A stirring portrait of female freedom denied, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang is a deeply personal story with a profound political resonance.
Sister Actby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Mustang is the debut film of Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who grew up in France. It’s her forthright statement on sexist oppression. As she says, women in Turkey “are perceived through a filter of sexualisation as a reason to limit their place in society”.
In a small town on the Black Sea coast, where traditional attitudes are far stronger than in the capital, a remote 1,000 miles away, five sisters, whose parents are dead, live with their violent uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) and grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas). They are close in age and almost like a single body with five heads, all flowing with long hair, bursting with life and supportive of each other – “mustang” refers to their coltishness, implying they are like wild horses that need taming.
Innocent horseplay in the sea with male fellow pupils to celebrate school breaking up for the summer is seen by a headscarfed neighbour, who complains about their ‘obscene’ behaviour. Their grandmother and uncle react with horror, believing they are compromising their virginity and their marriage prospects. The only solution is to get them all married off as soon as possible. The film is narrated with a voiceover in hindsight by the youngest sister Lale (Günes Sensoy) – she describes that day as “the day it all turned to shit”.
From then on, the sisters are locked up in the house and mobile phones are taken away. The house becomes a prison and “a wife factory”, Lale says, as the girls are taught cooking and housework to prepare them for marriage. They are made to wear shapeless dresses and only allowed out to parade for prospective suitors. When they escape to go and watch a football match reserved for only women spectators (echoes of Jafar Panahi’s Offside), it’s televised live and one of their aunts spots them in the crowd. To protect them, she pulls the plug on the electricity for the whole village to prevent the uncle, who is watching it on TV, from seeing them.
But after that incident, even the windows of the house are sealed up until it looks like a human-sized dolls house. There’s much emphasis on virginity testing and hints of night-time abuse of one of the sisters by the uncle. The girls are all now on a speeded-up conveyor belt to marriage. Each sister is driven by a desire for freedom and each deals with this in her own way. The eldest Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) is the most able to turn the situation to her advantage, refusing an arranged marriage and insisting on marrying the boy of her choice with whom she is already having a secret affair. The next, Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) falls into hopeless resignation at the marriage arranged for her. A surprising tragedy befalls the next sister Ece (Elit Iscan). This leaves only Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu) and Lale. Even though they are so much younger, marriage still looms for them too. But it’s the youngest sister Lale who is the most proactive in fighting against their fate. She is befriended by a kindly truck driver (Burak Yigit) she met when she tried to escape, and he secretly teaches her to drive. She convinces her sister to rebel with her when her arranged husband and his wedding party come for her, with surprising and shocking results.
Mustang is like a feminist fairy tale, and the story is reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides. Only one of the five girls (Iscan) had acted before, yet Ergüven gets astonishing performances from all of them. It’s shot naturalistically, using only natural light and the unusual house as the main location. Everything is told through movement and events. It’s an intriguing and, despite its subject, a positive and even at times light-hearted story of female empowerment from a talented new director. The trigger incident of the horseplay is based on her own life and the rest of the film is deeply personal, so it will be interesting to see how she develops as a filmmaker.
Mustang is released on 13th May 2016 in the UK