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Looking through the lens at Berlin’s underground queer scene

This film is about the Berlin of today – its queer scene, how partying can be political, and the city’s close links to Istanbul

When director Yony Leyser decided to make a “time capsule” of what his Berlin is like now, he made sure to get it right. He got his friends together in the queer scene and went for near-full improvisation, shooting in real bars on the fly, and for the few moments where dialogue is scripted, using dialogue that had actually been heard in real life.

Well-versed in documentary-making (his feature debut was William S Burroughs: A Man Within on Burroughs the counterculture hero, and his next is a history of gay punk due out in autumn), the director achieves a raw vitality with fiction-doc hybrid Desire Will Set You Free – a film as political in its concern for visibility as it is cheeky and honest in its will to show everything. It premiered in Turkey last week at the !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival, with an after-party DJed by one of its many stars, Aérea Negrot of Hercules & Love Affair. We spent time with Leyser there to talk about the Berlin of today, the links of its queer scene with Istanbul, and finding the political side of hedonism.

The story of a Russian trans woman is central to Desire Will Set You Free. Is it based on someone you know?

Yony Leyser: The impetus for the film came from a Russian living in Latvia I met on a dating website. We were joking about the 2012 ‘end of the world’ prophecy. He said he thought he’d like to come to Berlin and asked if I’d show him round. He was really shy at first. He saw my world, met some of my trans and queer friends and came to some concerts, and came out as a woman. She changed her name and started wearing my roommate Lucy’s clothes when she went out. She said she wished she could turn this world into a book and never did, so I made the film through her eyes and dedicated it to her.

She discovered Instagram while in Berlin and was fascinated seeing these pictures of these really weird people and queer people. I tried to incorporate that kind of edit into the film, a swiping aesthetic rather than a typical arc. I didn’t incorporate all the sad realities of her life because I didn’t want to make it a depressing story about a trans woman whose life goes to shit, but not with everyone I know. The truth is that she went back and came out to her mother who sent her to a mental hospital and she got electric shock therapy. I tried to bring her back to Berlin, but it didn’t work out.

Has she seen the film?

Yony Leyser: I sent her a link and she said it was the biggest honour that she’s ever had.

Where did the name Desire Will Set You Free come from?

Yony Leyser: The name’s supposed to be ironic, I don’t think desire really sets anyone free. It came from quite a dark place. I was given a flyer for a party that had the gates of Auschwitz on it and instead of “Arbeit Macht Frei” it said “Lust Macht Frei” with people in concentration camp clothes dancing. I thought it was so disgusting, so crazy, that this party scene would forget history just to have a good time and take it in their hands to be so crass, dismissive and hedonistic. I told a mentor of mine, Rosa von Praunheim, who’s a 72-year-old gay director in Germany and is very political. He couldn’t believe it, and said ‘well you’re making a film about the current generation, this flyer symbolises so much, you have to use that title’. So I did.

I come from a lineage of genocide and refugees. I got a German passport because my grandparents were German Jews from Berlin. My dad’s family was all exterminated except them and they moved to Israel where they met my mother, who was born in Palestine. It was actually when my friend came from Latvia and saw my life in Berlin that I was really slapped in the face with how privileged I am, because here’s someone who would like to be an immigrant to this country but wasn’t able to. I had always seen myself as a political person, and artist, but somehow after being in Berlin I’d turned into this hedonistic party glutton I’d never really been before, and I saw it through her eyes.

There’s a Turkish actor in it. Can you tell me more about the role of Turkish people in Berlin’s queer scene?

Yony Leyser: It’s dangerous to be queer in Turkey, and a lot of trans women are killed all the time. There was violence aimed at the LGBT Pride parade a few years ago. The police defended the aggressors, it was cancelled and now it’s illegal. There was a big parade in Berlin through the city that ended at the Turkish consulate. What happens in Istanbul and Berlin are very connected, a lot of the people who are movers in the queer scene are from Istanbul or second-generation Turkish-German. To cast the role I pulled someone out of a gay Turkish party.

People are always talking about Berlin being gentrified beyond recognition, but your film shows an underground still very much alive...

Yony Leyser: They’re probably right, it was probably bigger and crazier and easier to be a part of before, but somehow the queer community keeps the underground alive. Berlin is the centre of the queer world right now, even queer performance people I knew from New York and Chicago are all living there. I heard that in the 90s the scene was very German and kind of punk and political, and now it’s more international and performance-based.

Music is a huge part of the film...

Yony Leyser: Music is the lifeblood of underground subculture and it came about pretty organically. I really like going with the flow and being spontaneou. The big body-builders, Rummelsnuff, that are in it I saw performing at a night called Gegin at Kit Kat Club and was like, ‘Who the heck are they?’ and got them involved. Peaches is around in the scene in Berlin all the time. She covered a song by Claire Waldoff, a lesbian cabaret singer also covered by Marlene Dietrich. Blood Orange are friends of mine, Samantha moved to Berlin with me before she was in the band in 2010. They cover a song by Malaria!, a girl punk band from the 80s and 90s. Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten has a small cameo, as well as Wolfgang Müller from obscure art band Die Tödliche Doris and Nina Hagen, so I kind of had these different counterculture figures making small references to a queer reality since the 70s. A lot of the rest of the songs were written for the film or from Berlin underground artists, so we’re going to have a soundtrack out in July.