TIFF Review: Sibel
Mute since the age of five, Sibel communicates through a complex series of whistles that are native to her remote mountain village in Turkey. Since she has a disability that makes her undesirable on the marriage market and is considered bad luck by the superstitous women in her town, Sibel is given considerable free reign to do more or less as she pleases, something her younger sister deeply resents.
She is both a fiercely independent character and one shackled by the constraints of the misogynistic culture she is born into. Sibel spends most of her time in the forest, visiting an old woman driven mad by the mysterious disappearance of her lover many years previously and obsessively hunting the wolf that famously terrorized her village. She imagines that if she can kill the wolf, the villagers will be so pleased with her that they couldn’t possibly continue to treat her as a pariah.
But the biggest threat in Sibel’s world isn’t a wolf or anything else lurking in the forest, but the evils perpetrated in the name of their traditional patriarchal culture. I’m not going to say that her encounters with a mysterious stranger she meets in the woods help her find her voice, because that is a little too on the nose even for me, but it does help her to establish agency for herself and become empowered as a woman.
When Sibel stumbles upon an injured man in the forest, for possibly the first time in her life she is interacting with someone who doesn’t treat her as an outcast or view her as a curse. This causes a slow but seismic shift in how she sees herself. She begins to take risks and further push the boundaries of acceptable behavior for women in her community.
Her previously close relationship with her father suffers as she is more and more absent in the home and neglectful of her household duties. Its incredibly important that he is willing to allow her independence so long as she’s also playing the role of the dutiful daughter, cooking and doing the laundry, and that her actions don’t negatively impact his standing as a father and male leader within the community.
The film owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Damla Sönmez, its lead actress, who is remarkably striking and expressive in a role where her only method of communication is whistling. She has an otherworldly presence and there is a sense that all of the supporting characters merely exist on the periphery of her reality. Without a uniquely capable actress in this role, there’s no way the film would work.
Sibel falters in two main areas. One is in the development of Ali, the injured man Sibel discovers in the woods whose primary characteristics seem to be that he is injured and a man (and that he doesn’t want to fight in the army, which makes many of the local people think that he is a terrorist). There may have been more of an emotional impact to his and Sibel’s relationship had his character been established more thoroughly. Then again, this is Sibel’s story, and it has loose elements of the fairy tale model woven into it, which traditionally feature underdeveloped male love interests.
The other issue is more related to the presentation of the film. It is no doubt due to the fact that the whistled dialogue was translated into Turkish, which was then translated into English, but often a great deal of the dialogue felt as though we were getting the simplest, most watered down version of what the characters were actually attempting to say. This, however, is an easy fix for directors Guillaume Giovanetti and Çagla Zencirci if the film were to gain wider distribution.
Despite these few issues, Sibel is an enjoyable watch with a engrossing, stubborn, vibrant heroine who easily endears herself to audiences, and presents a timely message on the oppressive nature of patriarchy that doesn’t feel heavy-handed.