Turkish directors Cagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti have given us a handsome movie, Sibel, that focusses on a physically challenged young woman. Part of the ongoing Kolkata International Film Festival, the movie, much like an earlier Turkish work, Mustang (though by a different auteur), in 2015, is a female centric sociological study. Mustang was set in a small Turkish town and follows the journey of five school-going sisters and how their exuberance and freedom are stifled by social norms. It is of course a tragic story, but Sibel ends on a happier note.
Although Sibel (like Mustang) is a fascinating study of Turkish rural life, it weaves into it an unbelievable aspect : the whistle language. The people in the northeastern Turkish village of Kuskoy communicate across hills and valleys by imitating birds calls, and sentences are conveyed through hoots and pips. And the directors wrote a story and script about Sibel (played by Damla Sonmez), a mute woman, who is the daughter of Emin (Emin Gursoy), the village headman.
Sadly, her physical handicap proves to be both a blessing and a curse. While her village ostracises her, she also enjoys social privileges. She does not have to wear a headscarf or it is more likely that she rebels against such social restrictions and gets away with them. But in her family of father and a nasty younger sister, Fatma (Elit Iscan), Sibel is a pillar of strength. She takes care of the house, looks after her father and sister, works in the field during the day and uses the afternoons to track an elusive wolf.
Armed with a rifle, she walks around the jungle surrounding her village in what often appears like a fairy tale. Is there really a wolf on the prowl or is it merely an indication of the local phobia to ward off external influences that may corrupt age-old beliefs and customs.
Also, the directors seem to say that Sibel is desperate for recognition and believes that if she kills the wolf, the village would celebrate her. This becomes apparent when she meets an injured fugitive in the woods, and he turns out to be Sibel's first admirer. For the first time, someone is besotted by her beauty.
The directors said at a Press conference at Locarno earlier this year where Sibel was screened: “She grew up in a village where nobody has ever wanted her. She knew that her life would always be different, that she would never have children, etc. The villagers have always given her an empty look. She sees herself as neutral, she has taken that in. And then out of the blue, Ali (fugitive) shows up and sees her with different eyes, and this is what she finds so surprising. Nobody has ever looked at her that way, like someone normal, and above all like a woman. Ali’s presence gives her the opportunity to be normal. She feels accepted as she is. As a consequence, she gradually discovers herself as a sexual being and embraces her womanhood in every sense of the word”.
Awesome to look at, Sibel has been mounted with elegance, and is energetic. Look at Sibel's restlessness which the camera captures with precision. While her handicap appears all real and social patterns as well, the wolf story is farfetched. And the elements of this fantasy appear rather intrusive.
(Author, commentator and movie critic is covering the Kolkata International Film Festival)