SUNDANCE 2019: This Is Not Berlin
Politically fearless, individual, and deliciously subversive, Hari Sama’s fifth feature film This Is Not Berlin showcases a period of Mexico’s society, more specifically from its adolescent perspective, that’s in a state of wayward angst and yet finds the energy to make its case. It’s entirely a riveting, sensual darling of a film, pulling pansexuality and identity into a fold where the anger against the country’s hierarchy lies.
Sama’s film has a charismatic and magnetic cast of rising actors, making sense of each of their worlds and navigating it in full, screaming confidence. His direction is hungry, pointed, and truly the avant-garde portrait of youth finding their people. It’s a coming-of-age for the underrepresented, the “weird,” and the outliers. When we’re introduced to our main character, Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), he’s standing aimlessly amid a horde of classmates clashing and brawling with rival school boys in the dusty air as they intend to prove some sort of machismo upper hand. It’s 1986, the World Cup tournament is here and for Carlos this marks the time in which the world will suddenly shake to evolve him. He enjoys simmering in boredom with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano), gawking at his friend’s older, much cooler, sister Rita (Ximena Romo). His mother (Oscar-nominee Marina de Tevira) medicates herself daily and is more of a background role, although commanding every scene she’s in. When Carlos uses his homegrown engineering abilities to fix a synthesizer for Rita’s punk band, the two friends are suddenly granted passage into the underground venue Azteca, a smoky, gender-liberated joint where drugs, sex, and alcohol are alive and well. Soon Carlos and Gera are tantalized by the underbelly culture scene that will define who they are.
From the striking performance art sequences, to the electrifying, energetic music, the film comments on forms of repression, that of the weak, the forgotten, and the tired. That coupled with the sexual awakenings of Carlos and Gera becomes a beast of a social stance. With this new social scene, Gera and Carlos are left on opposite sides of the orbit as one struggles with his identity while the other may just be looking to fit in, but isn’t everyone? As Rita recites the poetry of Patti Smith in class, there’s a demonstration forming in the narrative that’s radical. She calls her own shots, her own battles, and her own devilishly cool lyrical outcries as a form of protest against the status quo. They’re “the pretty ones,” as a grungy local of a neighboring hood calls them. Fueled by eyeliner, alcohol, and music the likes of Joy Division, they’re the pioneers of their own liberties in a time that so scornfully rejects them.
As Carlos continues to bear his body and mind to the open arms of the performance arts, stripping naked on the streets covered in red paint that reads “Gay!,” it liberates him in ways that only this closely knit group of friends would understand, which in turn causes tension with Gera, who’s equally longing to belong. For Carlos, it was his uncle (played by Hari Sama) who entertained his creativity while his dad wasn’t around. He’s a motorcyclist, probably a hippie in his heyday, and advises Carlos as a role model to live freely, with no regrets or contempt. What Carlos does with this urgency of identity is up to him but it comes with its own consequences. Hari Sama’s autobiographical film is told through lush moments of self reflecting overdose, fearless demonstrations, and electrifying music. The film is sexually promiscuous and over-the-top in its dissents, inviting only its true colors and queer identities to guide it. With an ensemble as beautiful as they are talented, This Is Not Berlin cements itself as a striking, colorful film competing in the Sundance World Cinema Narrative competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Sama is no stranger to the land of performance art and New Wave sound, reeling in the intricacies of his musical background (His band Eurídice has strong Post Punk Revival influences.) and introducing euphoric cinematography to create a truly effervescent film that wants to you to enrage with it. Sama relishes in the creativity of his actors and what they bring to the film, exploring the crevices of personal angst and the confidence of sexual prowess. This Is Not Berlin may be slightly unnerving to some, but if you’re here for the arsty, sexual deliverance in revolt, it’s a wild take on the coming-of-age tale that demands your attention.
Directed by: Hari Sama
Starring: Xabiani Ponce de León, José Antonio Toledano, Ximena Romo, Mauro Sánchez Navarro, Klaudia García, Marina de Tavira