Sonne: A Kurdish Muslim girl searching for her own identity beyond novel exoticism
Three teenage girls from Vienna film themselves twerking in hijab and singing REM’s 1991 iconic hit Losing My Religion.
One of them publishes the video of their performance on YouTube and the three friends become famous overnight, in particular among the members of the Kurdish Muslim community.
This is the amusing, energetic premise of Iraqi-born, Vienna-based helmer Kurdwin Ayub’s sophomore feature Sonne, screened in the Encounters section of this year’s Berlin Film Festival (10-20 February) and winner of the GWFF Best First Feature Award.
"The initial enjoyment brought by the trio’s sudden '15 minutes of fame' is gradually replaced by Yesmin’s growing discomfort, as she begins to detach herself more and more from her native culture. Meanwhile, Nati and Bella become increasingly fascinated by it – almost in a distorted manner, seemingly driven by its exoticism"
The three protagonists of this coming-of-age tale are native Austrian Nati (played by Maya Wopienka), “half-Yugoslavian” Bella (Law Wallner) and Yesmin (Melina Benli), the only real Kurdish girl among them, who also took her mother’s hijabs for their performance. Predictably, Yesmin’s character takes centre stage, as she is the one who will be affected the most by the events unfolding after the video goes viral.
In particular, Yesmin’s conservative mother (portrayed by the director’s real mother, Awini Barwari) is embarrassed and angry, her father (Ayub’s father, who also starred in her debut Paradise! Paradise!) is surprisingly amused and supportive, whilst her brother Kerim (a distraught Kerim Dogan) disapproves his sister’s vanity, but it is somehow clear that the two have already been distant for quite a while.
The initial enjoyment brought by the trio’s sudden “15 minutes of fame” is gradually replaced by Yesmin’s growing discomfort, as she begins to detach herself more and more from her native culture. Meanwhile, Nati and Bella become increasingly fascinated by it – almost in a distorted manner, seemingly driven by its exoticism.
After the two girls meet two Kurdish patriots at a party, things escalate. The two young men begin questioning Yesmin’s manners and decency, but they don’t do the same with their two Western dates.
Such disparity of treatment irritates Yesmin and accentuates her desire to escape. As in many groups of three friends, one of them – in this case, Bella – plays the role of the mediator, timidly attempting to understand the reasons behind Yesmin’s disappointment but also backing her life choice and that of her friend, who acts even more arrogant and insensitive towards the Kurdish girl.
Notably, Benli imbues her role with the right balance between a rebellious nature and a more fearful, insecure attitude. In this sense, she is a typical coming-of-age lead character, but the multi-cultural context she interacts with and the importance of social media within the storyline make her process of self-discovery not so obvious.
With great inventiveness, DoP Enzo Brandner (Arash T. Riahi’s Where No One Knows Us) alternates intimate, hand-held shots with a full-fledged – and deliberately ugly – social media ‘aesthetics,’ wherein Facebook posts, TikTok videos, Instagram stories, WhatsApp private messages and filters of questionable taste serve as scenes and dialogues as powerful and irreverent as the live-action ones.
For example, it’s one of Kerim’s troubling Instagram videos that makes his family deal with the Austrian police and finally realise that the boy is taking a dangerous path. In addition, WhatsApp’s messages – as well as their infamous blue and grey ticks – highlight the trio’s estranged relationship.
Finally, the same performance of Losing My Religion is performed, recorded and shared over and over again, rapidly losing all of its original spontaneity and fun. Thus, it easily serves as a metaphor for the volatility and the ephemerality of today’s trending topics, hashtags, memes and other Internet phenomena.
Interestingly, Ayub explains in her director’s notes that two encounters made her think about the theme of identity and were the first sources of inspiration for the making of Sonne.
During the first one, an Austrian driver was surprised to pick “a person like her” in “a foreign district full of Turks and Orientals.” She told him that she was also a migrant and the ride predictably fell silent. Afterwards, she took an Uber. A Kurd drove her around telling her how much he missed his homeland. Ayub told him she was Kurdish too. The man started talking in Kurdish, but she couldn’t answer as she doesn’t know the language.
Even though these two anecdotes are somehow not directly connected with the picture, they tell much about the director’s background and cultural displacement and how they contributed to developing the writing of Yesmin. In one scene, for example, the girl is quite annoyed by one of the Kurdish patriots’ remarks, who assumes she doesn’t speak the language.
The last third of the film is probably the least developed, as it feels a bit too rushed. Spectators will be caught between a sudden plot twist linked to Bella, Yesmin’s revealing conversation with her mother and a final hangover.
The closure of the narrative arc, open-ended but also a bit abrupt, seems to mark the girl’s achievement of a new level of awareness.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland.
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni