This Is Not Berlin | Hari Sama

by Larry Armstrong-Kizzee

In a 1980’s Mexico City, a group of teenagers develop their identities amongst the grit and gruel of the arts scene that raged just below the city’s surface. The film marks both a coming of age for the characters as well as the film’s director, Hari Sama, who channeled his personal experiences to paint the vivid and transformative movements that shaped Mexico’s arts culture. With the films release today, August 9, 2019, we got to speak with the director to discuss the making of the film, as well as the experience of putting such intimate experiences on display for global view.

First things first, I want to congratulate you on the film; it was very beautifully done!

Oh, thank you so much!

Of Course, I was curious to hear about your take on the title and its relationship to the film as a whole; it seemed to occur several times throughout the film in dialogue between characters as well as in some of the artwork.

The thing about the title has to do with that how we were regarding New York City and Berlin and places like that as the artistic and cultural higher ups, and we thought that we were just living in this crazy shit hole that was Mexico City. We felt like there was no way to express ourselves, we didn't feel like we had a lot of possibilities creatively, socially, and culturally; so we always regarded the outside as better. The fact that we were not living in Berlin inspired that in us to create what you see now in Mexico city where we’re more similar to places like Berlin. I think it had to do with the fact that we needed to look inside to see who we really were in Mexico city and in Mexico in general. But especially for the film it has to do with all of that at the same time, we were looking outside in such a romantic way but at the same time we were living our own version of that era, which was a very specific version. 

And so given what you've told me you'd agree that the film is largely autobiographical, representing your experience of the time?

Oh Yeah, Totally!

Playing characters like Uncle Esteban..

Yeah I made my perfect Uncle for myself [laughs] I mean I had an uncle but he wasn't the father figure that you'd trust or were really interested in. I was envious of that and I didn't have it so I made the most perfect uncle possible and went back in time to play him myself

You played his character in the film but I was wondering if you identified more or less closely with any other characters in the film?

Oh yeah, well, Carlos is pretty much me when I was young. He plays who I felt I was at the time. I grew up in the outskirts of Mexico City which was very suburban and then I got to the incredible crowds of the city and it completely changed my life forever. So Carlos is pretty much who I was at the time. And of course I am making a love letter to that crowd I met in the 80’s who were incredible, they changed my way of looking at art and life in such meaningful ways; they changed me forever

I cant help but imagine a similar feeling of actors getting so into the character that their portraying that they have issue coming out of them, would you say you experience something similar with recalling such vivid memories and times?

Yeah it was completely overwhelming I mean I was not expecting that at all. You know these are things that I've talked about in therapy and so I thought I was cool with it and resilient and all of that. Once it started becoming three dimensional where you're directing your symbolic mother and you're telling her “no you have to be more depressed” and things like that. At some points it was very moving and at other points it became very uncomfortable, I would feel super vulnerable. Yeah, it was weird. At times I’d think to myself, you know,  “why are we shooting this, this is crazy. Who are all this people in my space.”

Its interesting that you mentioned your mothers character because I noticed her depressive behavior as well as other things like the aids epidemic and the placement of Carlos’ father all didn't receive much context. Would you say that was intentional? 

That is completely intentional. I thought it was important that Carlos and his little brother had to be abandoned in a way, and it was the mother that was having issues coping with reality. I think we were a generation that was trained to play a certain role and when we couldn't play that role we were displaced from everything, we didn't know how to cope. We had pills and psychiatrists who thought it was better to sleep it off, but then, you see, you end up not having a mother. That wasn't exactly my case, but I was inspired by my mom having a really hard time with that reality. I tried to take it to the extreme so that Carlos could really become the male figure, an adult without having the capacity to be one. So I really wanted that to be there but I didn't want to over explain it or saturate the film with that. It was important for Carlos’ character to experience that abandonment. 

I was also really struck by the amount of artwork shown in the film, was it all created specifically for the film or were you pulling them from an archive of sorts?

Theres a lot of everything. Some of it is reenactments of performances that I saw in the 80’s both in Mexico and some other places. There were two major groups that were doing works with blood and crazy stuff, like organs they found. So I kinda mixed the two of them for the artist in the film. For the scene where they were performing in the garden, I was inspired by the Spanish Catalonian group that was popular when they visited us in Mexico in the 80’s. They did what was called a Panic Theatre where they would try to create panic in the audience.I did a lot of research and came to the film with it, and it came together pretty well. So the answer is, theres a lot of everything. A lot of the actual physical work that you see in that garden exhibit, all of that is real. Its either we made it again when we could find the actual piece, or it is real.

Were Rita’s band and the music for the film all created in the same way, a little bit of improv and research?
We did have a very long list of music that we got for the film of foreign artists who I really love. Its basically my life playlist from Joy Division and Rock playlists and all of that. And then what I did was, Rita has some musician experience and the drummer is apart of one of my bands in Mexico, and so we made most of the music with them. They were all rehearsing and coming up with ideas, and so that was my way of having them really work with the music so they really became a band. 

Would you say there are any comparisons to the art scene in Mexico or anywhere today?

I think a lot has changed, I think opportunities have changed completely with things like social media. I mean Mexico city is a completely different city, theres so much going on right now. I would say one of the main differences is that Mexico City in the 80’s had the flavor of the crazy dictatorship and the young people didn't have the place to exhibit their work and there weren't really galleries, and so it became really underground. And this generation really fought to make sure that there is public space for young people, theres a lot of everything. The truth is Mexico City has changed from the 80’s. Many of those artists that exhibited in the garden scene are now some of the most important artists maybe in the world like Gabriel Orozco and Daniel Ortega, and a lot of those guys. The fight is the same though, the fight for the right of identity, those issues are still there shamefully enough and theres still a lot to be done.