Social media, sexual politics and the struggle of a rebellious young woman to find herself are at the heart of Kurdwin Ayub’s fiction feature debut, “Sonne,” which has its world premiere Feb. 12 in the Berlin Film Festival’s Encounters strand.
Set in Vienna, the story begins as three teenage girls in hijabs lip-synch and perform a provocative dance routine to a pop song. A video quickly goes viral, turning the trio into overnight sensations, especially among Kurdish Muslims.
But for Yesmin (Melina Benli), the only one of the three with Kurdish roots, the sudden popularity pushes her away from both her friends and her culture. The distance only grows when her friends, played by Law Wallner and Maya Wopienka, fall for a pair of young Kurdish patriots.
The provocative first feature from Ayub, a writer, director and video and performance artist known for blurring the lines between fact and fiction, draws on current events, viral news stories and the filmmaker’s own experience to provide a vivid portrait of a young woman at a crossroads. “I always play with what is real and what is not real, who I am, is this story what I lived?” she says.
Born in Iraq, Ayub fled the country with her family during the first Gulf War. They spent time in Turkey before relocating to Austria, where Ayub took her first steps in a refugee camp. She grew up on the outskirts of Vienna, where she led what she considered to be a “normal Austrian life with my refugee parents living in the suburb.”
Her perception, however, changed as a teenager. “After a while, I realized people don’t see me like that,” she says. “It was strange because when I was in Iraq, I was not a Kurd, I was not a perfect Iraqi — I was a European girl. But when I’m here, people don’t see me as an Austrian girl.”
“Sonne” explores that identity crisis through the character of Yesmin, who clashes with her conservative mother over makeup and with her free-spirited friends over hijabs and hemlines. It’s a crisis that’s refracted through the funhouse mirror of a modern world where social media allows us to try out and discard new identities in the time it takes to switch filters on Instagram.
But while the stakes are low for her two Austrian friends, who are suddenly drawn into a strange and seductive foreign world, they seem impossibly high for Yesmin, who can’t shrug off her Kurdish identity so easily. “She comes from this family, and this is the system she lives in, and it’s a struggle to leave that behind,” says Ayub.
“Sonne” is repped internationally by Cercamon and produced by Ulrich Seidl, whose latest feature, “Rimini,” bows in the main competition of the Berlinale. Cinematographer Enzo Brandner and editor Roland Stöttinger worked with Ayub to craft a kinetic visual style that uses text messages, Instagram posts and TikTok videos to depict an experience the director says “is like seeing the emotional world of a youngster” today.
It’s a world that she admits is more complex than the one she grew up in, with social media an increasingly pervasive influence on the lives of young girls trying to navigate constantly shifting social and sexual mores.
Though now 31, Ayub can still relate to that struggle. “I remember myself [as a teenager]. I was so depressed,” she says. “Sometimes I think back and think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t [have been] so depressed. Because I am OK, I’m healthy, there was no pandemic.’” She laughs. “Everything was fine, actually. This is the sympathy I have with girls now. Because I know how hard it is.”