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- Reviewed from the 2022 Berlinale
Origins and national identity are far from simple matters to define for the teenagers in Sonne, one of the stand-out films from this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. It’s a fiction feature debut for director Kurdwin Ayub, who was born in Iraq but grew up in Austria (and who previously made the documentary feature Paradise! Paradise!, about her own family and their ideas of home and real estate).
It’s rare that a film immerses us in the always-online nature of contemporary life in a way that feels authentic, but Ayub manages it, complete with satirical wit. Her portrait of coming-of-age diaspora experience plays out in a world in which any contemplative inner quest for self-knowledge is easily stymied by the pressure for internet presence, and for teens to display an image of themselves with throwaway irony for entertainment consumption.
Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is that it captures, through its raft of well-rounded characters, the nuanced complexity of viewpoints that exist even within Vienna’s diaspora communities, dismantling any reductive “us and them” notion of immigrants and locals, and suggesting instead that identity is always dynamic, and endlessly challenged and negotiated.
Yesmin (Melina Benli) lives with her Iraqi-Kurdish family in Vienna and enjoys, like any teenager these days, messing around making clips on her mobile, uploading them to the internet for laughs and likes. When she makes a parodic video with besties Nati (Law Wallner) and Bella (Maya Wopienka) of them posing and twerking to REM’s Losing My Religion in her bedroom in the garb that her mother wears to pray, it goes viral. Reactions within her own family are mixed.
Yesmin’s mother feels offended that their Muslim faith is being made fun of, and is wary that any negative attention endangers their social acceptance (some of the backstory that has led to her risk-aversion is thoughtfully revealed later, as she talks about living in a cellar for eight years during turmoil in Iraq).
Yesmin’s fun-loving father, meanwhile, is rashly indulgent, and proud of her creative efforts, to the point where he ferries the girls about to perform the song at weddings and other gatherings in the city. Yesmin’s brother, who is more prone to acting out and getting into trouble (and whose own online antics – involving the killing of a wild pig in a nature reserve – are set to inflame controversy and the attention of the police), is merely keen to use any leverage that the clip might offer to get parental disciplinary attention away from himself.
Yesmin is the only member of her friendship trio who wears a hijab in daily life. Bella refers to herself as “half-Yugo,” and has a family rooted in a different context of traumatic migration experience, and Nati describes herself as coming from Austria. Yesmin is accustomed to deftly moving between the different cultural codes required of her at home and at school, but in the course of the film, and all of the attention the video receives, she descends into a quiet crisis over how to position herself amid all the clashing demands on how she should behave.
As the friends are invited to appear on a talk show about the video, it is Bella, the white European, who takes the lead on discussing the issue, even though it is Yesmin who lives in the personal experience of it (just one of many micro-aggressions and subtle power dynamics the film effectively portrays). When the trio meet a group of young men from Kurdistan drinking at a party, and one takes issue with their video, suggesting they went too far (“the niqab doesn’t go with the song”), Yesmin is angered that others are attempting to determine for her when and how she can be comical, and perform. Bella’s budding romance with one of these men takes the plot toward an interesting twist, and adds further to Yesmin’s increasing sense of confusion and isolation.
With its constant, irreverent humour and bantering dialogue, Sonne is never sanctimonious or overly worthy, but treats all the many perspectives it contains with open curiosity, and a generous compassion for human fickleness, youthful experimentation and mistakes. It ultimately offers a rich vision of both the fetishisation of foreignness, and of the challenges of finding a sense of belonging in an Austrian society that is not the rigid monolith conservatives might dream of, but rather a dynamic and complex mix of communities.