Three years ago, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s handsomely made yet exoticizing “Mustang” reinforced a Western idea of rural Turkish life and was received with general acclaim away from home, proving that a filmmaker’s local origins don’t exclude an internalized brand of orientalism. That’s even truer with “Sibel,” Çagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti’s third feature, the first one shot in Zencirci’s country of birth. Weaving together folklore, gender roles and a fitful kind of emancipation in the story of a mute young woman desperate to counter the ostracism of her fellow villagers, the writer-director couple have created an attractive package that doesn’t hold up to close inspection. Even so, thanks to the extensive use of an intriguing whistle language, and given the way it buttresses Western narrative notions of Asia Minor, the film has a good chance of garnering international art-house attention.
The movie’s biggest selling point is the whistle language, which may seem like it comes straight out of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”: Locals in the northeastern village of Kuşköy have developed a way of communicating across the hilly fields by imitating bird calls, honing the sounds so that complex sentences are transmitted using hoots and pips. It’s fascinating to listen to, and apparently an accurate representation of how residents call out to one another. On learning of this unique form of interaction, the directors wrote a script about Sibel (Damla Sönmez), a mute in her mid-20s who’s the daughter of Emin (Emin Gürsoy), the head of the village.
Marginalized by the villagers because she’s unable to speak, Sibel needn’t conform to expectations, which is why she doesn’t wear a headscarf like all the other women, including her nasty younger sister, Fatma (Elit İşcan). Part of the day Sibel works the fields with the others, then she takes her rifle and looks for a wolf believed to be roaming the countryside. Once back home she hangs up her quasi-feral independence and takes charge of the household, cooking and doing all the chores. Between her instinctive tracking abilities and her filial devotion, it’s no wonder she’s her father’s favorite.
But given that Sibel has no problem communicating, thanks to the whistle language, which is used by all, it doesn’t make sense that she’s excluded by the other women — particularly since she’s the favored daughter of the headman. Nor is there a reason for her father to permit her to flout traditional gender norms, though it does allow the directors to make maximum use of Sönmez’s attractive hair (shades of “Mustang”). Clearly she’s meant as an archetype, to stand for concepts rather than to be a real figure, but Zencirci and Giovanetti did a more convincing job painting a portrait of marginalization in their debut feature “Noor.”
While hunting for the wolf, Sibel is attacked in the underbrush by Ali (Erkan Kolçak Köstendil), a mysterious wounded man she traps and then secretly nurses back to health in the forest. He’s the first person to appreciate her beauty (Sönmez bears a resemblance to a young Emmanuelle Béart), and the first not to scorn her, apart from her father. Fatima’s spitefulness, however, creates huge problems when she spies her sister in the woods with a stranger.
Zencirci and Giovanetti consciously play with folk tales, especially the wolf plotline that represents fear of the outside and gives Sibel a watershed goal to aspire to: If she kills the wolf, she will be celebrated by her community. Less successful is the introduction of Narin (Meral Çetinkaya), a crazed older spinster living alone and waiting for her fiancé who disappeared decades ago. Like much in the film, the character feels forced, a mere plot device taken from fairy tales divorced from a sense of reality. Yet it might have worked had the film aimed at playing on that liminal Guillermo del Toro-like border between the real and the folk story. Instead, the film sits in an uneasy area, wanting to reproduce real life in this “exotic” village yet forcing it into a straightjacket of primal legends and inorganic notions.
Too often Sönmez is made to play her role on the edge of barely contained hysteria: Her whistling Sibel should be able to evoke enough interest without needing to be so high-strung. Basically only Emin has a sense of three-dimensionality, even if it’s often unknowable. More successful are the visuals, attractively lit and satisfyingly composed, with the right amount of nervous energy as the camera follows the ever-restless protagonist.