Sibel: The Story of a Woman’s Survival in an Oppressive Society

Sibel (2018) is an award-winning feature film directed by Çağla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti. The film takes its name from the main character Sibel. Who is Sibel? She is the older daughter of the village headman, the older sister of a teenage girl. She is a villager. She is a hunter, she is a rebel, she is a woman. She is a mute. Any definition in written or spoken word is inefficient to explain who she is, because Sibel is more accurately defined not by adjectives but by how she acts. More importantly, the Sibel in the beginning of the story is much different than the Sibel at the end of the story.

Sibel can communicate by using the whistled language the villagers use while working in the fields. She spends most of her time in the forest where she is trying to hunt down a wolf. One of these days she comes across Ali. Ali is a rebel, he tells Sibel that he is running away from obligatory military service. He doesn’t understand the whistled language, but he understands what being an outcast feels like. He understands what it feels like to be seen as the threat in one’s society. There is one difference between Ali and Sibel: whereas Ali chose to be an outcast, Sibel tries her hardest to fit into her society. Ali is the first person Sibel sees who dares to reject his society’s rules. Thus, he has no problem seeing that the root of her problems is the society she lives in.

Sibel who always blamed herself for her loneliness sees her society clearly for the first time. This new vision helps her raise her voice, and her first critical action is not to report Ali to the gendarmerie. Ali’s presence helps Sibel stand up for her own desires and needs. Still, it is not Ali that causes Sibel’s awakening. Sibel’s complete awakening takes place when Ali leaves, and even her father who has always taken her side turns his back on her. It is at that point that Sibel realizes she has no one but herself, her entity depends on where and how strongly she stands: Just like an animal in the forest. She knows how to survive in the forest, and similarly she has to survive within the society. She isn’t going to be anybody’s prey.

Throughout the film, Sibel belongs to the forest. Her society doesn’t accept her, they call her accursed and they see her as a threat. She is a threat because she is different, neither her language nor her social performance fits her society. Her comfort in the forest symbolizes not only her comfort in solitude away from the people who judge her; but also her comfort in the nature where no social institutions have any power. No human language is necessary to survive in the forest. In the forest none of the social constructs her fellow villagers impose on each other have any meaning, no family relations nor power relations can affect Sibel there. In the forest, only instincts and survival matters. This is why Ali and Sibel can understand each other, they are both trying to survive in a world that doesn’t accept them. Sibel’s outfits resemble a guerilla, and her actions in the forest are similar to that of an animal; watching her prey from behind trees, running to catch and kill, breathing heavily. Sibel and Ali interact in animalistic ways. They watch each other secretly, attack each other, wound and heal each other. In the sex scene, it looks like Sibel is attacking Ali when she bites Ali’s lip. Doing so she disobeys her society’s norms on acceptable femininity; she is actively and savagely engaging in extramarital sex. Not only that, she is doing it with a rebel, an enemy of the state. The unspoken social norms converge with the written law; and both are against this relationship.

Sibel’s character is not accepted by the villagers, but her labor force is. They call her whenever there is work. In the beginning of the film when women are collecting tea leaves together, one of the older women tells a young girl that her fiancé Ahmet is coming back home from his military service. Suddenly all the women are celebrating this young girl’s wedding. The girl doesn’t look so happy about the news. On another scene, this girl tells another woman she would have liked a taller man, and the woman replies ‘Would you prefer to be lonely like Narin?’ Narin’s story signifies how this society controls private lives. After Narin and Fuat ran away together, Narin’s lover Fuat was killed by Narin’s brothers. Ever since then, Narin has been asking for Fuat’s whereabouts. Narin is beaten down by her society. She lives alone in a shed in the forest, and Sibel is the only one who helps her. When Ali runs away at the end, Sibel realizes she might be like Narin for the rest of her life; or not accepting being ostracized she might stand up against the villagers.

Sibel’s voice gets louder as her society pushes her further away. When her father starts restricting her actions, she disobeys her father openly for the first time. Her father has never defied the system; so much that he holds an official title as the village headman. He has always been a man of the system. It is not surprising to see him turn against Sibel when she ruins his reputation with her relation to Ali. In the end it is surprising to see him defend her daughter when the villagers insult Sibel. This leaves us with the hope that individuals can change the system. Slowly and with great difficulty, the oppressive societies can change. Sibel teaches her sister to stand up for herself too. She also gives the girl who is unwillingly preparing to get married, a hope. Sibel’s actions were shameful in the eyes of the villagers, but not being ashamed makes her rebellious rather than shameful. This is hope, and those who need it, like the unwilling bride, recognize it.

Sibel is a strong film with its gripping storyline, its fluent and skillful narrative and Damla Sönmez’s wonderful performance. Unlike majority of the films in history that embody the male gaze, female gaze dominates Sibel’s narrative. It is a story of a woman’s awakening, strong, sentimental and loud in every aspect. In the end Sibel is not awarded by any patriarchal power figure, instead she stands strongly all by herself. The tracking shots, and close ups on Sibel’s face make us associate with her; and the whistled language creates useful layers to Sibel’s character as a woman and as a rebel. Narin’s story and Sibel’s caring relationship with Narin work as a masterful symbol of their society’s oppression and how it affects people’s lives. Ali’s disappearance looks like a sad event, but its consequences are precious. This disappearance helps Sibel find her voice. When Ali is gone, Sibel tries to shout and she can’t; however in the village streets her unashamed presence serve as a scream out to her society. There is no wolf in the forest, and the loving rebel has left; only Sibel remains. Her powerful stance against the villagers who judge her shows us clearly: She will survive; and this is all that matters.

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