Editor's Note: I first met Yony Leyser in August 2009 when I received an invitation to a Chicago area fundraiser in support of his first feature film, WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: A MAN WITHIN. It was one of the strangest parties I've ever been to, featuring Peter Weller eternally smoking a cigar and performing impromptu readings from NAKED LUNCH, topless waitresses serving drinks and hors d'oeuvres, and original artworks by Burroughs adorning the art gallery's walls. It was a night that I will never forget. What follows is a behind the scenes peek at his next feature, its subject matter and its inspiration. You can support Yony, his cast, and his crew complete post-production on the film via its ongoing Kickstarter campaign, available here. - Samuel B. Prime, Founder
Production just wrapped on my second feature film, DESIRE WILL SET YOU FREE, and some critics and artists have already at this rather early stage called it the definitive film about “Berlin’s multifaceted queer scene.”
All this early attention is perhaps because of some of the artists and actors who appear in the film such as Peaches, Nina Hagen, Blood Orange, Rosa Von Praunheim, and Amber Benson; most of whom I met through my first film WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: A MAN WITHIN.
From the start of the pre-production stage, I saw DESIRE WILL SET YOU FREE as a film about Berlin’s underground because I figured that would be the most palatable explanation for the general public. However, the film goes much deeper than that. It is a profoundly personal story of the community of which I have been a part of for the last four years.
I was inspired to write the story after living in a shared queer artists apartment in Berlin for three years. The impetus came right before the end of the world (December 21 2012). A cute 20-year-old guy on BUTT magazine’s website (I was 26 at the time) wrote me that he wanted to visit Berlin and explore the queer scene. He ended up coming for ten days, his last day being the 21st. The end of the world. During his visit, I learned his story about living in Latvia with his mother and being subjected to abuse because of his sexuality. Then on the 5th day of his visit he came out as a woman. He was a beautiful and magical human being and for those ten days I saw my completely crazy life played out in front of me, all my privilege, egocentric behavior, excess, madness, utopic fantasy, radical activity – everything - out in the open for the first time and there for me to see.
After ten days, the world did not end; he did have to go back to Latvia, though with the promise to some day return. Over the course of the next year, my friend Paula Alamillo (the film’s producer) and I turned the story into DESIRE WILL SET YOU FREE. In the audition process, I found many people who had a similar story to Sasha (this is not her real name). We integrated their stories to make our character real, honest, and dynamic. The other characters and situations in the film are also based on true-to-life experiences and people.
The cast is assembled not only of people playing themselves, but also known performers and professional actors. I also play a role in the film because the film is autobiographical. Also, some of my favorite films and TV shows feature the director in a central role (think Lena Dunham, Xavier Dolan, et cetera). I was an actor long before I was a filmmaker. I studied acting in high school at the Chicago Academy for the Arts with my teenage best friend, mentor, and acting inspiration Cecily Strong (now featured on SNL). For years, she and I worked together in one high school play and cheap TV industrial after the other.
Berlin’s “queer community”:
Droves of young adults flock to Berlin to escape persecution and find a better life for themselves; many are part of the LGBT community. The nightlife in Berlin is very gay and is a mix of young queer men and women and vacationing westerners with extra money and time to blow looking on a good time. This film is not an attempt to glorify or romanticize the side of Berlin in which we live. It intends to show all sides including a what can sometimes be a very dark and dangerous world, a reality for many Berliners. I have had several young friends commit suicide or overdose in the last few years, all of whom were part of this “queer scene.”
I go back and forth from being firmly committed to the "queer community" to being totally and completely disillusioned with the concept and diametrically opposed to it. Is this a community of people who have the same beliefs, are fighting the common fight against oppression, or is it just a bunch of angry queens that want spaces where they can cruise one another and gossip? Maybe a little bit of both? “I mean, that has been a part of Queer Studies for decades,” I heard the other night sitting on my friend’s balcony. We were talking about about the idea of heterosexuality being a new creation. “Queer Studies has not been around for decades, Judith Butler,” another friend retorted. The argument about the definition of “queer” seems to be disputed on a regular basis in my community.
My overall experience of shooting a "queer film" in Berlin was overwhelmingly positive. I received support and trust from my community, although with some very disheartening exceptions. The production team started as a five-person feminist collective and ended a two-women run production company. The three that were left behind stirred up some dust. An American drag queen living in Berlin made a big fuss because she felt the drag queens in our film were not paid enough. (Most of the crew was working for free all day and night.) She became so angry that she held a conference on queer art making and it was filmed and shared via Berlin blogs. In her hour-long rant, she said that Kickstarter works only for the privileged and that Bruce LaBruce, John Waters, and all the queer filmmakers we know are all counter-revolutionary sellouts. I couldn't help but laugh. It appealed to the 19-year-old anarchist and activist that I used to be (and maybe still am), even if her intent seemed to be throw shade, shit, or slurs on both me and the production.
The drag queens that did show up to the shoot were amazing and very appreciative, as was the entire cast and crew. Our main characters interact with real Berlin activists, icons, and performers appearing as themselves… including the best of Berlin’s queens.
Spreading the word:
I was spamming people’s Facebook walls to spread the word of the Kickstarter. I wrote on my 80s film crush Nick Zedd’s wall telling him thanks for being an inspiration for DESIRE. He retorted with an angry rant about how I only got funding because I am gay. Bruce LaBruce and I only get funding because we are gay and how if he were gay he would have his films funded. I tried to explain to him the struggles of being a queer filmmaker until he replied, “you homos enjoy your privileged class” and blocked me.
It was a bit ironic lumping me in with Bruce LaBruce because I once tried to raise money for a documentary on Queercore for the last 2.5 years with no luck (LaBruce was one of the instigators of the gay/punk movement.) The documentary was deemed too “niche” and turned down for funding, whereas for some reason the idea behind DESIRE WILL SET YOU FREE resonated with people and received funding from German film funds.
But maybe Zedd does have a point. Maybe queers are privileged, at least in the art world? I argue that point in Oliver Secting’s new feature HOW I LEARNED TO LOVE THE NUMBERS. Could the persecuted become the persecutors, the minority transformed into the majority?
In the end, we made an emotionally beautiful film that I hope we will be able to finish.
Please help support our post-production Kickstarter campaign here: