Transgression, Desire, Revolution

Director Yony Leyser on breaking rules

Words By Alison Rhoades
Photos By Robert Rieger

Director Yony Leyser is as curious as he is warm. A born interviewer, he poses as many questions as he’s asked, and delights in little idiosyncrasies that can be found on the Neukölln streets that he walks down each day: the grimy sex shop, the fishmonger, the tiny hut at the entrance to a car park on Karl-Marx-Straße. “I’ve always wanted to rent this as my office,” he laughs. “Wouldn’t that be great?”

Perhaps it’s this fondness for the incongruous that contributes to the power of his work. In his films, transgression and desire act as catalysts for countercultural revolutions, be it through a vibrant portrait of Beat Generation icon William Burroughs in his 2010 documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within or explorations of identity and queer underground in 2015’s Desire Will Set You Free. Both films exhibit a profound interest in people upsetting the system, driven by passion, paradox, art and community. “When you make a documentary it’s like writing a memoir,” says Yony. “You’re shaping a reality through a very big lens. People think documentary is like a photograph of something, when in actuality it’s more like a painting.”

Yony was born in DeKalb, Illinois and went on to study at California Institute of the Arts and The New School in New York. “Before I was making movies I was an anarchist; I was an activist,” he explains. “But being an activist was too didactic, I had too much humour and I figured art was a more effective and fun way to do it.” The art of filmmaking in particular allowed him to roll all his passions into one: “I was always interested in writing and journalism and documenting, photography, theatre, and I figured film kind of encapsulates everything. It’s such a powerful medium.”

A Man Within happened almost by accident, as great works of art often do. After making an art piece at CalArts criticising the dean of students and illegally using her signature, Yony was given the option of either facing prosecution or taking a leave of absence. So, Yony moved to Lawrence, Kansas planning to make a documentary on counter-culture. Coincidentally, Lawrence was William Burroughs’ home in the final years of his life. Gradually, Yony made friends with Burroughs’ friends, and eventually the film evolved into a portrait of Burroughs himself.

Burroughs was a fascinating subject: a gun-toting, cat-loving, queer junky who shot his wife in the head and made an unprecedented mark on literature. Making a film about such a larger-than-life icon was no small feat. However, Yony managed to successfully marry the enigmatic persona with the conflicted man behind it. Only 21 at the time, his audacity, talent and persistence got him interviews with Burroughs’ lovers, friends and contemporaries from the fields of art, literature and music. “His friends wanted to talk about him,” says Yony. “It was this ripe subject.”

Making the film allowed Yony to honour the man whose writing had had such a profound influence on both him and the queer community at large. “I liked that he was the first to break the rules,” he says. “I always felt like someone who didn’t fit into society and I just was kind of imagining someone who was this outcast, who was queer and didn’t fit in, and was rebellious and created his own realities, and did it at a time when no one had ever done it before. Genet too, all these kinds of people paved the way for the subcultures that I took part in.”

The result is stunning. A Man Within weaves together footage and anecdotes of a long and astonishing life riddled with joy, lust, addiction, pain, tragedy and poetry. Grainy footage of Burroughs’ face stares you down as his growly voice recites his own erotic and abject verses in the perfect cadence of a poet. The film splices together never-before-seen footage from Burroughs’ life with interviews with punks, poets and counter-cultural greats including John Waters, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Icons of the Beat and punk movements − the artists, the outcasts, those who upset social norms – talk about their friend and hero with tender conviction, scraping together memories as if trying to sort out who indeed the ‘man within’ really was, once and for all. The point is probably that we’ll never know. But that’s the beauty of examining a life through film: you realise just how complex humans actually are, how riddled with contradictions.

I’m sick of seeing or hearing stories of white, heterosexual couples doing really boring, middle-class shit.

Yony’s next film, Desire Will Set You Free, is part feature film, part documentary, and full-on love letter to Berlin. At once a great departure from his previous film and a natural next step, it portrays the city in all its poor, sexy glory. The film follows American writer Ezra and Russian escort Sasha on a fast-paced ride through Berlin’s hedonistic queer underground.

The film is a study in dualities: Ezra (played by Yony himself) is an American of Palestinian and Israeli heritage, Sasha is a man discovering that he’s a woman, and their friend Cathrine is a bisexual radical obsessed with Nazi paraphernalia. It invokes the contradictions of Burroughs, and plays with Berlin’s divided past by depicting characters at war with themselves, who are two things, or everything all at once.

Yony was eager to change gears and do something new, despite the success of his previous film. “The system tells you to do the same thing,” he says. But after years of working on a relatively straightforward documentary, Yony wanted to depict his life in Berlin in a more non-traditional way: “I really wanted to experiment and use my training as a documentary filmmaker to tell a true story and use non-actors, but do it in a fictional approach and not a documentary approach. And it was so fun! Shooting Desire was so much fun. I feel like in a way, it documents just as well as it would if it was a straightforward documentary.”

There is a clear storyline, but Desire is also characterised by its non-linearity, with long and beautiful, poetic sequences of the characters simply relishing in the pleasures of having bodies, exploring, and improvising. Yony says that the film was indeed “hugely improvised.” He continues: “When it wasn’t 100% improvised, the text was based on real events; like if it was about these two sex workers at this bar or whatever, then we would go to the bar the night before and hang out with those sex workers and then use that text the next day in the shooting.” The cast is also composed of “either real characters or a mix of real characters. There are only three actors in the film,” says Yony. “The rest are playing themselves.” In fact, the film was inspired by Yony’s encounter with a Russian man who came to Berlin to party before the Mesoamerican-predicted end of the world on December 21st 2012, and came out as a woman during her visit.

Desire is like wandering into a dream where narratives don’t always make sense, choices are non-binary, and the landscape is governed, not by rationality or even morals, but by lust and invention. Yony cites Instagram as a visual inspiration for the film. It reads as such, swiping through colourful vignettes composed with seductive humour: Nina Hagen offering life advice from a trailer, trans-men and -women sharing their coming-out stories over mid-morning champagne in a sunlit squat. Late afternoons are spent naked with friends bathed in sun and glitter, exchanging philosophical musings and taking drugs. Night unveils the anachronous pleasures of Berlin’s dark underbelly, from Peaches performing in a plush breast-suit to leather daddies flexing their muscles for a cheering audience.

“I actually thought it would be even more fractured,” Yony says. “And if I could do it again I would make it even more fractured. Just because I feel like this city is a dream and it’s about a dream and even in our daily lives we have ideas of what we want to do, like ‘I’m going to this interview and then I’m going grocery shopping or to a play’, and then little things happen in between, like you see someone on the street doing something weird or crazy. I think that’s also part of the Berlin atmosphere, at least for me: you’re going to a meeting and you walk through Görlitzer Park and you see people having sex in the bushes or whatever, and it’s like these moments of distraction.” He smiles, “That’s how life is; life doesn’t play out like it does in a Hollywood movie, you know?”

Yony first came to Berlin in 2007 on a Fulbright scholarship. “I fell in love with it,” he says. “I was living in New York at the time and I was so stressed out and the quality of life here was so amazing. I remember my first weekend out, waking up in a queer squat and having breakfast with 12 drag queens in the morning after some performance and I was just like, ‘I gotta figure out a way to live in this city.’ The subcultural landscape, especially the queer subcultural landscape, was really impressive to me. The use of public space, the idea of street culture and people of all backgrounds intersecting with each other on the street was very inspiring as an artist.”

Does Desire  have anything to say about Berlin? Yony pauses to think for a moment: “To me it did – to my version of Berlin. People can be very critical of that because there are a lot of versions of Berlin depending on who you are, and of course class and race and gender and cultural background and neighbourhood or whatever, they all play such big roles. Even in my building, for example, how differently all the neighbours live and what the city, the neighbourhood, or the building means to us is vastly different. So it’s hard to say that a film could represent the city, but what I thought was interesting was that Berlin had something very special that other cities didn’t have: this kind of psychedelic, Club Kid nightlife, and then this kind of multicultural mixing pot of expats and people who came to the city not for work but for a cultural escape, or to live out their fantasies. I wanted to depict the world as parallel to the 1920s in Berlin − Christopher Isherwood’s ‘20s or early ‘30s.”

People think documentary is like a photograph of something, when in actuality it’s more like a painting.

In both A Man Within and Desire, the importance of community in queer culture is a noteable throughline. “Well, for a lot of queer people, a lot of ostracised people, the idea of a queer community is like creating your own family because a lot of people’s families don’t accept them and aren’t there for them,” explains Yony. “So they can’t relate to them and they can’t relate to a lot of society, so they say ‘let’s create our own tribal family’. It’s a very central theme in my new film, too.”

Yony’s upcoming film, Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution, premieres at the Sheffield Documentary Festival this summer. “It’s a documentary about the movement that Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones started in the late ‘80s, a gay punk movement, and it started as a farce,” says Yony. “They got a bunch of straight punks drunk and took pictures of them and wrote these stories of all these bands in Toronto being gay in this radical gay punk zine, and people believed it. It was before the internet so people couldn’t really fact check, so the zine spread and all these bands started. It led to a lot of bands like Gossip, Peaches, The Knife; all these guys kind of got their start from this Queercore thread from the ‘90s.”

The German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder once said: “Every decent director has only one subject, and finally only makes the same film over and over again.” Yony bristles a bit when asked what this subject might be for him, or indeed what drives him as an artist. He turns the question back around: “What do you see?” For a director driven by a quest to discover the hidden desires, passions and pleasures that spark creative communities and even radical progress, this is a fitting retort. But upon reflection, he offers this: “I like to tell stories from marginalised communities. I’m sick of seeing or hearing stories of white, heterosexual couples doing really boring, middle-class shit, and that’s what 90% of films are. I think it’s quite boring and I think there are very interesting marginalised cultures that are doing interesting things that can also play out in film, and should have a place there, too.” Challenging norms and subverting the language of cinema to be more inclusive and more daring is a noble goal, and Yony is definitely up to the challenge. After all, as Burroughs himself once wrote: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”

You can find William S. Burroughs: A Man Within and Desire Will Set You Free on streaming platforms now. Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution will hit cinemas in Berlin later this year.