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Insides and Outsides

The Exploratory Films of Kurdwin Ayub

notes by Savina Petkova

Insides and Outsides

A look at how the Kurdish artist and filmmaker Kurdwin Ayub glues together ‘inside’ and ‘out’, inspired by her retrospective at Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur.

Before telling a story about Kurdish migrants on the outskirts of Vienna which inevitably references her own in her fiction feature debut ‘Sonne’, Kurdwin Ayub has always drawn her work close to home. The Iraq-born, Vienna-based has explored questions of identity which are always interlaced with social belonging (friends, family) and the geography of nationhood (being Austrian). Ayub’s films, short and feature-length, stand out with a certain fluidity, a throbbing rhythm that both invites and recedes from intellectual analysis. Weaving real and fictitious performance and exposure into an indistinguishable whole, the films presented as part of the Winterthur focus provide a good base for excavation: what is it that regulates the push and pull of Ayub’s protagonists, even when she herself is made one?

What we are to learn very early on is that looks can be deceiving and even the films which feature Ayub as director, character, and narrative arc are much more layered in the way they recreate the antagonistic relationship between “inside” and “outside”: of the self, of the personal story, of the frame. Take ‘Adele 1’. The short film doubles as a performance video, glueing the person and the persona in front of a camera which is her own. An intimate moment turned event, once it has been disseminated and this is why the style takes its cues from YouTube videos (or, as they were called back then,“vlogs”). But the composedness shatters at a most unexpected moment in ‘Adele 1’.

While everyday, used, objects become the artist’s paraphernalia simply by joining her in the frame: the syncing iPod with its headphone cables all tangled up, the glass of orange juice residue, a shirt thrown on the couch in the background – the mere arrangement of objects in a restricted view (the frame) imbues them with mystical properties as witnesses to a confessional mode of address. “This is a song that somehow fits my situation,” says the young girl in front of her MacBook (the filmmaker herself playing an unnamed character), introducing Adele’s heart wrenching ballad “Someone Like You”. It is the presupposed universality in aligning with one of the most successful singles in recent music history that frames this short as perhaps an ironic take of actual cover videos, but Ayub is always one step ahead: there is timidity, imperfections, a pronounced lack of staging in the conventional sense, all of which give way to a particular rawness that is usually associated with her work as a creator.

Distanciation and fluid boundaries – these are some of the traits which characterise Ayub’s so-called performance videos, a whole cycle of which denies a linear narrative even if all the clips share a protagonist. It’s deceiving, it beckons the viewer to look for continuity: It must be the same girl, so it must be her story. On the one hand, yes, they all are her stories, packed in a neat, easily recognisable form, and yet part of them – both the films and the characters – remain impenetrable. In ‘Sommerurlaub (Vaginale VII)’ the young woman sings again, this time properly staged in long shot, framed by curtains for high dramatic value; her singing, of soul legend Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay With Me”, a pleading gradation of feelings swelling through every verse lip-synced by the character, wearing an ornate white (wedding?) dress. Still, there is an uncanny ring to all of its beauty as one cannot help but feel like she’s borrowing someone else’s dress, a remnant from another life, another era, another love maybe?

Even when mystique is supposedly stripped down to reveal the naked, painful realism of a needle injuring her lips, the artist cannot help but smile, preserving the element of critical unknowability. In ‘pretty-pretty’, the 75 seconds long clip commissioned by Slash Film Festival, Ayub frames herself from the shoulders up, hues and colours subdued enough to make her smokey eyes pop out, as well as her bloodied lips as she performs “Wish you were gay” by Billie Eilish, almost acapella. The film’s synopsis readily links her harmful self-staging to Viennese Actionism and its totalisation of artistic practices which includes, or uses, the creator’s own body as canvas; however sound, such a comparison may read as over-intellectualising, thus effacing the singularly feminist message such a setup communicates (with nods to beauty standards, defiance, even masochism). In this way, understanding ‘pretty-pretty’ becomes more elusive, than simply taking it in, with its affective close-ups of a bloodied smile, and the needle piercing the upper lip, repeatedly.

Music is a faithful companion to the confessionals embedded in Ayub’s performative video mode and she wears it like a cloak: by both drawing attention to its decorative role and denying a straightforward interpretation of the moving image. Therefore, a seductive, transgressive form of denial permeates these otherwise easily codifiable works. Similarly, genre proximity is what imbues the actual music videos, helmed by Kurdwin Ayub. ‘Like Lucifer', for example, may have her as both director and performer. Credited as “dancing girl”, she traverses the streets and underpasses of Vienna in a black chador, lip-syncing to grungy male vocals by the Austrian Brutal Boogie band Go! Go! Gorillo in a freely choreographed daze. Ayub and Vienna are one, but not the same: her works explore ways of being Austrian which nonetheless incorporate her own Kurdish background to further complicate the concepts of “inside” and “outside” with regards to belonging.

As much as the subtext (and context) of ‘Like Lucifer’ implies a comparative link between the devilish implication of the lyrics, describing an unruly, yet desirable young woman (“Is she like Lucifer // or is she irresistible?”), and Ayub’s black-clad body, one struggles to couple the two. Such difficulty is due to the cultural and religious specificity which the garment holds for Muslim women and also to the misfitting between the vocals and the performer’s image. The process of dislocating the viewer in such a way is a gradual, almost tectonic shift, challenged by the synchronicity of dance and sound, the choreography and the song’s own rhythm matching the urban beat. Simple and generative, Ayub’s music video direction never fails to express the push and pull of presupposed definitions even when she’s elaborating on deft references to an iconic scene of a woman’s undoing from Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 film ‘Possession’. In other words, signifiers are not quite what they seem.

A more specific facet of Vienna becomes the backdrop to the short ‘LOLOLOL’ which accompanies two friends on a night out among the Viennese art scene. Their tour through the creative hub that is Parallel Vienna is drenched in banter and make-speak (a mix of Viennese dialect and abbreviations for the always-online), externalising a friendship between two art students in a rather casual, authentic way. The documentary value of ‘LOLOLOL’ doesn’t necessarily seek to expose, as the filmmaker’s attention seems to mirror the protagonists’ own restlessness. Close-ups, unstable long shots, all handheld and shot on an iPhone X testify to an immediacy which draws us closer, inwards, towards what Ada (Karlbauer, writer and curator) and Anthea (Schranz, now Austria’s hottest hyperpop artist whose ‘Alive’ video was also directed by Ayub) may be thinking as they wander through the night. Terseness, being awkward and avoiding cringe factors are the pillars of these twenty-something art students and their comfort zone expands further beyond the iPhone camera. Their proximity is generated through distance, be it masked bickering, or the fact that Ada disappears by the end of the film, leaving us with Anthea’s own late night meandering.

Towards the end of the short, the glue holding reality and fiction together in an idiosyncratic whole seems to dissipate if only for a few seconds. In a crowded toilet, lines of coke are being passed around for the makeshift friend group of people who’ve stayed late at Parallel and while the camera follows the swinging motions of hands trading the rolled-up Euro-bill, Anthea guards a corner quietly, observing. At that point, a guy says to his mate that “once” he was “in love with Anthea”, and then he “wasn’t after.” Point-blank? Cringe? Totally random? We can’t read Anthea’s face at the precise moment the name is mentioned in the third person. Can’t they see, or are they plain rude? In the spirit of ‘LOLOLOL’, such a gap cannot cause a huge embarrassment, since it can be filed under the “for the lolz” rubric — the party goes on, music playing, Anthea dances as if no one’s watching. Being addressed by your name, instead of ‘you’ destabilises the boundaries: are you in or are you out?

Kurdwin Ayub’s filmmaking is particularly adept at alleviating charged situations in tightly-knit groups, be it friends or family. The latter holds particular significance for her both as an universalist structure and as an instance of personal belonging. In ‘Boomerang’— another title to cheekily bring in the online offline — Ayub presents a family of five at a point where the divorce aftermath has not yet settled in. This delicate phase of traumatic restructuring is captured with humour and attention to every single family member, and most of all, with affectionate understanding towards a father who is losing face in trying to change his ex-wife’s mind. Over a largely awkward post-dinner scene, Dana, the younger daughter, decides to break the tension by pulling out her phone as a mediating device (another Gen-Z coping mechanism, one may say). Social media filters which alter the parents’ faces, give them animal looks, or a nose ring, become a pathway for raw, honest interaction and channel the documentarian love of authenticity into a fictional story. With all its empathy, ‘Boomerang’ makes it difficult to single out one protagonist as more important than the other. In a way, the film belongs to everyone and their togetherness is presented to the viewer from the inside — group chat texts, secrets, annoyance — with a participatory element guaranteed by the phone screen.

The camera is a useful tool for approximation and distancing when filming one’s own family. In ‘Familienurlaub’ (a precursor-companion to her 2016 documentary feature debut ‘Paradise! Paradise!’), Ayub uses the “home video abroad” genre to tell a fragmented story about her family’s trip to native Iraq following the many years spent in Vienna after seeking refuge. The filmmaker uses seventeen scenes, separated by strong cuts to black, to bring forth various fragments of how the inside and outside switch places, when it comes to home and homeland. We see Ayub and her mother conversing about the state of the city, how it exists now and how it resurfaces in memories, but they do so in Viennese German; all the while when her father talks about the future infrastructure and property ownership in Kurdistan, she prompts him to speak in Kurdish. This amalgamation of languages mirrors the impossibility to choose one over the other and makes a point about not having to choose. ‘Familienurlaub’ exists in a special state of limbo between ‘inside’ and ‘out’ — the holiday, the geography, the leftovers, the family birthdays, the tangential stories — captured and acted out with an acute sense for dramaturgy. The fact that Ayub places herself in front of the camera here is less of a performance like in the musical ones, because she is now one of many, one of her own, and for this reason, interactions may appear even more exposed.

However raw or however neat the limitations which mark the interior in opposition to its exterior, Kurdwin Ayub’s filmmaking is sensitive enough to challenge them. It is in her search for mismatching, or the slight fissure between two fitting objects/people/surfaces/ideas, that affect and authenticity can shine as bright, no matter the material she uses. From the home video, the iPhone footage, to the more polished, standardised film aesthetic, her films are repositories of meaning that invite a multiplicity of interpretations nested in precisely these cracks, where the out becomes in, and vice versa.

© Images

1 'Adele 1' (Kurdwin Ayub, 2011)
2 'Sommerurlaub (Vaginale VII)' (Kurdwin Ayub, 2011)
3 'LOLOLOL' (Kurdwin Ayub, 2020)
4 'Like Lucifer' (Kurdwin Ayub, 2019)