'Sibel': Turkish woman running after wolves - Film Review

Sibel, a mute villager in Turkey’s Black Sea mountains in the 2018 film of the same name, is chasing a big bad wolf. She is about to kill the animal, when instead she finds a different kind of wolf to connect with. 

The film “Sibel” is a version of La Loba, the female wolf described in Clarissa P. Estes’ iconic feminist book “Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype”. “Sibel” brings this mythological character to life as she sings to herself while collecting wolf bones and assembling them into a complete skeleton.

Estes found the tale of La Loba circulating among people living around the Texas–Mexico border, where La Loba is imagined as a woman wandering through El Paso with a rifle on her back. Similarly, Sibel roams the mountains with her rifle.

Aside from the film’s technical and aesthetic excellence, I should have loved “Sibel” because it is an adaptation of this classic wild woman archetype. Also, the name “Sibel” comes from Cybele, the ancient goddess mother worshipped in Anatolia.

Sibel matches Estes’ view that “a healthy woman is much like a wolf: robust, chock-full, strong life force, life-giving, territorially aware, inventive, loyal, roving.” Estes and other researchers who collect folktales say that many of these stories were changed to suit Christian ideology, so I should have loved how this film took Little Red Riding Hood and turned the story around.

This is the third full-length feature from co-directors Çağla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti. “Sibel” was up for the Golden Leopard Award at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, and it won the International Federation of Film Critics Award and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, awards that are close to my heart.

“Sibel”, with all of its feminist references, sends a clear signal. But during my first viewing, I overlooked the protagonist collecting the wolf bones and other clear parallels with one of feminism’s most seminal works. I did not like anything about the film - it reminded me of “Mustang”, Turkey’s Orientalist 2015 version of “The Virgin Suicides”.

Just like “Mustang”, the new film follows the same formula as other darlings of Western film festivals: Offer up a beautiful heroine living under the usual pressures of rural Turkey and examine the erotic potential of this woman’s sexuality. But “Sibel” struck me as more mystical and elegant than “Mustang”.

The world of fairy-tales and elements of folklore stand side-by-side with social criticism, but they do not really come together. “Sibel” shows us what we want to see without creating its own world. It adheres to the codes of a male-dominated world, and cinema, and attempts to grapple with the much-debated concept of female empowerment.

The cinematography is wonderful, highlighting the lush Black Sea region. The film takes place in Kuşköy, home to tea gardens, dense forests, and people who communicate over long distances with a complex language of whistles. The film captures the exquisiteness of the region and of Damla Sönmez, who stars in the film, and it accentuates the rugged beauty of the environment and characters. 

Sibel is the eldest daughter of the village head (played by Emin Gürsoy). She was left mute after a childhood fever, but because everyone around her knows Kuşköy’s “bird language”, she communicates easily by whistling.

In Turkish villages, disabled people, and particularly disabled women, are regarded as bad omens. As most disabled people were born that way and not handicapped as a result of illness, a disability is seen as a type of curse or punishment from God. We expect that the village women to at least bear a grudge towards Sibel for the freedom they themselves do not have.

In fact, Sibel is lucky to be mute. If she were able to speak, she would have spent her life with a man she had been forced to marry, and with babies in her arms. Her father would not have been so tolerant towards her. He would not have taught her to shoot a gun or bragged about her shooting skills. He would have been bothered by her not wearing a headscarf.

Women who will never marry or have children are considered more like men, but there is no possibility of a sexual relationship outside of marriage. Although Sibel is expected to live at home for the rest of her life, she never thinks about getting married. Yet it is also obvious she does not want to end up like Narin (Meral Çetinkaya), a woman living as a hermit who has been waiting her whole life for her lover to come back, slowly going mad in her isolation.

There are some parallels between Narin’s and Sibel’s stories, and solving the mysteries of Narin’s past and the wolf threatening the village are the film’s most dramatic elements. This story is a reflection of how patriarchal systems use mythology and fairy-tales as much as religion and custom to control society, repress women’s sexuality, and make them into domestic creatures.

Sibel is not seen as an emancipated young woman. Instead, she is unwanted, ostracised, incomplete, and embittered. She wants to escape herself and become the hero of the village by killing the bad wolf. She wants to be loved. She wants to sit together with the other women and drink tea. Her story is not one of rebellion. It is about the scorn and violence she faces and the need for acceptance. The wild woman is what arises from this need.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.