'Sibel': Film Review

Courtesy of Pyramide Distribution
A potent real-world feminist fable.

Filmmakers Cagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti set their latest feature in a remote Turkish village with its own unique language.

In a remote village nestled in the hills of Turkey’s northern Black Sea region, what appears to be the sound of songbirds calling out to each other is actually the chatter of locals communicating by using an extremely rare whistled language that only they can speak. The village, which is called Koskoy, has passed on its distinct mother tongue from generation to generation, along with a host of other longstanding traditions carried out in isolation from the rest of Turkey and the world at large.

Such is the setting for the captivating and deeply felt coming-of-age fable Sibel, which follows a mute young woman who takes in a fugitive and winds up challenging some of Koskoy’s more rigid social practices, for which she ultimately pays a price. The third feature from writer/directors/partners Cagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti (Ningen), the film recalls the work of the Dardennes brothers in its handheld you-are-there immediacy, yet also has a mystical side steeped in local folklore and the sublime mountainous landscapes where the action plays out. After winning awards at several festivals, including the FIPRESCI prize in Locarno, Sibel received a small release in France and deserves more attention outside of Europe.

With the camera forever glued to our titular heroine’s side, we follow the rebellious loner, Sibel (Damla Sonmez, luminescent), as she works the fields outside her sleepy mountain town or prowls the woods in search of a wolf that’s been allegedly preying on the population. Rendered speechless by a fever she suffered several years earlier, Sibel can nonetheless speak her mind by whistling, with the others fully grasping what she’s saying and responding by whistling in return, or else speaking regular Turkish.

Yet just because everyone, including Sibel’s stern father, Emin (Emin Gursoy), who runs the only store in town and serves as Koskoy’s de facto chief, can understand the girl, it doesn’t mean they treat her with any respect. An outcast to the community left mostly to her own devices, Sibel wanders the surrounding forests, occasionally conversing with a mad woman, Narin (Meral Cetinkaya), who lives in a ramshackle cabin, or else hunting down a wolf that never shows its face.

One day, though, Sibel makes another kind of catch in the form of Ali (Erkan Kolcak Kostendil), an army deserter who falls into one of the girl’s traps while fleeing from the authorities. Though the police claim Ali is a terrorist, in reality he’s a thoughtful free spirit who wants nothing to do with Turkey’s militaristic regime. Soon enough, Sibel and Ali overcome their language barrier and spark up a would-be romance, although what results is not really a love story and more like a brief fling that will lead to Sibel’s sudden need to emancipate herself from both her family and her village.

Zenrici and Giovanetti, who co-wrote the script with Ramata Sy, set the stages for Sibel’s eventual liberation by revealing the fates of other women in the village, including her younger teenage sister, Fatma (Elit Iscan). The latter was meant to wed a local boy in an arranged marriage, but Sibel’s bad reputation winds up spoiling those plans. We also learn that forest dweller Narin tried to run off decades ago with a man she wasn’t meant to marry; her lover then disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

At some point, Sibel, whom the village elders see as a threat and whose own father tries to lock inside the house, decides she’s had enough. And what starts off as a quietly observant tale of one girl’s estrangement transforms into a folkloric feminist drama, with Sibel choosing to fight back despite all the risks and humiliation that entails.

Sonmez offers up a fiercely physical performance as the defiant, gun-toting rebel, playing a character whose inability to fully communicate — especially with Ali, who doesn’t understand the local dialect — means she has to express herself through gestures and actions. In one strong sequence, Sibel flees to the forest in anger, the camera subjectively tracking her as she tears through the brush and gets doused with rain.

Working with cinematographer Eric Devin (On the Edge), the filmmakers adeptly capture an exotic location whose scope and beauty are belied by an oppressive social structure that leaves many of its inhabitants, and especially the younger women, without any way to express themselves. Indeed, as much as the muted Sibel remains an outcast who cannot talk like the others, in the end she’s the only one who dares to speak up.

Production companies: Les Films du Tambour, Riva Filmproduktion, Bidibul Productions, Mars Production, Reborn Production
Cast: Damla Sonmez, Emin Gursoy, Erkan Kocak Kostendil, Elit Iscan, Meral Cetinkaya
Directors: Cagla Zencirci, Guillaume Giovanetti
Screenwriters: Cagla Zencirci, Ramata Sy, Guillaume Giovanetti
Producers: Marie Legrand, Rani Massalha, Michael Eckelt, Johannes Jancke, Marsel Kalvo, Nefest Polat, Christel Henon, Lilian Eche
Director of photography: Eric Devin
Editor: Veronique Lange
Composers: Bassel Hallak, Pi
Sales: Pyramide

In Turkish
95 minutes