«Getting right away from the cliché of the girl in a headscarf»

How are you supposed to belong anywhere if you are born in one country and grow up in another, if one culture is dominant in the family and another at school? If a particular look is all the rage on digital channels this week but a different one next week, and if you record a video with girlfriends that goes viral only to discover that this suddenly drives a wedge between you? In her feature film debut SONNE Kurdwin Ayub follows three 17-year-olds through the chaos of our time.

In your Director’s Statement for SONNE you mention that you don’t see many films which reflect the chaos of our time. What do you feel is the nature of that chaos, especially for the generation that is the focus of attention in SONNE?

I’m thinking above all of the social media chaos and the question of how you define your identity: what you want be, how you want to look, where you want to feel you belong. In SONNE I have attempted to depict that realistically, because I don’t find it anywhere else. Usually the approach to this situation is romantic, or too fictional. I instigated a lot of improvisation and gave the young people the opportunity to hold the camera themselves and film each other, and I think that’s what gives the film its connection to reality.

So it is predominantly about visible chaos surrounding appearance and how people present themselves?

Definitely. Next week I want to be this, and two weeks later I want to be different again. SONNE is an amusing, chaotic take on the current teen generation, combined with cultural “identification difficulties”. In our artistic and cultural bubble people don’t attach much importance to Instagram influencer body ideals, but for most girls out there the desire to be sexy like the influence girls is widespread. And if we talk a lot about feminism in our bubble without actually appreciating that, we don’t realise it’s a bigger problem “out there”.

How much of a challenge was capturing this current chaos in a screenplay for a full-length feature film?

Tapping into this chaos wasn’t so difficult, because I’m part of the chaos myself. I mean, it goes with my age. When I was growing up suddenly Myspace appeared, and we were all connected to one another virtually for the first time. I wanted to be a Myspace star as well. Facebook and Instagram didn’t come along until later. Writing a screenplay is fundamentally hard because it means working and revising a text over years. But the basic idea for the narrative was there from the very start, and that’s what I built on.

What was that basic narrative concept?

I wanted to tell the story of three girls, friends who make a YouTube video where they perform a pop song for fun wearing headscarves. The video goes viral. What happens then is that two of the girls become much more interested in this “fame” while Yesmin, my main protagonist, doesn’t: in contrast to the others, she comes from a Muslim Kurdish background. And just as the band Tic Tac Toe broke up very dramatically,
I wanted these three friends to split up with a bang. Yesmin begins to distance herself from her friends but also from her own culture. Naturally telling a story always has something to do with yourself. I myself experienced some of the individual details in the story.

You said you also wanted to become a Myspace star; do you still remember what motivated you? Why does somebody want to become famous on the Internet?

Nowadays, when I analyze the way I used to be, I think there was a very strong cultural influence on my upbringing. I wasn’t allowed to go out, to spend time with boys, and I think I sought refuge in the Myspace world. But I can’t talk for other people. If you grow up in Simmering then you only move in the world of Simmering, but if you’re on Myspace, you can reach a lot more people and construct a universe for yourself that doesn’t necessarily correspond to reality. Generally somebody’s virtual self is what they would like to be. I think there’s a certain amount of pressure as well. If everyone else is doing it, and they all have cool lives on the platforms, then you want to do it too.

You have worked with young women who are about 10 years younger than you. Has anything changed again in that time?

Yes, it has. I have the feeling that in the generation 10 years younger than me, which is mainly on Instagram, everyone is on the same page. There are fewer subcultures, or maybe there are others that I don’t know. While I was working with school classes I got the impression that everyone is aiming for the same look, the same style of clothes. It was like a huge H&M shop window. I think that’s because Instagram can be accessed from anywhere. And that’s where young people all over the world get their idea of “the way you’re supposed to be”. I remember 10 years ago there were more subcultures: punks, indies, emos… I also think the sexual attributes have changed: big asses and lips, narrow waists. In the Asian region people have started to construct digital influencers that look very genuine: perfect digital people that have masses of fans. They’re used by the brands, they don’t get old, they don’t cost anything, and you can do anything you like with them. And I’m certain it’s difficult to achieve an idea like that.

The video that the three friends make, which goes viral, is their interpretation of the REM song Losing My Religion from 1991. To what extent does the title also convey Yesmin’s emotional position?

My three girls are very cool girls, and the 90s trend is everywhere at the moment. I was thinking to myself: how could they go viral, if they are smart? And I came to the conclusion that they should sing Losing My Religion in headscarves. Yesmin’s story plays with this. From the very start Yesmin isn’t very devout. But she’s stuck in the system. I wanted to tell a different story to the distancing-yourself-from-your-culture one.

Which clichés have you attempted to combat?

I wanted to get right away from the cliché of the girl in a headscarf who suffers terribly because of her wicked parents, and above all I wanted to turn the image of the strict father and the good-natured mother on its head. A lot of minor aspects are incorporated in the individual scenes. Yesmin isn’t the girl in the class who is not cool; her father wants her to go to university; her brother isn’t allowed to do anything, but as the older sister she can.

What did your young actors have to master in order to get through the auditions?

I’d worked with Law Wallner on previous projects and done a lot of preparatory work and mobile videos with Melina Benli (Yesmin) and Maya Wopienka. So I already knew my main cast very well. The people who joined them had to be natural, to be able to improvise and adapt to things in the auditions, and – which was particularly important to me – to be funny and smart on camera. I always say I don’t cast actors: I cast personalities. And if I really like somebody, I adapt the character in the screenplay to them.

Using mobile footage is more than an aesthetic decision. How did you and Enzo Brandner organize the camerawork between phones and cameras?

I chose Enzo Brandner as DOP because he’s so good at working with hand cameras. He’s like an action cameraman, and he can hold the camera for a very long time. For the mobile footage the girls themselves often held the camera. Enzo brought more style and composition to the mobile sequences, but he also understood very quickly how to get that sloppiness in the images. And often the youngsters held the phones themselves, to make it more real. In general terms I think phone videos are very beautiful, from a colour and artistic perspective, whether they’re by Enzo, the young people in the film or the big wide world of the Internet.

Are belonging and the desire to belong the central themes that preoccupy the young women?

The film shows that everyone feels a bit lost. I don’t really belong anywhere either. I’m not really Austrian, even if I feel like that, and I’m not a real Kurd either. In that sense I don’t have any identity at all. If I ask myself where I come from, then it’s my family, the housing project in Simmering where I grew up. Other people know where they come from. I don’t know that feeling, and neither does Yesmin. As far as Bella and Nati are concerned, Yesmin’s two girlfriends, I can’t say whether they feel they belong anywhere culturally. Perhaps in a virtual, international world people don’t think nationally so much, which would be cool. Bella and Nati are unhappy in their lives and with their families; they feel abandoned, lost, and that’s why they search for warmth somewhere else. The fast life can be confusing: there are too many desires, too many ideals, too much that’s cool and sexy – but too little you can achieve unless you are born with it or born into it.

An important symbol in your story is the headscarf – a piece of material which triggers so many discussions, reactions and expectations. What was your thinking behind that?

I really wanted to look at the headscarf as just a piece of material. When Yesmin takes off her headscarf it’s not an extremely meaningful act. When Yesmin and her friends dance with it, they’re trying to be provocative and sexy. Why not? Why can’t a woman in a headscarf be sexy, or funny? When I think about the issue of wearing a headscarf among my relatives, I get the feeling it’s not such a big thing. They put it on. Full stop.  In my cultural circle it’s a normal thing, and there isn’t much talk about it. I think here in Europe a lot more fuss is made about it. In the Koran it says that a woman has to be protected because she is such a wonderful being. And protected from the wild animal: man and his lusts. The Koran was written before the Middle Ages. These days some things have changed. The idea that she has to hide herself is a mistaken interpretation. The question of the attitude people should have to the headscarf is also part of the chaos in our complex world, and in the film.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
December 2021
«When I was growing up suddenly Myspace appeared, and we were all connected to one another virtually for the first time. I wanted to be a Myspace star as well.»