This is Not Berlin

Seen as a rite of passage in a culture that demands conformity, two friends, Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon) and Gera (Jose Antonio Toledano), set their sights above high rivalries and their anticipation of World Cup soccer, aiming instead for the hedonic pursuits of Mexico’s clandestine nightlife at the various clubs and bars in director Hari Sama’s This Is Not Berlin. When Gera’s sister Rita (Ximena Romo) invites them to see her band at the elusive Aztec venue, they jump at the chance to mingle with outliers: out-of-place youth hoping to fit in as adults amongst the enticing and scary, pansexual, drug-haven world of synth-bands spouting lyrics to “teenagers of a higher degree of general maladjustment…as monopoly gods of mass media.”

And it’s all pretty heavy in 1986 as privileged insiders embrace European Bauhaus in the Casa de Upchuck!

Straddling the border between straight-out satire and social relevance, Sama (who cast himself as Carlos’ influential uncle Esteban, the guy who introduced him to John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins and Alvin Lee) has a subculture affinity for the clashing music perspectives of performance art setup and Joy Division neo-romantic goth grimaces in this Liquid Sky-like interpretation of Mexican youth.

This is not the Mexico of the American imagination!

Kids hang around video arcades. Gera sells his father’s Hustler magazines for arcade money. The mechanically inclined Carlos is fixated on Rita, the coolest girl he knows. And Rita establishes herself as a rebellious spirit by quoting Patti Smith in Lit class.

Marginally recognizable as the ground from Los Olvidados or Easy Rider with its barren fetishized frontier open to American escapism as the destination for dope dealers and expatriates, Mexico City in 1986 could be around the corner from Melrose Drive. The available drug scene offers only Ritalin, Rohypnol and “roachies” (described as coke-laced pot). Art is multiple stacked TV screens showing pseudo bondage images in neon as cars are being smashed and shattered by baseball bats. Anything is better than boredom as the patrons chant: “Soccer is killing us!”

I felt right at home!

As the title warns ya: THIS IS NOT BERLIN!

Anxious to escape from his self-medicating mom and the blended banality of blue-collar jobs, Carlos sees this scene as the means to and consequence of adulthood. He’s willing to trade parental dependency for platonic recognition, and club owner Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro) is his gender-fluid emissary, leaving behind Gera to find his own path.

With unerring grace, Carlos finds another door behind each door open, leading away from childhood passions toward ecstatic surrealist slants, new obstacles where gender no longer matters as long as he’s included on the ride. His mom recognizes the changes but is ineffectual at dealing with her own. Too much means escape from boredom. When Devo is heard on the dance floor, “The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprise” is something of a declaration for these denizens of deconstruction.

Well educated. European-infused. Politically motivated.

Carlos demystifies the machismo-fueled Mexico of American cinema as no longer the escape route for con men and killers but a congregation site for free thinkers. This Is Not Berlin foreshadows the Mexico that’s starting to emerge in 1986, Americanized in wrong ways.

At a music festival, Rita’s band plays to a predominately hardcore punk crowd who flip them off and stare blankly at their brand of rebellion. The world is changing.

Carlos still does not fit in.