This is Not Berlin – Coming of age in a haze of art, sex, music and drugs

‘Esto no es Berlín’

Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical new film ‘This is Not Berlin’ buzzes with the vibrant and intoxicating energy of 1980’s counterculture. Coupled with the freshly emerging punk and new wave culture of 80s Mexico City. Sweeping two teenage friends into an emerging world of art, sex, risk and liberation. Their friendship challenged and changed as identity, sexuality, music, drugs and art converge on the road to adulthood. Within a film that understands the delicate yet urgent process of teenage self-discovery, belonging and experimentation. While equally understanding the complexity and risks of adolescent personal development, societal change and rebellion.

Of course, coming of age films exploring underground youth subculture are nothing new. However, what makes Sama’s film shine among a sea of similar movies, is a tight and well-structured portrait of teenage discovery. Alongside a fascinating exploration of a changing middle-class Mexican society. The rising anger and need for expression among young people finding a voice in art and music. At the same time, as the ghosts of discrimination and a rising AIDS epidemic haunt the freedom to protest.

Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon) and Gera (José Antonio Toledano) have been classmates and close friends since childhood; Carlos living with his younger brother, and a mother who suffers from severe depression. In contrast to Gera’s more stable home life with his punk band sister and well to do parents. Gera’s entrepreneurial leading him to earn money at school from “renting” his dad’s pornographic magazine collection; a collection his dad considers to be well hidden.

While holding a close friendship, both boys characters differ, Gera is happy to go along to school fights. His outgoing personality keen to experiment in his limited ideas of what a teenage boy should be. In contrast, Carlos is a thoughtful, sincere whiz at mechanical engineering. His work bordering on art, while his innermost thoughts are kept hidden in a sea of adolescent testosterone. His only real confidant his cool and supportive uncle Esteban.

This is Not Berlin (2019) Photo by Alfredo Altamirano.

When Gera’s older sister Rita (Ximena Romo), asks for Carlos’ help in fixing a keyboard for her punk band. Carlos agrees, and surprisingly to Rita salvages the broken instrument. As thanks, the band sneaking the underage Carlos and Gera into their next gig at the Azteca underground club.

The lively club is a revelation to both boys. Its mix of sexual freedom, music and avant-garde art led by its enigmatic owner Nico (Mauro Sánchez Navarro). The club’s atmosphere creating freedom and expressionism neither boy has experienced before. Leading Gera to urgently try and get in for more, while Carlos remains more reserved until Nico takes him under his wing. An act that opens the door to Carlos’ artistic potential, social liberation and hidden desires. His friendship with Gera falling into the shadows as art takes centre stage. Both boys slowly separating as they explore their own identities in a new world of drugs, sex, risk and expressionism.

Sama beautifully captures the vulnerability of young people taking their first steps into a new, exciting, yet dangerous world. With performances holding on to the teenage confusion of entering new groups where personal identity needs to change to thrive and belong. At the same time, Alfredo Altamirano’s cinematography plays with light and colour in achieving a sense of growth for both boys. The bright daylight of teenage adventure and innocent rebellion, coupled with the vivid colour of artistic expression. All mixed with the darker tones of sex, drugs, and club life. In a new world of social extremes where risk and developing individual confidence converge. The films score rippling with the unconventional anger of 80’s punk and new wave, its beats and vocals challenging society in a boisterous manner.

‘This is Not Berlin’ understands the global roots of the movement it depicts. While also demonstrating the critical role of Mexicos avant-garde art movement in changing the landscape of 80’s Mexican youth culture. Creating a film that buzzes with the excitement and danger of youth, alongside the importance of artistic expression in challenging societies views.

This is not Berlin – Trailer

Director: Hari Sama

Cast: Xabiani Ponce de Leon, Jose Antonio Toledano, Ximena Romo, Mauro Sanchez Navarro, Klaudia Garcia,


Read more reviews from the BFI London Film Festival 2019 here

Read all the latest LGBTQ film reviews here