Written, directed by and starring Samuel Kay Forrest, HipBeat is an empowering and compassionate debut that follows a young man searching for his identity in Berlin, a journey of self-discovery that takes him from anarchy to embracing love within the LGBTQ+ community, with the help of an encounter with a drag queen. It’s both a love story and a valentine to Berlin, one that questions the status quo and encourages inclusivity and equality in a disarmingly sincere way.
We caught up with Samuel Kay Forrest before the premiere of HipBeat this Thursday at Zukunft / Freiluftkino Pompeji, to talk about the importance of socially conscious filmmaking, shooting in Berlin and making a film that sidesteps the clichés linked to the city’s nightlife.
How long have you been in Berlin and how did the project come about?
I was born in the Netherlands, then moved to London, Canada, California. I then did a film in India and after that, I moved to Berlin in 2017. My sister, who also helped produce and cast the film was living here, and I fell in love with the city. I started writing the script here, writing about the colour of Berlin’s inside life. I was struck by all these people who come here from all walks of life, who explore their questions and their curiosity. I thought that was such a beautiful thing, especially at a time when the world seemed like it was closing off from itself. Whether it was England, the US, Brazil – seeing this rhetoric of older generations closing people out was influential, and Berlin by comparison felt ahead of the curve. It felt like it was opposing that fear and embracing something more positive. So, it’s been a three-year journey to make this film – blood, sweat and tears have gone into it, and I’m so honoured to have been able to film here, because I think the city is a role model in the world in the sense of new ideas.
You’ve said that this film is about creating a conversation about love, gender and politics in today’s society. Do you feel like it’s more important than ever these days that films are more “engaged” and socially conscious?
Personally, I do. I think that art in general should reflect something that’s happening currently. Art can make us aware to what’s going on around us, but can also give us hope and highlight the progress that is happening, despite times seeming bleak. We have so much polarization and mendacity that we don’t know what to believe or not, and art is a way of getting to the truth of people. It reveals what they conceal. Truth is subjective, but honesty in a story that you’re telling is always authentic.
Are enough films engaging with the turmoil of the current world in your opinion?
I don’t have a problem with any films – there are films out there for entertainment and escapism, and that’s beautiful too. But I was personally inspired by films that left me with a conversation. It’s important to create debate and there is an importance for films to do that. I felt a responsibility to tell this story not only honestly, but to absorb the world around me and collaborate with the city. I didn’t want to come here and lean into misconceptions of what a culture is.
The opening of the film is very powerful, with timely scenes of unrest and shots of police intervention.
It was definitely in response to what I’d seen in the world and I wanted to capture the truth of a situation – I was always inspired by filmmakers who challenge the status quo. The political aspect of the film is very much in backlash to Trump and police brutality. The main thing to get across though was that hate incites hate and love incites love. The main character’s journey goes from perpetuating the hate and frustration and then learning that you have to love their hate. His arc is about realising that if you expose brutality by peacefully doing something, the message is stronger.
The film is essentially a love story, but also a love letter to Berlin. What is it about Berlin that appeals to you?
Berlin’s a city that’s three drinks ahead of everybody, and in a humble way too. People are here for the experience and the connections that they can make. We get used to Berlin being the way it is, but it’s important to not forget how we’re in a bubble, and how the rest of the world doesn’t have this.
Do you still think that the city is still this haven for outsiders or have you seen a change since you started writing the script?
I think Berlin will always be a city for outsiders, for people who are curious. Its charm is that there is no right way – the only rule here is to be kind. I’m not saying everybody is, and I don’t want to generalise, but the spirit of the city is conducive to new ideas. Sometimes these have been more underground, sometimes more a part of the establishment, but the city seems to have always kept its authenticity. I know that when you live here, people say that Berlin is changing, but at the core of it, there will always be new ideas that allow people to challenge themselves.
It’s a city in perpetual flux, but you’ll find a lot of people who have the impression that the city isn’t changing for the better,
I do understand when people say that, but if you engage in the city, put yourself outside of your comfort zone and explore, there’ll always be something there, something to learn. Berlin has also been able to keep its sense of community. For example, Google wanted to move into the city, and they didn’t let that happen. There’s a sense of community that seems to prevail, and because it’s a city with so many different scenes and communities, it allows people the freedom to be able to interflow between them if you want to and find the place where you can most be yourself.
The main character you play says that “change is coming” and that “a new age is on the horizon”. What changes do we have to look forward to?
That love will overcome fear. That’s not losing sight of the divisiveness and the fear that’s currently being peddled, but that there’s something more beautiful at the other end. And with regards to Berlin, from my personal experience, I think that the city is much more open when it comes to gender and exploring what that is, and the film was about that – not labelling but exploring and becoming.
Your script deals with a central protagonist who is something of a lost soul looking for a family, looking for acceptance, whether it be in antifascist groups or in the drag scene. How much of this is autobiographical?
There are parts that are based on my life and my younger siblings’ lives. We’re all queer and the main character is based on one of my siblings, who is non-binary. I wanted to make a film about becoming, because I think we’re always becoming something, becoming the person we’re supposed to be. You have films out there about gay, lesbian, bi, trans and queer, but I’d never seen a film about a non-binary character discovering that they’re not male or female but they flow between both. I do a lot of work with the LGBTQ+ community in LA, in London and in Berlin, and I wanted to deal with the inclusivity and starting conversations where people can come together.
Have you noticed any differences between the LGBTQ+ communities in these different countries?
There are little differences and there are situations where people can feel more divided within that community, but at the end of the day, they’ve all been through the same kind of prejudices, the same struggle, and they do come together in so many ways. And sometimes people can forget that they’re going through the same struggle. For me, inclusivity is such an important thing and I wanted the LGBTQ+ spectrum to be reflected in some way. I don’t think you can represent anybody but you can reflect the honesty of your experience and the experience of your friends and family and what they’ve been through. I was very inspired by them, those who are fighting behind the scenes.
How do you address polygamy, gender boundaries and Berlin nightlife in film without tumbling into cliché or portraying Berlin as this hedonistic city where anything goes?
It was definitely something I was aware of, and we’ve seen many times this portrayal of Berlin as this debaucherous and bleak place. That’s what the colour scheme of the film was about – I wanted to romanticise the nightlife to an extent, to show it in a beautiful light. I wanted the colours to reflect the spirit of inside, the inclusive experience, and the beautiful spirits that you meet, the ones who build those places. I was very conscious of the tropes, but it’s more about the people that you meet that make it magic.
The characters in the film are also very flawed and have their imperfections, candidly stating how scared or doubtful they are.
And it’s OK to be scared and not know everything. I wanted characters who have imperfections, who didn’t always know the answers, and who didn’t feel like tropes. The big thing when shooting was trying to keep the authenticity of the city and the spirit of what the clubs reflect, but also the colourfulness that reflects what the people are like inside. There are a lot of films set in Berlin, but what interested me was the people there and the acceptance, much more than the lifestyle of what the places might be.
Were there any challenges in filming in the city?
I’d go around and talk to people, explain what we were doing, and wanting to show the authenticity. I also did a lot of research, went to a lot of clubs – I was so inspired by the city and by those how compensate the fear we’re seeing with love. I had a great team around me and we were able to find kindred spirits. Sadly, a lot of the clubs we went to are now closed, but I didn’t want to emphasise the places too much – like I said, it was more about the spirit inside of these places rather than the reputation of the locations.
The film exudes a spirit of compassion, but I did enjoy the end stinger after the credits rolled, one which does remind you that there are still organisations out there that traffic in hatred and fear. Was this your way of alluding to the opening voiceover and making a cry of alarm?
I’m glad you saw that and stuck till the end of the credits! (Laughs) It was just pointing out that there are organisations and prejudice groups that are using the divisiveness of fear to mislead people. Change is constant – it’s going to happen no matter what. It’s a bit of a call to action. I wanted to remind people of those who are stopping progress from happening. Some leaders aren’t taking responsibility and are abusing their power, and I wanted to include these obstacles, to shoot you back into reality. As a filmmaker, you can be explicit at times and implicit in others, but at the end of the day, you want to question the audience and make them aware, and through awareness comes understanding. And only when you understand can you change things.
HipBeat premieres on 27 August at Zukunft / Freiluftkino Pompeji, followed by a Q&A and afterparty. There will also be repeat screenings on the 3rd and 10th September at Freiluftkino Pompji (both at 9pm), followed by a wider release next month.