, “You don’t need to repeat your family,” I just wanted to make that a very powerful scene in which we would all go like, “Whoa.” That is what happened to me, [and the scene] has a little bit to do with the first time in which a Catalonian group from Spain came to Mexico and showed one of the most powerful action pieces, and I can’t even describe it in words. So I took a little bit of that and just converted it and I know that these [performances] influenced a lot of artists in Mexico and it was very transforming for many people.

What sold you on Xabiani to play Carlos, a surrogate for yourself?

It was very hard to find Carlosand at some point, one of my producers recommended Xabiani. I knew he did a completely different type of thing, so I was not so interested, but he did such an incredible casting [audition], I saw the innocence and the malice at the same time. I saw him more natural than as an actor, this very natural vulnerability, so I decided to work with that in Xabiani, the human being, and we started finding a lot of relationships between Carlos’ background and Xabiani’s own background, so we started using that as the meat for our work in the process. It became just magic.

Was it interesting familiarizing a younger generation with this time?

Yeah, we did a lot of research together. I had many, many sessions with [the actors] and we began by talking about my life and how I saw things, but then I was very fortunate in finding a lot of artists and just people specializing in the time to talk to the actors about contemporary art in general, not specifically about the ‘80s. Why, for instance, would you expose yourself in a piece of art in which perhaps you’re hurt? Why be that vulnerable and expose yourself in that way? Why actions are art? So we started with a documentary about Chris Burden and talking about Joseph Beuys and most of my good friends just explained where did all of his craziness start. I have a friend that is passionate about her art and she still does public pieces like [you see in the film], and my whole idea was to get them to a point in which they themselves would become artists. I was just pressing them and pushing them in a way that would finally give them a voice, not as actors, but as artists. We did so much work together — we did improvs — and we got to that point.One of my favorite performances in the film was actually designed by me and Mauro [Sanchez Navarro], one of the actors who plays Nico. I said [to him], finally “Okay, after all this process, what do you want to do as an artist?” And he said, “Okay, I want to write the names I’ve been called as a gay male all my life and I want to write them down on people’s bodies and for them to be naked and I want to hit them publicly. And I think that’s an action that would make a lot of sense for my character.” And I loved it. I thought this is great. This is just so true.

You recreate these performances and the club scenes on a large scale. Was there a particularly wild day of filming?

Yeah. I was shooting very big scenes without having the budget to do that, so it was an incredible struggle. It was a very difficult film to make in that sense, trying to make the best out of what we had and I was risking everything – my memories, my money, my everything, so it was one of those projects in which you pretty much burn the farm. You just go for it. Perhaps the most difficult thing to be able to pull out without the money would be the final [performance] was very, very difficult to make, and we finally had to do some post-production work to get it right, but at the end, I’m super happy with the results. I wanted to make it physical but the physical element didn’t completely work, so I found a man in Argentina who redid it and he literally made me cry when he showed me [what] he made. I was completely blown away.

What’s it been like putting something this personal out into the world?

It’s really been a wonderful experience. It’s been the universe making a point to me or I received this message to just continue to be honest and you’re going to be fine. It’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to open up and because the film has done so well that I’ve been not only surprised, but grateful. I make films because this is the best way for me to share who I am and what I think and my fears and insecurities. As you can see in my film, I was not very comfortable amongst certain types of people when I was growing up [laughs]. But making films is very comfortable to me. It’s a very good way of me transcending that and communicating with other people, so the way people are receiving this very, very personal film is completing that whole scheme because it’s always both ways — I’m sharing something of myself and people are finding something of themselves in my films. I think that only happens through honesty.

“This is Not Berlin” opens on August 23rd in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater.

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