Sibel, a tale of female empowerment in Turkey’s Black Sea remote region

Interview by Eugénie Malinjod, for London Film Week, on 6 December 2018
with Cagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti (both directors) and Damla Sönmez (main actress)

Turkish-French directors Çağla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti explore the topic of exclusion and our relationship to the “Other” in their latest collaboration Sibel, a drama starring Dalma Sönmez. Winner of the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival, Sibel is a tale of female empowerment that recounts the story of a 25-year-old mute woman living as an outcast in a remote mountain village near Turkey’s Black Sea, who finds her true voice when she encounters a helpless and mysterious injured fugitive. On the occasion of the film’s UK Premiere at London Film Week last night, directors Çağla Zencirci, Guillaume Giovanetti and actress Damla Sömnez shared the secrets behind the scenes of Sibel.

Where did the idea of Sibel come from?

Çağla Zencirci: We were first interested in the whistling language, which we read about in a book thirteen years ago. Therefore, we decided to go explore the Turkish Black Sea area. When we arrived there, we realised the language still existed and people were still speaking it.
Guillaume Giovanetti: At the same time, we found out that this language is endangered due to technology and the young generation who cannot speak it well. As we were sitting in a café there, we came across this woman who entered the village whistling. Whilst people were answering her in Turkish, she kept on whistling and that’s how we got the idea of making Sibel.

How did you proceed to shoot the film?

C.Z.: We spent a lot of time observing how people live in the village. We met with the women of the area, we stayed at the mayor’s house, which is actually Sibel’s house in the film.
G.G.: The idea was to get really familiar with these people, for the audience to believe Damla was one of them, that she was born and raised in this village too.

Sibel is clearly an outcast. What does she embody in this conservative village, compared to the others?

Damla Sömnez: When I first read the script, I was a bit frightened and at the same time, I felt very similar to her. She represents some parts that we all have in us: the ones that want to be ourselves even more, the ones that seek to behave according to who we truly are and not to predefined social norms. Even though she appears to be different, she is a character everyone can identify to.

Can you share a few words about your actress Damla? How did you first find her?

C.Z.: We only worked with non-professional actors in our previous films. For Sibel, we really wanted to have professional actors on board. Damla immediately came to our mind to interpret Sibel.
G.G.: My grandmother was actually a fan of Damla, she was watching her on TV and following her work. After looking at her, it quickly became obvious that she was the one we wanted to work with.

Damla, how did you prepare yourself for the role?

D.S.: I met Çağla and Guillaume two and half years before shooting the film. At that time, the script was only five sentences long. It was just about this woman who is mute and who finds her own strength, who she really is through the narrative. You don’t often come across that many strong human stories so I immediately knew I wanted to be part of the project. The only issue was that I did not know how to whistle at all. As Çağla and Guillaume were writing the script, I was working on the whistling. However, the learning process became really intense just three months before the actual shooting. I had a professional teacher helping me, I stayed in the village to get familiar with its inhabitants and I spent a lot of time working in the fields. The idea was to be immersed and to experience the daily life in the village.

Can you tell us more about Ali? What effects does he have on Sibel?

C.Z.: Ali is another type of outcast. He clearly symbolises the one we don’t know, the one we are afraid of. This fear is not only specific to Turkey; it goes beyond borders. Whenever people are afraid of something or when they don’t know about someone, they think of it as a threat. They see it as terrorists, migrants, dangerous … Ali embodies all of them just by being unknown to the village. Ali and Sibel both understand each other, without prejudice and without any means of communication, which is capital in the film.
G.G.: Ali brings a new perspective to Sibel, something that she was lacking in life. Sibel has a lot of energy but does not know how to use it and as she is looking for herself, her encounter with Ali actually helps revealing who she really is.

What’s your view on Turkish cinema?

C.Z.: Turkey is a really big country with many different layers. The things you see on TV or in the media only represent a small part of Turkey but Turkish cinema is still very active. Of course it is difficult for independent cinema, like everywhere else in the world. There is some kind of independent cinema production going on and we can only hope that more and more women characters will be created because we all need it.