Screenwriter and director Kurdwin Ayub was born in Iraq in 1990 and currently lives and works in Vienna, Austria. She studied Painting and Experimental Animation with Christian Ludwig Attersee and Judith Eisler at the University of Applied Arts Vienna from 2008 to 2013. She later studied Performing Arts with Carola Dertnig at the University of Fine Arts in Vienna. Her shorts have been shown and awarded at numerous international film festivals. In 2011 and 2012, she received the Viennale Mehrwert Short Film Prize, where she also presented a series of her short films that same year. In 2013, Ayub was awarded the Vienna Independent Shorts Newcomer Prize. Her feature documentary “Paradise! Paradise!” written, directed and shot by Ayub won the Best Camera Award at the Diagonale – Festival of Austrian Film, the New Waves Non Fiction Award at the Sevilla Festival de Cine Europeo and the Carte Blanche Prize of the Duisburger Filmwoche in 2016. Also in 2016, Ayub’s entire works were shown as part of a special short film series at the BAFICI Festival for International Independent Cinema in Buenos Aires and at the Sevilla European Film Festival.
She was a “Person in Focus” at this year’s Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, where her entire body of work was shown, including her feature film, “Sonne,” that premiered earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival. Tara Karajica talks to Kurdwin Ayub about her work, feminism in film and the short form today.
What made you want to become a filmmaker?
Kurdwin Ayub: I think I have always wanted to make films and tell stories. I remember when I was a child, I liked to tell and invent stories – but not lying. It was something else. It was like telling all my friends what cool stories I invented. Then, I also tried to write a script when I was eleven or twelve. That was fun because I had always wanted to make films because I grew up in front of the television and I only had television because my parents worked all day and we were financially instable. So, it was just very strict. I couldn’t go out because I grew up differently than my Austrian friends. So, I was at home and I watched films and TV.
Can you talk about the aesthetic in your short films, which is inspired by social media and it’s very current. In that sense, can you also touch upon your approach to the medium?
K.A.: I guess I grew up in a time when smartphones, Facebook and MySpace became popular and everybody was suddenly on social media networks and showing their personas and better versions of themselves on the Internet. I have always found this very interesting maybe because I’m also a political person as I come from Iraq, a refugee and with a mixed identity from Austria and Iraq. So, I have always reflected on who I was. I have thought a lot about identity, about myself and about people. I have always been very curious about how people represent themselves with their friends in reality or on the Internet. And, this is something that has stuck with me since I have been making art, so it’s not really a conscious tactic of mine that I use or show on social media or to make my films; it’s a thing I see, do and like.
How does your dual identity – the Iraqi one and the Austrian one – inform your filmmaking?
K.A.: I think I don’t identify as Austrian and Kurdish that much in my adulthood. I used to think: “I am like my Austrian friends, I have the same problems with my parents. They’re annoying. And, I’m depressed because I’m not pretty enough.” So, things like this that girls think, right? Then, I realized that people from outside see me differently. So, when I was eighteen or nineteen, I experienced it. You’re in a safe space with your friends and your family and then, when you go out, you’re suddenly not Austrian anymore. You’re just like: “Oh, interesting! I have black hair, so people see me differently.” So, then, I realized: “Okay, who am I?” It took me a long time to find out who I am – also through my art because it’s like therapy for me. Then, I realized that the older I got, it wasn’t really that important where you’re from or who you are anymore, but I think you have to learn at first and experience that. I guess I’m a mixture and it shows in my art as well. I did a lot of performance art and I always say that I put a version of myself on the screen and I put her there so that I can watch her and leave her there because I don’t like that version of me. But after a while, I’ve seen that I also like this version of me because it’s the version the system makes of you – because it’s a girl who tries to be perfect for boys or for society or through the videos she makes. I mean, it’s also like me – I’m making films and I want to be accepted and get attention, so I guess it’s like a general thing. I don’t hate her anymore. It’s the same thing with social media when I see pictures of women who put filters to be prettier. I don’t hate it. I don’t judge them. I see a very vulnerable person there. And this is what this society makes.
In that regard, you’ve always played with the ambiguity of the identity of the character that is in front of the camera. Can you elaborate on that a bit more?
K.A.: It was very early on. I started with the character because I studied Arts. At the beginning, I didn’t have connections to actresses, DPs or editors. I did everything by myself. So, I also did the acting by myself. And, after a while, I realized that people liked it. So, I became a performance artist. It actually happened by accident. But then, I started to think more about that person and I realized that in every film I make, there is something that people think it’s autobiographical. But it is a mixture of how I invent myself or the person I like to invent. For example, for my fiction feature, Sonne, people always ask me if it’s an autobiography and if it happened to me, or if it’s my feelings or if I am Yesmin, the main character, and I say: “Not really because it’s totally fiction, but I like to play with it.” Because we also live in a society where you make up a person on the Internet and I really find it fascinating.
How are your studies in Painting and Performance Art informing your filmmaking today?
K.A.: I mean, I studied Painting and Animation and I really wanted to finish my studies quickly because I always thought that real life had nothing to do with University. Because Arts at University is such a safe space and people like to experiment a lot, but not at University where you try to be successful, which is crazy. And then, I thought: “Okay, I’m in the real world and now I’m annoyed by all the talking at University, so I have to finish it very quickly.” And, I studied Performance Arts just one year because a lot of it was also talking about the videos we all did and I couldn’t do it.
Are you a feminist? And, if so, how does that inform your filmmaking?
K.A.: Oh, yes! The feminism question is funny because everybody nowadays is a feminist on Instagram. So, I find it very interesting.
But in real life, not on Instagram?
K.A.: I’m for equal rights for everyone. I see myself as a woman who is for equal rights and doing work that reflects my feelings and my feelings are sometimes the result of how I was treated by men or by society. But I don’t do it in an obvious way, I don’t do it consciously. And, for me, a feminist really fights for her rights. I mean, I see Iran and they are all feminists for me. And, I cannot tell you because I’m sitting here in a hotel. It’s great. So, I’m not really fighting. So, for me, feminism is a high level of activism, so that’s the reason why I said Instagram feminists. For me, it is a high achievement to call yourself like that. So, I cannot call myself a feminist because I’m just sitting here and making cute videos.
There is this quote by you: “When people see me with the camera, even there, they don’t take me seriously. Then, they think I’m that kind of girl who got an expensive camera from her parents for her birthday and can still fulfill her dreams before she gets married. For real!” Can you comment on that?
K.A.: Yes. When I was in Iraq, for example, I had a camera and I realized that the men there didn’t take me seriously because I was a young woman. I mean, they would also think that if I were in Austria – they wouldn’t take me seriously, I guess because I was really girly and had a big camera. The positive part about that is that because they didn’t take me seriously, I did everything with the camera and it was very natural, so they didn’t fear me. But the women took me seriously. I don’t want to do anything sh*&^y on film. If I were a boy and had a camera, they would have taken me more seriously. Now, it’s different, of course. They can Google me…
And, now, you’re a Person in Focus here and your work was shown at many film festivals around the world! Can you talk about that?
K.A.: It’s strange because I’m still young! But it’s cool, and I hope I can say intelligent things and give people something when they watch my films. Then, I wouldn’t be scared to sit here and think: “Okay, I don’t deserve that.”
What do you think of the short form today? How is it in Austria?
K.A.: I have the feeling that everybody is trying to achieve something with their first short film. They want to go to big film festivals like Cannes, to be someone already at twenty years old, which I think is very crazy because nobody’s perfect with their first short film. They have to try things out and gain experience. There is a lot of competition and you see it also in the films. They are similar. I think every other person is a refugee or has cancer and they all have clean and pretty pictures. And, sometimes, I feel like all the films look the same in German-speaking countries, and maybe that’s because of Netflix and its style of films. I like to encourage people to experiment more or make ugly things as well because we don’t like people to be the same, right? This is how I see short films. I also still work with the short form – music videos or, for example, now I did a short digital reality film just to experiment and see what it’s like.
Yes, you play at lot with formats in your work and switch from documentaries to videos and then to fiction… And because of that, you’re thought to be one of the most exciting artist young artist in Austria today. Would you agree with that?
K.A.: I don’t know! I don’t do it consciously. I like to do it because it’s interesting. It’s boring to just stick to one thing, I guess. I have always wanted to try out virtual reality for example, so I did it. And I always want to to learn something new. I like different formats, maybe because of my studies in Painting. I like images, people and reality and everything is a format.
What are you working on next?
K.A.: It’s a feminist film! My next project is Mond (Moon) and it’s about a former professional MMA fighter in Austria who is now a personal trainer for a rich Arab family. A lot of mysterious things are happening and as MMA fighting is in a cage, it’s showing the similarities or the differences between women in cages in Austria and women in cages in my culture.