For his fourth feature, Mexican director Hari Sama has crafted an unusual coming of age story set within the punk underworld of the 80’s. On its own, this isn’t particularly unique – the power of rock music has helped many teenagers discover their own identities in the movies, and the conservative catholic backdrop of This is Not Berlin (Esto no es Berlín) doesn’t twist this formula in ways you wouldn’t expect. Instead, the film is unique in that Mexico’s overtly queer underground punk scene isn’t the backdrop for a coming out story, and that the people who inhabit this world don’t exist solely to act as character development for a character who doesn’t identify as gay.
Largely based on the formative teenage years of Sama, who identifies as queer (but not as gay), This is Not Berlin (Esto no es Berlín) manages to perfect the tricky balancing act of paying tribute to the arty scene where he came of age, yet from a decidedly de-romanticised middle age perspective. He doesn’t gloss over the many negatives of the period, from the reckless drug use to the artists’ preference to overlook the AIDS epidemic during the era when it was most widespread. But he also makes it clear why a misfit, who doesn’t fit in with his violent peers at school, would be drawn to such an unconventional music scene – even if it meant lying about his identity in order to be a part of it.
Xabiani Ponce de Leon plays Carlos, who is initially introduced in the middle of the schoolyard, disengaged from the violent carnage unfolding around him. His best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) unintentionally becomes his gateway out of this world, after Carlos fixes a keyboard belonging to the band that Gera’s sister Tina (Ximena Romo) is a vocalist for. As thanks, she invites the two 17 year olds to see them perform, sneaking them in to an underground club that is home to a wider avant garde artist network.
Carlos and Gera feel like they’ve found a new home – that is, until they’re grounded. But photographer Nico (Mauro Sánchez Navarro), who has a studio above the club, is clearly attracted to Carlos, and so he decides to keep his sexuality ambiguous in order to remain in this world. This decision drives a wedge between the two childhood friends, not least because Gera is closeted and shut out from a world he has more right to be a part of than his straight best friend, who is fully indulging in the hedonism of the movement, and standing alongside queer-identifying artists at protests.
Despite the self-destructive behaviour of many in this underground community, its appeal is a never a mystery. From performing obtuse post-punk at raucous metal concerts, to staging bizarre protests in front of the national media (complete with amateur gay porn) at a world cup match, the rebellious adolescent need to push boundaries is apparent in their every move. But Hari Sama looks back at this with more of a sense of self-criticism than romanticisation – at one point, an acquaintance of the group lashes out due to their preference for making provocative art instead of paying any attention to the most pressing issue facing the gay community at the time. It’s hard not to interpret this as an intervention from Sama’s middle aged self, looking back at a formative period of his life with a strange mix of longing and regret.
In an interview with Queerty, Sama explained that although he is not gay, his teenage need to belong in that community left him wishing he’d become gay – something that would cause a brief rift between him and the people he met in the Mexico City scene. This might seem like a moment where all self awareness has been thrown out the window, but the film is very critical of this way of thinking; the teenage naivety of Carlos is depicted as something that diminished his strongest friendship, and to a certain extent, robbed his own best friend of the coming of age experience he longed for. This screen friendship may not reflect his own teenage years, but it’s a good narrative device to explore the teenager’s eternal struggle of finding a community to call your own – and how this search can act to the detriment of pre-existent relationships.
This is Not Berlin (Esto no es Berlín) is an exciting coming of age story, that pays tribute to an LGBT subculture without fetishising it from a straight character’s perspective. Expect this one to provoke debate following its BFI London Film Festival screening.