Updated: May 30
Damla Sonmez is the perfect example of ‘dynamite comes in small packages’. Despite her petite stature, Damla is dynamite and dynamic as she explodes onto the screen with exceptional acting in each appearance. And her appearance itself is a key feature of her appeal, complementing her cinematic story with some very unusual physical attributes. It would not be fair to describe her eyes as a standout feature of her looks as she also brings a perfect nose, a beautiful mouth and long, lush tresses to the screen, but these eyes are stunning in color and in depth. They are many hues of green, redolent of her Circassian roots, which coupled with dark shading around her eyes, gives them a radiance and a penetration which cinematographers (and Damla) use(s) to perfection. She has an exotic beauty which projects strongly on the screen and also photographically as she features on numerous pictorials and magazine covers.
Beyond her unusual features, Damla is an outstandingly talented actress, with a list of appearances and awards that will take your breath away. For a young actress, now only just 33, she has an impressive and broad cinematic curriculum vitae, purported to have started early with a love for cinema from a young age. She herself says that she chooses specific roles and stories, seeks richness in her characters and enjoys the challenges of difficult roles. She immerses herself in these roles and is also active in producing and actor administration in film-making, having been The Young President of the 18th Broom Broom Women Films Festival in 2015. She establishes herself as a cinematic force, to say the least.
Damla is an only child of parents in technical professions. Since 2017, her partner is Ushan Cakir, who many NATEN readers will remember as Celil, the very close friend of Kivanc Tatlitug in Kurt Seyit ve Sura.
As a consequence of attending a French High School in Istanbul, she starts her theater studies in France (Université de La Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris III) and then completes studies in the Theater Department of Yeditepe University in Istanbul. Damla also studies music at Mimar Sinan University State Conservatory and works with Stuart Burney at the Black Nexxus Academy in New York. In addition, she does a stint in the Jillian O'Dowd's Contemporary Acting Workshop at the London Dramatic School of Arts. Her expansive theatrical education has meant that Damla has well-developed craft and linguistic skills which she has demonstrated magnificently across her varied acting roles. Thus, from living and studying abroad, Damla is multilingual, speaking her native tongue, Turkish, as well as being fluent in French and English. After her most recent film, Sibel (2018), a multi-award winning French/Turkish/German/Luxemburg production discussed in greater detail below, she is now fluent in whistling.
In Turkey, with its deep cinematic traditions, there are extensive opportunities for actors to progress their careers through dizis, stage and film, and now through the increasingly popular Netflix Original Productions. Damla opts largely for the film trajectory (although she does appear in several episodes of a number of dizis from as early as 2004), and is involved in overseas productions seemingly more so than her peers, taking opportunities arising from travel and study abroad.
In film, she begins her career with a number of starring roles in Kampuste ciplak ayaklar (2009) followed by Bornova Bornova (2009). For Bornova Bornova, she wins several awards including the Antalya Golden Orange Award, Ankara Flying Broom Women's Film Festival Award and a Sadri Alisik Theatre & Movie Award.
Another film Deniz Seviyesi (2014), an American/Turkish production, spreads her fame internationally. In this very poignant and quite disturbing story, Damla conveys the desperation of a migrant living in NYC, returning to Turkey with all its associated cross-cultural upheavals, including the emotional fallout of an unresolved romance with a childhood sweetheart.
Including her recent role as an outcast village woman in Sibel, many of Damla’s films involve strong female characterizations with complex personality or dramatic roles. These range from being a Sultan, a confused, ruthless Lady M-inspired girl from Izmir, a possibly jilted post-Second World War lover, an abused young woman, or as discussed below, a Queen of the Istanbul Underground in Cukur (2017-2020).
Damla’s acting, unusual coloring and features adapt effortlessly to different cinematic performances. In the Netflix series The Rise of Empires: Ottoman (2019), she plays Ana, a Roman spy. In this docudrama she is dressed in pale blue, the only noticeable flash of color in the whole series, playing a complex character. The scenography of the series is dark and the landscape is strife torn and violent, but the light blue of Damla’s clothes, contrasting with her dark hair and Turkish features, conveys a focused and authentic period look.
Damla’s coloring adapts again gorgeously for her role in Ayla:The Daughter of War (2017). In Ayla, as Nuran, her hair is lightened as are her clothes, and she appears chameleon-like with a new cinematographic message. Although her character is not central to the story of Ayla, her portrayal of an innocent, young, lovestruck girlfriend, seeing off and waiting (but not long enough) for a soldier’s return from the Korean War in the 1950s, is memorable.
In Sibel she is the consummate adaptive actor, resembling the mountain fauna in this green, forested landscape. More recently, in Season 3 of the TV series Cukur, in which she features as Efsun (her name means sorcery/charm), she is once again miraculously transformed into a modern-mobster, femme fatale.
Mobster versus Outcast
Comparing Damla’s roles in Cukur and Sibel affords an antithetical look at the roles Damla plays in these two very different dramatic productions. Each appearance provides a fine filmic platform to examine her acting and her versatility. Cukur is a Mafia dizi set in and near the neighborhood of Balat in Istanbul. It’s a fantastical saga of family/community love and loyalty, brotherly devotion and survival in a dangerous world. The film, Sibel, could not be more different – it’s a village fairytale of mountain mystery and mythological monsters, set in the tea plantations of The Black Sea.
Damla straddles these two worlds wonderfully. In the complex characterization of her role in Cukur, Damla is beautifully attired, poised, well-groomed, fashionable, elite, almost aloof, but dangerous. Damla in Sibel is a village outcast, inelegant, wild, untamed, a leprechaun-like sylph playing the lead role in khaki, a color matching her verdant, green eyes. In each production, Damla is weaponized – in Sibel she carries a rifle, so different from her city pistol in Cukur. She brandishes each of these weapons as though they are a part of her, in either setting.
Damla Sonmez in Cukur
In Cukur, Damla, as Efsun, is Queen of the Underground. Her family is a well-known wealthy clan, well-connected, active in and linked to nefarious networks in Istanbul. She appears in the show with other well-known actors like Nejat Isler, Aras Bulut Iynemli, Hazal Subasi, Meral Çetinkaya (also her co-star in Sibel) and others. Despite her diminutive stature, you never once feel that she is not powerful enough to hold her own with them. Reportedly she will also act with Baris Arduç in Season 4, with whom her character has ‘a history’.
Her scenes with Aras, who plays Yamac, the mafia family lead in this dizi, afford the most amazing connection between these two young stars. You can see they are both at the top of their acting game: they have an on-screen chemistry that results from an implicit trust in each other. As their interactions unfold, we see both of them embroiled in a serious, but out of control romance, deeply attracted to each other.
In the clip below, you can see Damla’s outstanding portrayals of confusion, coquetry, cleverness and chemistry as the love interest between Cagatay, a family friend many years her senior, and Yamac, showing brilliantly how she manages these divided loyalties and tensions. Each of her admirers is aware of the other, placing her, and her acting, in the middle of a perilous love triangle. She uses her eyes and her hands to illustrate her indecision and confusion and is so authentic, managing to charm both of these admirers.
When Yamac and Efsun meet, she is tasked with eliminating him as they are enemies in the gangland community of Istanbul. However, from the start, he becomes her weakness: she can only acquiesce submissively to his charm and his strength, portraying an internal inconsistency that is unsettling to her.
While she commands obedience from her house staff, manages her grandmother with a strength of resolve, charms Cagatay and makes good deals with members of the Istanbul underworld, she is cowered by Yamac. Efsun rescues Yamac three times, consoles and heals him with a bedtime story of her life, strokes his face and his body, succumbs to his power and his needs on more than one occasion. She surreptitiously interrogates others who have also known him to try to understand her own feelings for Yamac.
Yamac, on the other hand, first sees Efsun in a photo, on which he fixates momentarily. Upon meeting her, he is progressively driven by his jealousy into her orbit and he finally emerges from his earlier strong love with Sena (Dilan Cicek Deniz), expressing a renewed and urgent love for Efsun, even though he knows she is enemy territory. This mutual knowledge of who each of the other is, embellishes the tension between them: it is a forbidden romance. This is a great piece of agonized love, two tormented characters, partnered in an uncontrollable theatrical tussle.
Damla Sonmez in Sibel
In Sibel, we shift from the territorial underground battles of Istanbul to the provincial skirmishes of the majestic, misty, mountainous country of North Eastern Turkey. The film is set in the tea growing plantations of The Black Sea. Damla’s Turkish name in the film, Sibel, is apparently Arabic in origin meaning ‘raindrop (between sky and earth)’, ‘flowing’. The Turkish name Damla, also translates as ‘raindrop’, a serendipitous coincidence. These aqueous and airy connotations are apt descriptions for the character of Sibel and for the cinematography of the movie. As if this part of Turkey did not have enough of its own compelling charm, the filmmakers use the grandiosity of the magnificent mountains, their wonderful wildlife and expansive skies to juxtapose the small-mindedness of village thinking. This is an allegorical tale, with a fabled feel and a moral tale to tell about female freedom. The scenario unfolds in a tiny, one-street village, using wolves (apparently representing The Patriarchy), invoking ancestral whistling as a boundary object between the characters and the story.
When Damla is selected for this role, she raises one concern: she doesn’t know how to whistle. She is subsequently trained for this role by a specialist teacher, and the outcome in the film is a flutist fantasia which is as unimaginable as the community in which the film is immersed. For the role, Damla is also physically trained for the arduous task of tearing through forests, flowing between the sky and the earth – traversing the tea groves of the region.
Her acting and the cinematography is so perfect, we forget what the role requires as we watch this nymph in action. In addition to working as a tea harvester, Sibel, a fiercely independent woman warrior in the mountains, is the favorite daughter of the village mayor. She is lithe, quick, accomplished, carrying and handling her rifle with ease and accuracy. However, we soon learn that Sibel is handicapped and can only communicate through the ancestral whistling language of the mountains. Sibel has experienced a trauma early in life and has lost the ability to use normal language like the rest of the villagers. For this reason, the villagers (and her younger sister) see her as an Evil Eye persona, somewhat bewitched, who will bring them bad luck.
In themselves, these whistling communities, which really do exist, are as astonishing as they sound. They have developed a vocabulary, a grammar, a means of talking to each across the hills through whistling. In the story, Sibel has a point to prove – she is convinced of a danger in the mountains, but the villagers disregard her statements about there being a wolf who lives near the Bridal Rock on the top of the mountain. This place, The Bridal Rock, is where unfortunate or jilted young women end up. Near there is Narin (Meral Cetinkaya, also Damla’s co-star in Cukur) who Sibel cares for. So Sibel sets about looking for either the living wolf, or evidence of his skeleton as the villagers don't believe her claims of having seen the wolf. This proof will establish her as a worthy member of the community from which she is banished because of her language disability. At stake is her freedom, to break away from the constraints on young women in the village.
She sets a trap for the wolf, which catches a deserting soldier, acted excellently as always, by Erkan Kolcak Kostendil (another Cukur co-star). The irony of this free young woman, capturing a man, with the wolf legend and the trap as a symbol of The Patriarchy, is exquisite. Nevertheless, the resolution of the soldier and Sibel, as joint outcasts, finding each other, each being healed literally and metaphorically, finishes with a brief romance between them in the mysterious mountain.
As we journey with Sibel, the narrative of the film resolves itself in an uplifting way through the plotline as much as through the brilliant acting of Damla.
The comparison above is a brief wrap of the breadth of Damla’s dedication to her craft and her acting range. She is not that well-known among international audiences in diziland, even though she has played in a number of episodes in several dizis as far back as 2004. In her better known role in Cukur, she has received a mixed reaction from international fans, with divided opinions about her relationship with Yamac. This has less to do with her acting than with her characterization and gangland background, her being an enemy of Yamac (and a third player in a messy love triangle). However, her kind of beauty combined with her genuine depth of her immersive characters, makes her stand out as a different kind of female artiste.
Part of the reason for her acting quality may be that she not only imbues characters that are personally meaningful for her (e.g. female oppression, outsiders) but she believes the craft is to push her own (and others') boundaries. She is evidently not going for the light-hearted romcoms and although she has been in many productions as a supporting actor, her talents are way beyond doing just this. In Cukur she is now central to the plot with two amazing and adored actors, Aras Bulut Iynemli as lead (Yamac) and Baris Arduc (Arik Boke) as Yamac’s arch nemesis. Standing her ground as the love tension between these two accomplished actors, who have their own proven performance track records and tend to dominate whatever scenes they are participating in, Damla will competently prove her acting mettle, versatility, experience, ingenuity and capabilities as a screen actor who has also honed her craft.
A screen sprite has well and truly arrived.
For a full list of Damla’s filmography and accolades, please visit her IMDb page here
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To learn more about Cukur, read an earlier post here
To learn more about Aras Bulut Iynemli, read an earlier post here
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