Toronto 2018 Review: SIBEL Finds Her Voice
With a language of whistles and her powerful performance, Damla Sönmez gives voice to the silenced Sibel.
Sibel is a mute woman, who isn’t. She lives in the mountainous Black Sea region of Turkey, with her sister and father, the mayor of Kosköy - “village of the birds” - so called for the local whistling language, which allows villagers to communicate across deep valleys with few roads and less cell phone service.
Though Sibel can’t utter a sound from her voice, she can blow air through her lips, teeth, and fingers, and so speak through whistles with her family and villagers. It's an enchanting premise; the mute who isn't, and yet still is, in the superstitious eyes of her village.
Çağla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti traveled to the region to shoot their third film together; the tale of an umarriable woman, left caring for her widowed father while relentlessly hunting a rumored wolf, a threat now affixed in the cultural memory of her village’s women. Like most wolf parables, she eventually discovers the beast may not be real, but she very much is.
I’ve now seen exactly two Turkish films, both of which I adore. Sibel is the second, and the first was Mustang; one of the very best films of 2015. Both have delved deeply into the psyche of women wrestling with their roles in a society caught between modernity and tradition. Mustang was driven from without - by the traditional mores of society, and their impact on women coming of age amidst such expectations. Sibel, however, is driven from within - it’s more interested in the experience of a Turkish woman coming to terms with herself, and in that sense is a more individualistic - and universal - story.
Damla Sönmez is well known in Turkey, but was entirely new to me, and she is a revelation. Like Sally Hawkins in The Shape Of Water, Sönmez is expected to carry the film without uttering a word, and like Sally Hawkins in The Shape Of Water, she rends hearts with her performance, and the heavens with her silent screams.
The whistling in this film really deserves some special mention - it is absolutely enthralling, and it is absolutely real. Sönmez whistles all her own dialogue, having trained for months with a coach from the village who was also on set during filming to ensure whistles were accurate and sensible. Rather than being an entirely original language, it’s apparently a translation of actual Turkish into syllabic notes that emulate real words and inflections, meaning that entire conversations can take place over great distance - or face to furious face in the case of Sibel; the mute who very much isn’t, provided she’s communicating with her family or villagers.
It’s when she encounters a stranger in the woods that she is struck truly dumb; an outsider for whom whistling is incomprehensible, yet one who sees her with fresh eyes, unburdened by the villagers’ superstitious animosities. This encounter awakens many forces within Sibel, but none more potent than her Self.
Shot on location with local actors, but helmed by an accomplished actress who has clear command - if not outright mastery - of their unique language, the result is a film not only superbly acted by Sönmez, but immersed in a fantastical realm that feels - and is - surprisingly real.
I dare say, I found Sibel pitch perfect.