DESIRE WILL SET YOU FREE – The Berlin Queer Underground Yony Leyser Wants You To See

by JC Gonzo

“I came to visit Berlin on a scholarship from my University in 2007 and fell in love,” explains Yony Leyser, the acclaimed young documentarian behind 2010’s William S. Burroughs: A Man Within – his debut hit that featured David Cronenberg, Iggy Pop, and John Waters and impressed over 60 film festivals around the world. In the vein of Burroughs and his compadres, Leyser found himself to be an ex-patriate. “Things just made more sense here. Politically, socially, ideologically, and it was more fun than the United States.” Leyser’s vantage point is not only of a queer lens, but of subversive thought.

Desire Will Set You Free

Desire Will Set You Free takes our hand and walks us through Berlin’s present-day sexual underground. Free-thinkers and LGBTQ-etc.’s convene creatively, examining the cultural effects and influences of the Weinmar Republic and WW2 history or importing their own. Yony Leyser is Ezra, an American of Israeli/Palestinian descent, who meets up with Sasha (played by Tim Fabian Hoffman), a Russian rentboy. The two transverse Berlin making pit stops at alternative hotbeds like  Supamolly, Bethanien, Roses, and more. “I think it is important to represent all different kinds of people… If you can show things in a humorous way it is the best way to convey true raw political information.” 


Of course, punk threads are visibly apparent, as are the effects of the Bowie years. The Mother of Punk Nina Hagen makes a performative appearance and so does Einstürzende Neubauten’s Jochen Arbeit. Nevertheless, Desire Will Set You Free is less of an anthropological escapade and more of a personal journey. Adopting narrative principles with one foot firmly grounded in actuality places the film in a realm of “docu-fiction,” much like Nick Cave’s highly discussed 20,000 Days On Earth. Social and cultural circles become backdrops of relatable and intimate truths, an unconventional method that could lend more insight than objective, traditional approaches.

Nina Hagen

Desire Will Set You Free has completed the shooting process but needs your support for post-production. Leyser’s celebrated debut, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within was a Kickstarter success with supporters out-pledging the project’s goal. Currently, Desire Will Set You Free has two weeks remaining before the clock runs out, so head over to the project’s Kickstarter page to see how you can help.

Can you talk about the film’s soundtrack? Surely it would be as colorful as the cast of characters involved, Berlin has such a rich musical history… 

YL: The soundtrack is amazing. We have local bands like Rummelsnuff, Crime, Easter, Kool Thing writing original music and then more known bands covering songs about Berlin from the 1920s to the present, including Peaches covering lesbian cabaret singer Claire Waldoff, Blood Orange covering all girl punk band Malaria!, Starfucker covering ‘Nightclubbing’ by Iggy Pop, etc. Many more to be confirmed once we get some funding in!

Jarman struggled with Jubilee as so many punk figures rejected any involvement with his project and panned its release. Have you had any negative response from queer Berliners who maybe feel “the scene” could be misrepresented, tainted by exposure, or exploited?

YL: I have not experienced that whatsoever. Jarman lived in a different time. I respect his work greatly, but it is easier in 2014… Also, I think they would have been hesitant if I had not been directly involved and an instigator of the “scene” here for years. These people have known me for years and know who I am, and know I won’t exploit them because it’s my world. This film is heavily autobiographical, which is why I expose myself so much as even playing a role in the film.

Behind the Scenes...

In more Western cultures, at least, queer culture has been increasingly adopted by mainstream society. Television shows on prime-time networks, topics about gay marriage, adoption, and trans-rights are in the forefront more than ever. Do you feel queer culture’s long-standing affiliation with more unconventional, dangerous, and alternative lifestyles (and by proxy, art) is disappearing?

YL: That’s exactly the point. As gay culture becomes more and more acceptable, the world that people like Burroughs and Genet wrote about  disappears. It is still relatively alive here in Berlin, at least for the time being, which I find very fascinating.

Your Burroughs documentary is a relatively straight forward examination, Desire Will Set You Free looks like totally new territory for you. What gave you the idea to incorporate fiction into this project?

YL: Yeah, it is new territory, but it worked out well. I would say it is fiction with small elements of documentary weaved in. I guess they call the genre “Docufiction.” The film should feel real to people. I use a lot of non-actors playing themselves. At times I think people won’t really know what is fact and what is fiction. A Man Within was my first film. I needed to be very straight forward. Now I can have more leeway, I think . The result hopefully will be interesting to people. It’s a view into an important world.  I show the world in a very humorous but honest way.

Sasha played by Tim Fabian Hoffman

Berlin’s been an international melting pot for the underground for decades and this film seems to showcase it with one foot in the past and one in the present – how is the “scene” unique in Berlin?

YL: So the reason I came was because I liked it here and it made more sense to me than the United States, maybe like Tangier did for William S. Burroughs. However, the reason I stayed was because of the interesting things happening here. I find it very inspiring to live in Berlin. My work is based off of interesting marginalized people. No better place to find people like that than Berlin. The history here is amazing and the people are very conflicted, which is the way things should be. For example, there was a school squatted by African refugees in Kreuzberg and last month the police tried to kick them out and send everyone back. The protests were so intensely supportive of the refugees that they eventually let them stay in the building. So there is a very strong activist affiliation in the underground which I didn’t find in places like, say, NYC.

Where do you plan to take the film once the Kickstarter campaign ends?

YL: Well, as long as we get our goal, we plan to take the film to festivals around the world and then to theaters and online/TV. But we first need to make our goal. Any little contribution makes a big difference. Thanks for your help! 


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