This Is Not Berlin is a stylish and exciting picture set in Mexico City around the time of the 1986 World Cup and shot in ‘Scope with a strong music soundtrack. It focuses primarily on two families with 17 year-old sons at a local high school. At first I thought it might be a conventional youth picture/teen movie. As the narrative begins Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) appears to be in a dazed state in the midst of a pitched battle between two local high schools. In the next few scenes his taste in music is mocked by his mates. He is with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) when they come across Gera’s 18 year-old sister Rita (Ximena Romo) and her boyfriend kissing passionately. Next morning Gera is renting out his father’s girlie magazines to his classmates. It’s not long, however, before the narrative develops a rather different feel. Carlos clearly has his eye on Rita but she ignores him until she discovers his electronics skills. When he is able to fix the electronic keyboard used by the band in which Rita is the singer, he and Gera are invited to a performance at Azteca, a new underground club. This proves to be a real eye-opener for Carlos. He is introduced to new music, performance art, new drugs and a developing LGBTQ scene.
This is the fourth feature by director Hari Sama. His career has involved an equal interest in film and music and many of his projects seem to have been autobiographical in some way. He was born in 1967 so This Is Not Berlin has been taken as drawing on his experiences in the mid-1980s. As several reviewers have noted, what he offers is a fairly objective view of young people searching for an identity at a specific time in Mexico. According to this interesting review by Alistair Ryder for ‘Gay Essential website, Sama identifies as ‘queer (but not as gay’). What Sama can clearly represent is a mixture of 80s music and performance art that even someone like me, with not much interest in either, can find engaging and exciting. Carlos is attracted in particular to the art created by photographer Nico, but is he ready for Nico’s sexual advances? Carlos is a very attractive young man and also very creative. It’s not long before he is accepted by Nico’s group and becomes part of the stunts they organise – including a performance piece opposing the homophobia of football – in the midst of the World Cup. But the more Carlos (or ‘Charly’ as Nico calls him) becomes involved, the more he moves away from Gera and his schoolfriends – and his family.
The film is also a family melodrama. In fact it is a genuine hybrid, mixing several repertoires. I’ve read various reviews, mostly from the Sundance screenings of the film early in 2019 (it was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and released in the US in August 2019). Many discuss the music, the queer discourse and the ‘coming of age’ narrative, but few mention the family, especially in relation to social class. The two families seem to me to belong to a ‘European’ middle class living in the outer commuter belt of Mexico City. Sama in the Press Notes tells us this is meant to be Lomas Verdes (‘Green Hills’). Wikipedia tells me this is 7 miles from the centre and describes it as ‘upper middle class’. But this puzzles me. Two well-known films that have something in common with This Is Not Berlin are Roma (2018) and Y tu mamá también (2001), but in both these cases the families have live-in servants, usually mestizos or indigenous people. Sama’s two families don’t have servants as far as I can remember. He describes them in the notes as “broken families, conservative and dysfunctional”. Carlos lives in what seems a relatively small house with his mother Carolina (played by a criminally under-used Marina de Tavira, the mother in Roma) and his much younger brother. Carolina seems severely depressed and possibly dependent on prescription drugs. We don’t learn much about Gera’s parents until the final scenes. Sama argues that the youth of these families in effect found a family ‘on the streets’ and eventually in the ‘post-punk’ underground. They were the children of parents who had experienced the political upheavals of 1968 and the early 1970s (the focus in Roma).
The focus on music in This Is Not Berlin links it to Y tu mamá también, but that is a film that looks outward from Mexico City to explore a ‘national metaphor’ and to encounter the mestizo and indigenous peoples of the South West. The only direct contact, as I remember in This Is Not Berlin, between the middle class European youth and the ‘other’ Mexicans, is at an outdoor concert (much like the entertainments in Roma) on waste ground where Rita’s band plays and the hostile crowd are not interested in the ‘post-punk’ synth-based music. The local band (of mestizos?) sport mohicans and play music more recognisably ‘punk’ in the UK sense. I should also point out that the film opens with a quote from Proust and the film’s title comes from a comment, a put-down of Nico, in a brief but telling political argument in which Nico is accused of just imitating European art movements. You are not a true artist he is told. The politics go further, Nico’s friends are accused of “just partying” all the time with AIDS spreading while they take no notice.
The music genre question also permeates the family melodrama. Hari Sama has a small role himself as Carlos’ uncle, his mother’s brother. He wears leathers and rides a motor-bike and his musical taste appears to have developed through listening to old blues guys like Lightning Hopkins, whose more melodic guitar playing seems to have influenced Carlos in turn. The uncle also turns out to be the engineer who encourages Carlos to develop his talents and think of electronics engineering as something to pursue. Early on in the film Gera scoffs at Carlos for playing a track and praising the guitarwork which Gera dismisses as ‘country’. Meanwhile Rita identifies herself with Patti Smith’s poetry in a school literature class. There have been criticisms of This Is Not Berlin because it doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. This is odd, since at one point I thought the structure was becoming too conventional and I was concerned about how the eventual ‘high life’ that Carlos was pursuing would eventually come crashing down. I won’t spoil the narrative resolution and I did eventually come to appreciate the mix of cultural and political issues in the film. Having said that, I think it is the case that the film raises too many narrative possibilities that can’t all be pursued. But better too many than missing some out altogether?
Much of the impact of the film depends on the cinematography by Alfredo Altamirano which manages to create a variety of moods through fluid movement as well as close-up work and the use of various devices to create textures. Altamarino does not appear to have a long list of feature credits but he is very experienced in shorts and commercials and his work has been featured at many festivals. He has some interesting promo reels on his website here. Overall it is the combination of music, camerawork and art direction – all the creative units – as well as the performances that present this evocation of a period.
This film seems to be destined primarily for streaming, which is a shame as it would be a wow on a big screen. I note that IMDb records a US rating of TV-MA which I understand is a rating for cable TV and streaming? There is a significant amount of nudity (much of it male nudity ) in the film and it’s interesting that this hasn’t stopped the film’s US release. It was due to feature in the BFI’s Flare LGBTQ festival which has had to be postponed. I hope that it will get a UK release of some kind. There are already three other Mexican films available with links that might encourage analysis and further study. As well as the two mentioned above, I would add Güeros (2014) as another film about youth, music and ‘protest’ set in 1999, but harking back to New Wave styles.
If I had such a list I could now tick off Kyrgyzstan as another country from which I’ve seen a film. It’s an affecting coming-of-age drama where Jekshen (Temirlan Asankadyrov) has to deal with an alcoholic dad and a mum who’s found love elsewhere. Co-writer (with Ernest Abdyjaparov) and director Mirlan Abdykalykov marshals his cast of non professionals well though most of the interest derives from the novelty of seeing a place hitherto outside my knowledge.
The most striking aspect is the way children are bullied, by teachers, into bringing money to pay for such things as the school roof. I’m not judging as no doubt the economics of the country necessitate parental contribution; though I suspect, as in most places, there are ‘rich bastards’ who look after themselves. The film, however, doesn’t articulate the inequalities but focuses on Jekshen who, fortunately, is a good runner and a local tradition of combining a naming ceremony for a baby with a race, for which there is a prize, means he has the opportunity to get some cash independently of his pathetic dad.
The finale, inevitably, is a race for a big prize and the ending is nicely ambiguous.
I also saw two films in the ‘Are We There Yet?’ free screenings of dystopian films, Children of Men and District 9. Unfortunately the current crisis caused by the Coronavirus suggests we are there, though the understandable (in most countries except the UK and US) reaction to this does raise the question why governments aren’t treating the climate catastrophe as an emergency as well. Hopefully we won’t end up in a dystopia as portrayed by zombie movies though the supermarket shelves empty (in the UK) of bog rolls and much else does suggest some degree of irrationality amongst the panic buyers. Indeed I heard one woman exclaim, “I’m buying things I don’t need!”
Children of Men remains a great film; the dystopian focus is mainly on the treatment of migrants so its message is even more potent 14 years on. District 9, however, remains a disappointment. The set-up, degenerate aliens marooned in South Africa, is quite brilliant but the articulation of the narrative, with cliche-driven action, still fails to engage me, although the film was a worldwide hit.
My first visit to the Glasgow festival was a hit too. The brief intro given to most films was welcome and the closeness of the venues meant it was easy to get to the screenings on time even if the Cineworld cinema used was the top floor of a skyscraper.
Meteorites was my fourth title in My French Film Festival and it follows the first three screenings in featuring another beautiful French landscape, this time in the département of Hérault in the South of France with both the coast and the mountains inland. It also has links to my first screening, Savage, in its focus on a young woman and the broad category of ‘coming of age’. It echoes that film with a discourse about the natural world, but in most other aspects it is very different and, to my mind, more successful.
Writer-director Romain Laguna graduated from the prestigious La fémis film school in Paris in 2013 and since then he has made short films before taking Meteorites as his first feature to the San Sebastian Film Festival in 2018. The film was released in France in May 2019. In the same year a compendium film featuring his contribution was also released. Meteorites is very much a low-budget début film from a talented filmmaker seemingly designed to please festival juries. That’s no bad thing in itself and given Laguna’s background (he comes from Béziers in Hérault) I did wonder if he was conscious of following Agnès Varda, who made her first feature, La pointe courte (1954) in Sète. Laguna’s casting agent found Zéa Duprez in Sète and Meteorites is built entirely around Duprez’s character Nina. It’s also the case that Meteorites, although ostensibly a fiction, often feels like a documentary – much like the Varda film.
Laguna had very little money to make his film, so working from home with family and friends he spent 10 months assembling a cast of non-professionals and then devised strategies to allow them to perform ‘naturally’ – hence the documentary feel. There were several collaborators on the script. Nina has decided to leave school at 16 and for the summer has got a job in a theme park featuring the story of dinosaurs and their extinction. Unfortunately this means an early start and a bus from her village. At the theme park she meets co-worker Djamila from an Algerian family and then Djamila’s brother, Morad, a 19 year-old ‘lad’ on a motor-bike. Nina already has a friend, Alex, whose father owns a small vineyard. Before she meets Morad she has been hanging out with Alex when she sees a meteorite crash into the hills. Later she watches a film at the theme park about the possible cause of the sudden decline of the dinosaurs – a massive meteorite shower hitting the Earth. The suggestion is that Nina changes and becomes more adventurous and perhaps more reckless after she sees the meteorite. Certainly she decides to go with Morad and ignore Djamila’s warnings that Morad will dump her.
That’s more or less the narrative except for the ending which I won’t spoil. This 85 minute film depends on some terrific camerawork by Aurélien Marra (the same 2013 class from La fémis?) of both people and places and in particular on the performance of Zéa Duprez. Director and cinematographer decided to use the Academy frame (1.37:1). I can’t find out why this was chosen, but it works very well. Perhaps it is intended to suggest that Nina has a limited perspective on the world and is tightly focused on what she sees around her? If that was the case though, it would be logical to switch to widescreen after the meteorite sighting – but the frame stays as Academy. I’m a fan of CinemaScope and most French cinéastes tend to use ‘Scope (2.35:1) but in this case, I think the scenes are framed beautifully.
Zéa Duprez is a beautiful young woman with a facial birth mark. Her performance is indeed ‘natural’ – she isn’t a starlet but a young woman who could be 16 or 25 at different moments. It did occur to me that Romain Laguna has her photographed in a number of intimate scenes. The brief scenes of nudity didn’t seem to me to be gratuitous. Some of the shots emphasise her shapely figure but then it is difficult to shoot a young woman in the summer heat of Southern France wearing minimal clothing without being accused of offering a ‘male gaze’. There is also more of a tradition of this kind of representation in French cinema than in American cinema, for instance. I’m interested in what other viewrs made of this in the current climate of #MeToo.
I was conscious of other films while watching Meteorites. Suzanne (2013) by Katell Quillévéré with Sara Forestier was one possibility with a direct reference to a young woman growing up without much parental control. If I understood the relationship correctly, Nina’s mother is a single parent working on a smallholding and selling produce at a city market, meaning she’s not around most of the time. She is also perhaps an ex-hippy. The local community includes both Algerians and Gitans (i.e. Romani in the UK). The other sociological point I took from the film is that Nina’s friend Alex decides to join the French military. I’ve noticed in other recent French films how this is a ‘positive’ decision to escape a sense of ennui in a rural community (see, for instance, Les combattants, 2014). I would tend to agree with Nina that being bored looking after vines is preferable to being killed in a pointless war. The decision to join the military, especially the army, is often seen in British films to be a more desperate move borne out of lack of employment opportunities.
I doubt that Meteorites will get a UK release, but I thought it was worth the 85 minutes of my time and I’ll look out for future films by Romain Laguna. Here’s the French trailer – no English subs but a good introduction to the visual style and Zéa Duprez’s performance:
This is an effective ‘coming of age’ film from an unlikely source: Kenya. Co-written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu the film was banned in its native country because it ‘promoted lesbianism’. If anything, the film shows how difficult gay love is in a homophobic society so ‘promotion’ doesn’t exactly cover it. The discriminatory formulation harks back to Thatcher’s disgusting ‘section 28’ that, in 1988, was designed to prevent local authorities in Britain from ‘promoting homosexuality’. So disgust with Kenya for banning such a tender, and not explicit, film must be tempered, in the UK, by the acknowledgement that 30 years ago our government was promoting similarly homophobic messages. No doubt our colonial laws, homosexuality was only ‘made legal’ in 1967 in the UK, contributed to the difficulties Kenya has in acknowledging different sexualities.
Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva are superb as the unlikely couple: Kena quiet and withdrawn; Ziki loud and flamboyant. They are daughters of local electioneering politicians which adds a social dimension to the film’s melodrama. The importance of the Christian church in Kenyan society is acknowledged and so is its homophobia. The pastor’s sermon against difference is shown to encourage the attacks Kena and Ziki suffer; Kahiu shoots a mob scene in a genuinely scary manner. The film itself is as brave as its characters.
The film also portrays patriarchal society, particularly through Kena’s dad, as problematic. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy, he owns a shop and happily gives credit to shoppers that seems to be more than part of his campaign for reelection (presumably as a local councillor). However that hasn’t stopped him abandoning his wife for a ‘younger model’.
Ziki allows Kena to fulfil her potential by giving her confidence; initially her ambition was to be a nurse. However, she is obviously bright enough for even more challenging roles in health care. The ending of the film is nicely ambivalent for no matter how much the audience (I doubt homophobes will be still watching at this point) want the couple to be together, that is not a straightforward option in contemporary Kenya.