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  • Manuel Abramovich: “What makes pleasure real?”


Manuel Abramovich: “What makes pleasure real?”

Manuel Abramovich’s award-winning films blur the lines between reality and performance.

Photo: Gabriel Renault

In a gay bar in Schöneberg, seven young Romanian men are being filmed, captured by director Manual Abramovich while they sit at the bar, staring into his camera.

They’ve each been recorded chronicling their sex work at the establishment, and now the audio is playing back, their own voices describing their interactions and inner lives. One confesses to being heterosexual; another claims that their ability to escort is “God’s gift”. Abramovich’s camera catches every detail of their faces as they react, confronted by their own self-portrayal.

The 18-minute film, titled Blue Boy, after the historic gay bar near Kurfürstendamm, went on to earn Abramovich the prestigious Silver Bear award in the shorts competition at Berlinale in 2019.

If your work is performing pleasure, is there a difference between this staged pleasure and the other, private pleasure?

“It was almost like a theatre play in there,” he recalls of his first visit to Blue Boy. “I was fascinated by the way the sex workers would come up to the clients, trying to be nice to sell their services. Then the next day, they would introduce themselves with another name and character, for instance, playing an alpha male escort to try and seduce a different client. So it was really about using performance as a tool. And they were very conscious of their performativity.”

This interaction between the self and the characters we perform has become a defining theme of Abramovich’s work. He routinely invites ordinary people to play characters, then experiments with different ways of staging the private aspects of their lives. “I really like to look at this aspect of the performativity in everyday life… to put all these characters on the table and say, okay, let’s play with that and find ways to make these characters more conscious,” he says.

The success of Blue Boy is far from Abramovich’s only resume point. The 35-year-old filmmaker and artist has directed seven films to date, including four features, and his work has been screened at Venice, MoMA, Cinéma du Réel, IDFA, Tribeca and many other international film festivals. His 2013 short film The Queen won 50 international awards, including Argentina’s Silver Condor Award. He completed a fellowship at the prestigious DAAD Artists-in-Berlin programme in 2019 and was a member of the Berlinale Talents selection committee.

Film still: The Queen

Abramovich, born in Argentina and a part-time Berliner since 2019, got his start in the field studying cinematography in Buenos Aires. In all of Abramovich’s work, it’s apparent that cinematography was his first love – his films instantly strike you with their beauty.

But his reputation has not been built on imagery alone. It’s his unique filmmaking process, as much about the creation as it is the end product, that has set him apart. With Blue Boy, he wanted to try and revert – or at least draw attention to – the power dynamics between filmmaker and film protagonist.

I think it’s amazing how open and free Berlin is. It allows all of us to be whatever we want to be

“The idea was to first put myself in the place of a client, because the film was paying the sex workers for their time to make the film together,” he explains. “And then the spectator was put in the place of a client because they were looking into the sex workers’ eyes through a screen. The sex workers were also put in the place of a client in some of the stories, but also in that of the audience, because they were spectators of their own stories.”

Abramovich’s subjects tend to be people whose lives are intensely defined by the performative role they play, meant to both challenge the idea that something must be either fiction or nonfiction and make audience members question their own performativity. His films have featured an 11-year-old beauty pageant queen, a reluctant Argentinian soldier and a Mexican adult content creator.

“I always spend a lot of time with people, when I get to know them and also for them to get to know me,” he says. “From those encounters, we start talking about this idea of being a person and being a character… and it’s always clear that the project won’t be a reflection of themselves but a version of themselves.”

Abramovich’s most recent feature film, Pornomelancolía, which premiered in 2022 and won the award for
Best Cinematography at the San Sebastian Film Festival, follows gay sex influencer and porn actor Lalo as he posts nudes and homemade porn videos to his 133,000 followers each day, consciously creating a macho Mexican character – a person that is both a part of himself and a product he sells.

“If your work is performing pleasure, is there a difference between this staged pleasure and the other, private pleasure? If so, what makes pleasure real?”

In the scenes that follow, it’s the subtle facial expressions of Lalo that give us the answer to Abramovich’s question. When Lalo is not performing sex shows on camera, he is drifting around in a state of lonely melancholy. He has thousands of people watching, complimenting and paying him for exposing his raw sexual form to them. But he’s “detached from [his] feelings and fears”, Abramovich says, and none of it feels like true intimacy.

Intimacy has also emerged as another big theme in the director’s work, where he continues to bend the traditional structures of filmmaking by engineering the concept in different ways. “I like this idea of staging intimacy, because for me, making films is always a construction”, he explains.

His definition of intimacy is a stripping back of one’s filters and fears, when “all your characters start to melt away, and it’s just your essence. You allow yourself to feel like a child for some short time with someone, when you’re not so aware of the image that you project onto others. It’s like taking off your costume for a bit and being vulnerable and exploring those states of mind and feelings together.”

Beyond staging it, Abramovich strives to create the conditions for true intimacy in his filmmaking process by being open and vulnerable with his subjects in order to diminish the power that the one holding the camera has over the one being filmed. Since 2021, he has been running workshops on documentary, intimacy and staging, where he deconstructs the classic filmmaking dynamics even further. In the workshops, the participants approach people on the street and film them carrying out small actions, then examine how their own perspective as the filmmaker has influenced the process of filming someone else. Through these exercises, Abramovich draws the participants’ attention to the fact that the filmmaker is not just a passive observer of the subject.

“Observation – I really hate this word, because you have the impression that you are very passively observing someone’s life. And it’s actually not like that.” he says. “It’s about making films with people and not about people.”

This is the attitude that typifies Abramovich’s approach to filmmaking, one that’s at once behind the camera, orchestrating from a distance, and within the scene and the story. His films are portraits of other people, but also deeply personal, tackling his own challenges and identity. “When I make a film with you, there are a lot of personal elements about myself coming through you, because of the way I point the camera, the way I use language. So, for me, it’s always making a film with someone. It’s a way of exploring something together, about both of us.”

His work continues to ask questions about performance, often directed at themes of gender and masculinity – including his own.

Film still: Solar

“I realised that I wanted to work on my character of man,” explains Abramovich. “Some years ago, I realised that I didn’t want to play that traditional character of a man anymore, because I wasn’t really happy. And I started to question myself like, okay, do I want to keep playing this man character even if I’m gay and I consider myself queer? I was kind of trapped in this character of a strong man, wanting to satisfy the expectations of the patriarchal society that tells you that being a man means to be strong and to hide your feelings.”

For Abramovich, queer identity is about “allowing oneself to not be fixed” more than being proud of defying societal expectations. “To not have to put myself in a box and describe myself with labels, to not be afraid of saying ‘I don’t know what I am sometimes’. Because you can be something today and then tomorrow you feel that you’re something else.”

Berlin, he tells us, has given him further licence to push these boundaries.

“I think it’s amazing how open and free Berlin is. It allows all of us to be whatever we want to be, to be ourselves and break free from all these expectations from our past,” he says. “We are all sensitive humans, navigating this social fragility in the context of a city that is very free, but it’s also very individualistic and competitive and capitalistic, where you also have to perform as a character.” The strain of such contradictions doesn’t deter him, though. “I really like all these tensions, because for me in Berlin, as a queer artist, I question myself every day. Like, ‘What can I do to create spaces of political debate?’”

Abramovich is also questioning what queer identity means in a capitalist system “where everything becomes a product, or consumable”. It’s important, he believes, to reflect on “what queer means now besides this cool label or brand”.

This has become another standout element in Abramovich’s web of personas and performance: the societal structures that assign our characters and confine us all. “The system creates a theatre piece that we have to play out, and sometimes we play characters that we don’t really choose, but they are unconscious or imposed by the system. Like gender”, he explains.

It’s become worse, he thinks, since the rapid rise of social media and the onset of the pandemic. “I think there’s a global melancholia, especially now, after these years of isolation. It comes from a system that asks you all the time to create an image, like an avatar of yourself.”

As well as reflecting the complicated aspects of our existing society, Abramovich’s films have a broader agenda, attempting to challenge the system’s status quo and rigid identity constructs. Today, the filmmaker is working on a new film that invites his subjects – and, eventually, the audience – to imagine a future free of them.

I think there’s a global melancholia, especially now, after these years of isolation.

The project, currently shooting in Argentina, chronicles a group of 30 people who were invited to collectively imagine a new possible society. During the auditioning process, the roles of auditioner and auditionee were interchanged, and Abramovich’s team invited some people from the auditions to become script writers on the project. The film will mix documentary with the subjects’ fantasy, as the group discusses the things they want to experience in their lives, script some of those scenes, rehearse them and eventually perform together. The film is shot in nature but with a green screen as a poetic element, allowing the people to choose their context and body.

When asked to give an example, he begins talking about one of the younger participants, a 10-year-old child. “When they had to introduce themselves, they said, ‘Hey, sometimes I feel like I’m a boy. Sometimes I feel like I’m a girl. Sometimes, like today, I’m nothing. And that’s okay,’ Abramovich recounts. “It’s a film about trying to imagine a collective future, or a queer future together, even though we are different. It’s thinking of identity as an infinite work in progress.”

Once again, his filmmaking is not just about the finished piece, but the process of exploring together, reaching a state of intimacy and exposing shared truth. But for Abramovich, the new project is also something of a departure – a transition from asking “What characters are you performing today?” to “Who do you want to be tomorrow?” Ultimately, he’s hopeful about the answers.

“Art brings the possibility to shake us and make us question ourselves to hopefully change something,” he says. “Underneath all these layers there is always a human. All humans have emotions, are afraid, we feel lonely and we all want to be loved somehow. I think that’s the main point.”