Yony Leyser’s new film Desire Will Set You Free is a fictional, albeit pretty realistic, time capsule of Berlin’s current underground scene. While his last highly acclaimed movie William S. Burroughs – The Man Within stayed inside the boundaries of a classic documentary, Desire Will Set You Free transcends genres, blending documentary with fiction. Yony played one of the lead roles, mixing autobiographical elements with biographical ones to tell a coming of age story with real Berlin characters like Peaches, Nina Hagen, and Rummelsnuff doubling as actors.
Filming is over, but now Yony has to raise enough money for post-production via Kickstarter. So after asking Yony to cut an exclusive trailer for us, I hung out with him last week to find out why this pile of footage should definitely graduate to a full-on movie we might see at festivals across Europe and the US next year.
VICE: Hey Yony, tell me about your movie. How did you come up with the story?
Yony Leyser: Desire Will Set You Free was an idea that I came up with after living in Berlin for four years and being involved in the underground and queer scene. The story came to me after getting a visit from someone from Russia and the main character is based on this person. It’s about our travels through the city. The plot is based on our relationship, but it’s fictionalized. So what happens in the movie?
This American writer from a half-Isreali half-Palestinian family and a Russian refugee end up staying in Berlin and working at Hustler Bar. It’s about that, but the subtext is about the city and life in it right now, which is a city of refugees, and I mean refugees of all sorts—all the weirdoes in the world are coming to Berlin now. It’s a place of conflict. Every facet of life is colliding.
All photos courtesy of Yony Leyser
The two main characters seem to come from a conflict-ridden background—the Russian guy coming from an oppressive, openly homophobic country and the other guy having an Israeli-Palestinian background. Is that on purpose?
I based it on real characters. The real character was from Russia and really went through some things over there. He had to come to Berlin because of the current situation. As for the Israeli-Palestinian angle; that’s similar to my background. I’m an Iranian-Israeli German Jew, and that's already caused me trouble.
I sent out the Kickstarter email and my conservative Jewish family in Israel was like, “What do you mean? Israeli-Palestinian?” They don’t care about the gay shit, they just care about, me “trying to represent Arabs and the Palestinians fairly? They’re monsters!” I’m not a politically correct guy. I think in a big way—the story is a comedy. Personally, I can’t stand didactic politics.
Fair enough. There's a bunch of Berlin icons in this movie, like Nina Hagen. What was working with her like?
Nina Hagen plays a cross between herself and the oracle. She was great, she was on set all day. At the end of the day she was still there, just hanging out and talking to everyone. How can you not have the queen of punk in that kind of film? She was really into it.
Initially the part was written for Penny Arcade, who was one of Andy Warhol's superstars, but she got sick and she canceled two days before the shoot. She was supposed to fly here from New York and then at the last minute, we got Nina Hagen. She’s covering a Brecht song.
Who else did you get?
Peaches is in there. She wrote a song for the film. There was this Lesbian cabaret performer in Berlin, called Claire Waldoff. Marlene Dietrich covered her songs and so Peaches covers one of her songs in German. She sings in Berlinish and German, but the secret is—even though Peaches has lived in Berlin for 15 years, her use of the language isn't perfect. So she learned it.
We also shot in real locations. Some of these places haven't been shot in for like 20 years. We’re documenting something that might not be here in ten years like squats, Monster Ronsons, Silver Future, Roses, About Blank, Super Molly—real, iconic places.
Why are all the famous people in your movie old?
The new people aren’t famous yet. They will be when the movie comes out. I think there’s a lot of people who are relatively underground who I think could be icons. Like Kate, she’s in that band Bonaparte. Oh, and Blood Orange is in the film, too. They cover a Berlin girl punk band Malaria!. So we’re making a soundtrack with a lot of Berlin bands covering classic Berlin songs. Why did you start the Kickstarter campaign?
We got the money to shoot from different grants—the film fund in Berlin, some funds in the States, some smaller funds in Germany—and that is great. We got everything together in three weeks. I wrote the script and submitted it as a sort of joke, but instantly got funding. We blew the budget real quick though, so now we just need money to edit it. So we launched a Kickstarter. We just need a little bit more money to finish. What’s your personal goal with the movie?
If it turns out to be really good, everyone in the world will want to see it. If it doesn’t, then only expats in Berlin will want to see it and that’ll be a disaster.
Is selling out a problem?
It can be. Commodifying and exploiting an underground scene is not a good thing, but I think what I’m doing is telling an honest story from the source. It would be weird if I cast Hollywood actors to play underground characters. Having people play themselves—that's docu-fiction.
It’s not a glorification of the Berlin underground, either. There’s a really dark side to clubbing all day and night for years. I’ve had six friends die of overdose or suicide in the last four years and that really affected me and also led me to write this story. The film is a documentation of a real time in the place that was home to all these people. It’s an interesting time. I hope people don’t think I'm trying to exploit the scene, cause what I am doing couldn't be furthest from that. Go to Yony’s Kickstarter campaign to find out more about Desire Will Set You Free (which is a very polite way of saying: just send some cash his way and help him get this movie done, so we can all see it on festivals next year!)