Cast: Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit İşcan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu, İlayda Akdoğan, Nihal Koldaş, Ayberk Peckan, Erol Afşin
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Writers: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Alice Winocour
In its depiction of female oppression Mustang presents an interesting case. The film is set in a rural Turkish town where the ignorant taboos and outdated misogyny of this family’s cultural beliefs are seemingly a far cry away from our own culture in the West. And yet the emotions and ideas that the film conveys: the sisterly bond, the sexual awakening, the patriarchal dominance and the silent suffering; these are all universal ideas that are immediately recognisable and relatable. The film wisely avoids setting itself at a particular time, meaning we cannot tell if this is something that happened ten or more years ago or if it is happening today. The film also avoids making any direct statement about the religion of this family because to do so would be to misconstrue the point being made. Mustang isn’t a film about a particular place, time, community or creed, it is a universal story of five girls searching for identity and meaning.
The narrator is the youngest of the sisters, Lale (Güneş Şensoy). On the last day of school she and her sisters Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), Ece (Elit İşcan) and Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu) go to play in the water with some of the male students, unaware of the scandal they will cause. An elderly neighbour witnesses their activity and interprets it as something perverse, proceeding to notify the girls’ grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) of their depravity. After being punished by her and their uncle Erol (Ayberk Peckan) everything, in Lale’s words, turns to shit. The house is turned into a wife factory where the girls must spend their days learning to be perfect, silent, obedient wives and are forbidden from leaving the premises or interacting with any boys. From here on the only future they are allowed to have is one of confinement as they wait to be married off to a suitor chosen by their uncle.
The film tackles the complex and provocative issue of female sexuality. It details how women, even at a young age, are viewed and defined in a sexual light and are then punished for it. It does this in a setting where the female status is never questioned, not even by the women who define it. While the girls are punished and then confined for playing around with the boys in the water, the boys as far as we know never receive any form of punishment, nor is it suggested by any of the characters that they should receive any blame for the supposed crime that took place. As far as these characters are concerned female sexual desire is something to be feared and suppressed except in service to male sexual desire. Girls are expected to remain incorruptibly pure and virtuous, otherwise they will never be able to marry and will therefore have no worth as human beings. The film is damning in the patriarchal oppression and misogyny that it depicts and does a wonderful job of showcasing its effects and brutalities through the eyes of the five young girls.
The sisters in the film share a palpable chemistry that is utterly authentic and organic. The girls are so believable as siblings in their appearance, behaviour and unity that it was sometimes difficult to simply tell them apart. Yet each one of them does have a distinctive personality and arc and each one struggles and deals with the oppression in their own way. Sonay for example has a sweetheart she continues to see in secret and finds a way to be with him that preserves her virginity. Ece in contrast is more self-abusive in her attempts to cope with the pains and suffocation of imprisonment. Lale is the most openly defiant of them all and is constantly looking for a way to escape. The one source of strength and hope they have in the middle of it all is their unbreakable sisterly bond. Together their spirits remain alive and their identities remain true. The actresses that Ergüven discovered for this film all deliver sublime performances and together create an astonishing ensemble.
Whatever political, cultural or religious connotations there are in this film should not distract viewers from the hauntingly human story being told. This is a powerful film about the female struggle for identity, desire and freedom. The premise is grim and many of the scenes are despairing, melancholic and tragic. The power of the girls’ sisterhood is the shining light that keeps their will alive until finally the film reaches its hopeful outcome. It’s not exactly a happy ending, at least not conclusively so, but it is one that allows for the possibility and promise of a better future. I was incredibly moved by the plight of the sisters in Mustang and found the film to be marvellous in its empathy and humanity. This film is a landmark in modern feminist cinema and provokes both outrage and compassion in equal measure.