On the occasion of the Diagonale 2022, director Kurdwin Ayub presented her feature film Sonne, the festival’s opening film, which had already been screened at the Berlinale 2022, where it won the GWFF-Preis for Best Debut Film. Cinema Austriaco had the opportunity to have a chat with her and learn more about her work and career. Interview by Marina Pavido.
Marina Pavido: How did the idea of making Sonne come about?
Kurdwin Ayub: Some time ago I discovered on the internet a girl band that sang Muslim songs in English and already had a big audience. I wanted to make a documentary about them, I tried to contact them, but they did not reply, so I decided to make my own story. Of course, over the years, new ideas came up again and again, many of which concern me closely. It is, therefore, a fictional story, which, at the same time, partly reflects my inner world.
M. P.: Can you tell us more about Yesmin?
K. A.: I could say that Yesmin is a sort of mix between me and my sister. This is undoubtedly a funny thing. At the same time, the actress who played her (Melina Benli) also gave her some of her own personality traits. I normally work with non-professional actresses, who have remarkable personalities. I find that this is also very important for the story. Basically Yesmin is a mix between me, my sister, my world and the actress who plays her. She lives in a world where it is as if her identity has already been ‘assigned’ to her, but when her friends begin to feel closer and closer to her world, she starts to question herself. Thus begins a process of self-awareness that often makes her feel nervous and confused. It was always important to me that her character was very human, with her weaknesses and doubts.
M. P.: Your directorial approach is very interesting. How have you been influenced by social media language?
K. A.: I grew up in a world where social media and smartphones played an increasingly important role in our lives. I have always been interested in the topic of social media, how everyone wants to appear through them, how they want to present themselves to others and how art can be created through these new means. Social media have always played a central role in my creative processes. Besides, you cannot tell a story about teenagers today without social media (laughs ).
M. P.: Both in Paradise! Paradise! and in Sonne you worked together with your father. Can you tell us more about this experience?
K. A.: The funny thing is that my mother also acts in Sonne, but in this case she plays a character that is totally different from her, except for the scene where she talks about her past. My father, on the other hand, practically plays himself. With both of them I had to take different approaches: while with my mother I had to give different directions, with my father I did not have to prepare anything. He came back from work, the situation was explained to him each time and then we simply saw what happened. I think every non-professional actor needs a different approach and over time you learn to relate to each one. You learn from them and they learn from you.
M. P.: How was it working with Ulrich Seidl?
K. A.: Since he is also a director, he knows what is necessary and what is not and at the same time gives a lot of freedom. Even though we have two different styles, we have a similar way of working: we both shoot chronologically, we both often work with non-professional actors, we both focus a lot on authenticity. Practically, he gave me the freedom and possibilities he also has.
M. P.: Can you tell us some funny facts that happened during the making of the film?
K. A.: Once something very nice happened. We were in Simmering, the neighbourhood where I also grew up, and we were shooting the scene where the boys – the real bad boys in the film – almost wanted to break into a closed place. Near us a group of children had stopped to see what we were doing. At one point a kid on a bicycle came up to us with a big stone in his hand and said: ‘Maybe you can do it better with this’ (laughs).
M. P.: When did you realise you wanted to be a filmmaker?
K. A.: I always wanted to tell stories and I grew up with television, so I started very early to think I wanted to make films. I wasn’t sure what directing was, but I was sure I wanted to make films. So I started making the first videos at school with my friends. Then at the age of eighteen I applied to enter the Universität für angwandten Kunst. At first I didn’t think I would get in, but then it worked out. What I liked most was that I could always keep alive my desire to experiment.
M. P.: Are there any films, film movements or directors that are particularly significant for you?
K. A.: It is a complicated question. I could name Maria Lassnig, who was really inspiring for me, but also Marina Abramović. I have always liked New Hollywood films, as well as the 1940s comedies. One of the last films I liked, for example, is The Batman, partly because I have a crush on the protagonist (laughs). But in the end it is complicated to choose a certain movement or a certain director. One could simply say that one loves cinema.
M. P.: One last question: are you currently working on any new projects?
K. A.: Yes, I am currently working on my next film, which is called Mond and tells the story of a former martial arts champion who trains three girls from an Arab family. Gradually, however, the situation takes a more complicated and mysterious turn, also as far as the girls’ family is concerned. It will in any case be a very enthralling story.