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Hari Sama’s ‘This Is Not Berlin’: But It is Now Latin America

1986-Set ‘This Is Not Berlin’ Captures
Catatonia

Hari Sama’s “This Is Not Berlin,” a buzzed-up contender in next week’s Copia Final, charts a teen’s rebellion at the social stupor of Mexico in 1986, sunk in repressive conservatism, World Cup herd fervor, and the frat-boy sexism of his classmates.

Carted off to a night-club as payback for mending a synthesizer, he discovers a dazzling anti-system nightlife of death post-punk, drugs, avant-garde art and, for Mexico of that time, avant-garde sex, single sex or hetero, but with the women making the moves.

Sama’s heartfelt retro but vital and very autobiographical tribute to the 1980s, “This Is Not Berlin,” portrays a Mexico where outrage at Mexico’s ruling elite was a badge-of-honor of the outrageous minority.

30 years later that sentiment has gone mainstream. The victory of AMLO in Mexico was a vote for radical change in a country beset by corruption and narco civil war. Few films are so tenderly or studiously retro, down to the dogshit-on-a-sunny day-brown of the decor, but feel so contemporary. It is no coincidence that “This Is Not Berlin” is produced by Catatonia, the same company behind Alfonso Ruizpalacios’ debut “Guëros,” which ends, in an echo of Luis Buñuel’s “Diary of a Chambermaid,” with the disenfranchised masses, here students, taking to the streets in swelling discontent at the status quo.

Variety talked to Sama at Impulso Morelia – before “This Is Not Berlin,” won the Cinépolis Distribución Award and a mention from the jury in the work in progress competition – about a film whose sense of rebelliousness runs through a swathe of new Ventana Sur movies, in Copia Final or pix-in-post strand Primer Corte. It is a mark not only of Latin America but its films.

Music is a real driving force behind this film. Can you talk about putting the soundtrack together, and where the original music came from?

Nearly all the music was curated by me. The soundtrack is the music that I grew up with in my teenage years. When I couldn’t get the rights to some music I made my own that had the energy I needed. For the band in the film I picked people with a strong understanding of the genres of the countercultural ‘80s, and we have a soundtrack that makes me extremely proud.

The film is full of art from other mediums as well, where did that come from?

Much of the research I did alone at first, then with Diana Quiroz, the art director, and finally with the actors themselves. First we collected things that interest me in art. Then we did a series of workshops and courses with very important people from the Mexican art world that did us the favor of sharing their vision of the ‘80s. And we saw a lot of documentaries. It was important that each character in the art circle had a voice. For example, Nico’s pictorial work is from my friend, Javier Areán, a great artist whose work I admire a lot.

Why the decision to set the film in the ‘80s?

There was no decision. The film was set in the ‘80s because it’s my life. It is absolutely autobiographical. It’s about a boy who grows in Lomas Verdes. I grew up in Echegaray, a few blocks away. And it is properly my life, my arrival with these artists, my arrival after growing desperate in this suburb where there was no art, there was nothing. I also felt that it is a historic moment in Mexico that deserved more attention.

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Catatonia

What was the process like with your co-writers?

It was very organic work. First we did ambience work, where I showed them a lot of things that interested me and that had to do with my way of growing up and seeing the ‘80s. We did an outline together and then each of us did a treatment independently. Rodrigo did the first, I did the second, Max the third, then I did two more and finally we came together on the last. There is something of each of us in there.

The films at this year’s Impulso have been praised for their honest and critical look at some of the problems facing Mexico today and throughout history. Can you comment on that?

‘86 is a little-known historic moment. I feel that in the ‘80s we brought a bit of attention to the very intense management of oppression. However, it was the moment when young people went out to try to recover the public spaces that had been stolen by the dictatorship. In this sense the artists of my film have a political position very much in accordance with the opposition of art that there was in the ‘80s. It was a very postmodern atmosphere and there was a reflection on what art is, what politics is, where we are standing and where we are going as a society. On the other hand, it is also the moment where very important plastic artists like Gabriel Orozco, Francis Alÿs or Damián Ortega started, and it’s not well-known that the seedbed was these dark clandestine places, because at this time in Mexico there was nothing. It was all shadowed in absolute secrecy and born from there were very important musical and artistic projects and a new totally political language.