Can Evrenol’s latest film, Girl With No Mouth (Peri: Ağzı Olmayan Kız), cements the director’s place as one of the main figures of genre film in Turkey. Released on Feb. 7, the fantastical dystopian film is currently being shown in movie theaters across the country.
Evrenol received international recognition in 2015 with his horror film Baskın: Karabasan. It was first screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Baskın went on to win various horror and fantasy awards before being picked up for streaming by Netflix. In 2017 Evrenol continued with the English-language film Housewife, a psychological thriller dealing with themes of dreams, delusions, and motherhood. It won Best Director at the Monster Fest awards in Australia.
Girl With No Mouth is also an art-house take on the B movies that Evrenol, like film geeks everywhere, adores. This time, instead of the overly gore of Baskın or the psychological/sexual derangement of Housewife, we have a family-friendly adventure story. The film’s protagonists are a motley crew of four disfigured children seeking to survive in a hostile world created by grown-ups. The film is reminiscent of such 1980s classics as Goonies and Stand By Me. Visually, it participates in the same ‘80s nostalgia of series like Stranger Things. Yet Girl is also a post-apocalyptic film, in the vein of Children of Men and The Road.
The movie begins in a dystopian future. An event called the "Great World War" is raging somewhere off-screen. A little girl named Perihan lives hidden in the forest of Turkey’s Black Sea region with her father. Ten years earlier, a massive explosion occurred in a local nuclear power plant. As a result, children are born with strange defects. Perihan, as the film’s title suggests, has no mouth. Her life is constantly under threat by a group called "the Hunters". These former power plant employees are part of a menacing paramilitary organization whose aim is to round up and kill children like Perihan.
Tragedy strikes when Perihan’s father, her sole protector, is killed by her uncle who is one of the Hunters. Lost in the forest, she chances upon three other fugitive children who call themselves the “gang of pirates.” Like the Lost Boys of classic Peter Pan adaptation Hook, these children live by their own rules. Each has a different defect. Captain, their leader, was born without eyes. Yusuf has no nose. And Porsuk (Badger) has no ears. Alone, they are weak—unable to speak, see, smell, or hear. Together, they can combine their senses to survive. While the film is packed with suspense, it also has lighthearted moments. This merry band of castaways has adapted to an impossible world, but they still harbor the dreams and imaginations of children.
Despite not uttering a single word throughout the film, Elif Sevinç is fantastic in her role as Perihan. The film was shot in only 18 days under a shoestring budget, but the cinematography is affecting. Along with the carefully designed sets and props, the film successfully creates a coherent atmosphere.
Other aspects of the background story and plot leave the viewer wondering. Why exactly do the Hunters want to kill all the children? Does the central government still exist or is the power plant now the only remaining authority? And what exactly is happening with the "Great World War"? If the children succeed in escaping the “quarantine zone” of the forest, what will await them outside?
The film does provide some fleeting if suggestive hints about the events that created this dystopia. As Perihan and the pirate gang seek safety, they pass by a tattered old billboard proudly announcing “The Power Plant Will Be Great For Us All!” Later we see Perihan rifle through old newspaper clippings that discuss the accident and its fallout. In one of the houses where the children hide, we see a red and yellow poster in the style of left-wing poster art that announces “Down with power plants!”
Viewers can make a clear connection between the power plant disaster and recent debates in Turkey over the environmental toll of hydroelectric and nuclear power plants. This impression is strengthened by the fact that Girl takes place near the Black Sea, where protesters have been fighting against such energy projects. Similarly, the eastern Black Sea region of Turkey is known to have been heavily contaminated by the 1986 nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, which a recent television series on Chernobyl has again brought to public discussion. Sometimes such political allusions in film are better left subtle, but the lack of clarity regarding what Girl is saying about all these phenomena points to some holes in the film’s world-building.
But despite these limits, Girl represents an exciting development for aficionados of bold and independent cinema in Turkey. Nowadays, the number of movie theaters is shrinking, fewer viewers are buying tickets, and near-monopoly conditions make it difficult to screen movies that do not fall into established formulas. Compare, for example, discussions of the limited availability of recent indie films like Küçük Şeyler (2019) and Biz Böyleyiz (2020) versus the amount of money poured into commercial ventures like Recep İvedik, now on its 6th sequel!
In fact, the makers of Girl and its fans have had to fight tooth and nail to make sure the film receives the screening availability it deserves. After the original opening date of Jan. 17 was pushed back due to the “lack of available theaters,” a grassroots social media campaign was launched with the hashtag #PeriyeSalonİstiyoruz (WeWantTheatersForPeri). Fans put pressure on film distributors by taking pictures of themselves wearing Perihan’s classic red bandanna (which she uses to cover up her missing mouth) in front of movie theaters.
While Turkish independent cinema is experiencing something of a renaissance, the material conditions for making and selling quality films are increasingly difficult. For this reason, it is more important than ever to show up and watch the films that excite us on the big screen.