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Yony Leyser’s desires

INTERVIEW. Leyser's queer Berlin underground snapshot "Desire Will Set You Free" has been making the rounds in film circles this early summer and everyone's got something to say – including him. It screens in cinemas across Berlin.

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Photo by Alexa Vachon

American director Yony Leyser’s Desire Will Set You Free is the queer scene film that’s got Berliners talking. When it came out in early May, critics applauded its unblinking look into the city’s LGBTQ underground, while others were left scratching their heads (ahem). Either way, everyone’s got something to say about it.

Rooted in Leyser’s actual experiences, the story of American writer Ezra and Russian escort Sasha is above all a document of a time and place in Berlin, complete with cameos from some of the city’s most colourful characters (yup, that’s Nina Hagen at About Blank). 

Desire Will Set You Free is still running in cinemas across the city and you can catch a special screening June 8 at Moviemento, followed by a Q&A with Leyser.

The film has a pretty unconventional structure. Was that your intention?

As you learn in film school, there are only supposed to be certain kinds of stories you can tell: A couple meets, then slowly find themselves and settle down into a more comfortable surrounding. Or the opposite – kind of tragedy happens and they fall apart. I was sick of the same narratives being told over and over again, and I wanted to completely destroy that.

People have called your film a “time capsule” of Berlin’s queer experience from an expat’s perspective. What’s your take? 

Our film is about 80 percent improvised, and all of the people are playing themselves. The circumstances are real, and all of the dialogue that was written was from real people. I was trying to mix documentary and fiction, and destroy the format of dramaturgy and how to tell a story in a movie. And I would never call myself an expat – I’m a queer, foreign minority person living in the city as an artist. I don’t understand the separation between expat and immigrant; it gets elitist and strange. 

So where did the story come from?

The story came about in 2012. I was talking with a guy who lives in Russia, and I was telling him about life in Berlin. I was saying, “The end of the world is coming December 21, 2012.” And he said, “Before the end of the world, I’m going to visit.” He came here, and after about a week and a half, he came out as a woman. She said her experience here was so overwhelming, she could only draw it – she couldn’t really talk about it and she wished she could write a book about it.

I wanted to tell her story, but over a longer period of time. The rest of the film came from documenting my friends and the certain time period I lived in Berlin. Especially in the last 15 years, it’s almost been like a new Weimar period: the centre of the queer world, the centre of the art world… I think a lot of straight people don’t realise that.

What made you jump from documentary to feature?

I had already done that. I think it’s important for filmmakers to experiment. It’s sad because people want an artist to do the same thing over and over and over again, and that’s commercialising the artist or their idea. It’s the role of the artist to always challenge things, push boundaries and try something new.

There are obviously some notable Berliners in this film. How did you bring everyone together – like Nina Hagen, for example?

It wasn’t so hard because I’ve been on the scene in Berlin for some years. All of them are friends or acquaintances, but I think they thought the film was important. I reached out through email or phone calls. I didn’t know [Nina] so well, but she had seen my last film and she liked it. The actors are all instigators in deconstructing how things are supposed to be done: Nina Hagen masturbated onstage, mixed genres between folk, punk and opera, and rebelled to destroy a certain structure. When I proposed the idea, everyone was very interested. They don’t want to do another cameo for dish detergent, they’d much rather fuck around with people in a park for a movie.

Since the script was heavily improvised, what was the process of directing the actors and getting everyone comfortable?

We all hung out for about a month and did a lot of hippy exercises with each other. We did a lot of different acting techniques, like the Meisner technique, and went to the forest together and did a bunch of bonding – hypnosis and vigils and meditation. For people doing cameos, I didn’t tell them anything about the characters. I introduced our actors as the characters and explained what has happened to them as if they were real people. Then we turned on the camera and started rolling.

What did you personally take away from the film?

I learned a lot in terms of breaking the rules and also… People didn’t know how to take it, which is great. With most of my big idols, their early films were either really well received or really torn apart, just like this film. Exberliner gave it one star, and Tip and Zitty gave it five stars. I’m happy I experimented. If you have a bunch of freaks going crazy on screen, some people are not going to like that. But that’s okay, and I think it’s an important thing to document our history and challenge power systems and introduce something people don’t normally see on the screen.

What about lessons from the criticism?

If there’s a unanimous “Oh, that was fine,” across the board, if the masses like it, or a certain critic who sees the same kind of movie thinks it fit into their schism…. I don’t know, I was talking about this with John Waters, who’s one of my mentors, and he said, “It’s a compliment. My first movie, everyone hated it – I had to screen it in church basements.”

So what will happen with this film? What will it mean to you when you look back at it in, say, five years?

Personally, I’ve moved on in my life. I do different things; I have different interests. In a way, making the film killed a certain part of me – they say a photograph kills the soul. In the same sense, that whole part of me, all of my friends, everything that was documented… I don’t live like that anymore. And if the film hadn’t been made, these amazing people wouldn’t have been documented.

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