SXSW Film Review: Ayar

Experimental drama is bound by standard cinema roots

SXSW's Visions category represents a selection of “audacious, risk-taking artists in the new cinema landscape.” Only five disparate films fall under this category in the 2021 festival and Ayar, a feature about a first generation American Latina trying to reunite with her estranged daughter, is top billed.

Filmmaker Floyd Russ aims high in building a psychic world mixing documentary footage with scripted material. The editing is non-linear, events which happened years ago occur alongside present-day, mid-pandemic America. Inexplicable plant life consumes the frame in the latter half of the film. On paper, Ayar aligns perfectly with the description of the Visions category and the general aura of a boundary breaking film.

Though making grand efforts to break free from convention, Ayar is beholden to well-trodden Hollywood filmmaking conventions of conflict/resolution, character arc, and three act structure. The film is a remarkable testament to the durability of age-old screenwriting structures and the adherence of filmmakers to these methods in their efforts to break free of them. The basic structure is not eschewed by experimental, risk-taking visual and editing flair, it is only dressed differently.

Ayar treats the audience as a thing to be manipulated (one actor points at the camera and refers to the movie’s audience, denouncing their escapism) and dazzled (psychedelic microscope images appear throughout) instead of creating an experience through which an audience can be transformed. So what is gained through the experimentation in Ayar? There is one technique that does seem like an invention, where characters are introduced with a split second montage of childhood photos. Through this technique, we have a more diverse understanding of the characters in the film, but these characters still behave in predictable, plot-driven ways: trauma is overcome, pasts are reconciled, relationships are mended through familiar self-realization and force of will.

Ayar conjures a complex psychic environment which undergirds the film’s diverse cast. The effort is not without merit, but it is nothing new for a film that is touted as boundary-defying. The expectation of radical new vistas of understanding comes from the same old stories.



World Premiere

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