Turkey France Germany Luxembourg (95 mi) 2018 ‘Scope d: Çağla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovnetti
A kind of mythical film from the tiny village of Kuşköy in northeastern Turkey, nestled in the Pontic Mountains along the Black Sea coast, a region where its 500 or so residents are known for harvesting tea leaves and hazelnuts, but also for their distinctive whistling sounds which are used to communicate long distances, one of the few places on earth to practice this technique, yet it’s a common local practice that’s been in existence for at least 400 years. The rugged mountainous landscape and sparse population make travel difficult even over short distances, where a whistle can reverberate for more than a kilometer. The co-directing and writing team found this unique cultural facet so inspiring that they decided to make a film there, set in the forests, using mostly nonprofessionals from the region, but also 5 professional actors who had to get up at dawn, eat something and catch a bus to the locale, then hike 2000 meters up a mountain daily just to arrive in the right location. The film revolves around Sibel, Damla Sönmez, a Turkish actress who has studied acting in Istanbul, Paris and London, whose performance couldn’t be more physically challenging, a mute who lost her voice at an early age, but is easily understood through whistling, and who roams the forest like a feral child, where nothing escapes her watchful eye. She is the daughter of Emin (Emin Gürsoy), the patriarchal head of the village, with a kind of spoiled younger sister Fatma, Elit Işcan, who also played one of the older sisters in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang (2015), who basically despises how Sibel gets away with everything. For instance, she’s the only woman in the entire region who doesn’t wear a head scarf, but she spends much of her time in the forest isolated and alone, ostracized by the other women of the village who believe she’s been cursed, so don’t want to be anywhere near her, openly rejecting her when she comes too close. She operates by an entirely different set of rules, fiercely adapting herself to male skills, as she’s one of the more adept hunters of the region, the envy of her father (as she’s certainly a better shot), but also works in the fields picking tea leaves with the other women, while cooking her family dinner every night and also washing the clothes. If the thought of Cinderella comes to mind, she seems to do the backbreaking work while her younger sister needs to study. They have an antagonistic relationship because Fatma is embarrassed by her lack of civility, as she has no manners, dresses like a boy, and most importantly, cannot speak.
Partly to protect the women in the village, the local culture devised a myth about a wolf that roams in the higher regions of the mountains, which keeps everyone closer to their village. Sibel, however, insists on hunting the wolf, hoping to win approval, believing the town will welcome and embrace her if she can kill the prized animal, so she spends her time roaming through the forests, viewed as a primitive spirit that belongs more to the land than the community. While this is an extreme patriarchal society where men set the rules, it’s the women that carry them out, expelling anyone that’s different. What’s particularly striking is the extent that Sibel repulses everyone, even her own sister, forcing her to live the life of an exile. Perhaps mirroring her situation is Narin (Meral Çetinkaya), an eccentric old woman who lives alone, having lost her grasp of reality a long time ago, believing in ancient stories and myths as if they were real, still waiting for her fiancé who disappeared ages ago. Sibel appears to be the only one willing to befriend Narin, seen regularly chopping wood, bringing her food, and just generally looking after her, even as both are shunned by the rest. Sibel appears to be living in the mythical universe that Narin describes, yet the realist manner in which the movie is filmed, following every detail of Sibel’s daily existence, suggests a different consciousness, one that is aware of her exclusion and the stigma she’s forced to live with, yet has a yearning to be liked and appreciated. During a hunt for the wolf, Sibel is ferociously attacked by a man hiding in the thicket, whose mysterious presence presents its challenges. While rather easily fending him off, she discovers he’s deeply wounded and secretly nurses him back to health, offering food and protection while hiding him in the forest. Even as police officials are combing the neighborhoods for dangerous men who are presumed to be terrorists at large, Sibel keeps her secret, who turns out to be Ali (Erkan Kolçak Köstendil), another outcast we learn little about, as Sibel can’t really communicate with him. Like Narin, she regularly looks in on him, helps him regain his strength, and even offers help stitching up his wound. As she collects what she believes are wolf bones found scattered throughout the brush, wondering whether to announce the wolf may finally be dead, Ali helps dispel her notions, knowing human remains when he sees them, quickly setting her straight.
In a male-dominated society, a woman’s role is to marry and have children, preferably a son, words we hear preached throughout this film, as part of the village tradition is the use of matchmakers for arranged marriages, where young girls are chosen at early ages, an ancient practice that is viewed as an honor to each family, with gifts bestowed upon the young bride and groom, complete with celebratory festivities that include plenty of food and dancing. While Sibel is routinely ignored, treated as subhuman, Fatma is handpicked and is obviously excited at the prospect, as is her father, surprisingly, who tells Sibel he was growing tired of Fatma’s spoiled outbursts anyway, and this allows the two of them to spend more time together. Incredulously, Fatma throws her own sister out of the marriage celebration, a humiliating gesture that simply perpetuates an ingrained class divide, as Sibel is continually placed at the bottom rung, shunned by everyone except her father, which leaves her seething with anger and shame, having to contain all that boiling rage of resentment at how she’s continually despised, finding solace only in the isolation of the forest. Yet it’s her demonstrative, open display of freedom that seems to threaten the women of the village, who find her such a nuisance for avoiding all social conventions. Fatma turns the tables on her, telling her father Sibel was seen with a man in the forest, that she followed them herself as she couldn’t believe her own eyes. When Sibel denies the accusations, Fatma calls her a liar, which gets her silenced by her father. But in the fields the next day, Sibel is confronted by a collection of women who implement their own brand of punishment, beating her half to death to teach her a lesson. As she frantically searches for Ali to warn him afterwards, he’s disappeared altogether and vanished into thin air, leaving no trace, almost like he was never there. The police come investigating, asking to speak to Sibel, who offers heartbreaking testimony through whistles, insisting the man was unarmed and not a terrorist, as alleged, but her father protects her and leaves out essential information, denying she saw anyone, but knowing all along she was harboring a fugitive. Word of Sibel’s betrayal is a jolt to the community, causing Fatma’s marriage to be called off, where she has to return the gifts, leaving her utterly exasperated by her sudden fall from grace, completely demoralized by the shame of it all, where she can’t face anyone ever again. Sibel, of course, knows exactly how that feels, having been on that end of the stick her entire life, and encourages her sister to get dressed as together they make that long walk in front of the entire town, all stopping what they’re doing and staring in disbelief, like a walk of shame, with hateful insults hurled at them both, but for Sibel it’s utter defiance, staring them all straight in the eye, as at the end of town a bus awaits Fatma, exactly as it was in Mustang, with Sibel making sure her sister’s head is held high, taking her off to school where hopefully a different future awaits.