Synopsis: It’s the beginning of the summer. In a village in the north of Turkey, Lale and her four sisters come home from school, innocently playing with boys. The supposed debauchery of their games causes a scandal with unintended consequences. The family home slowly turns into a prison, classes on housework and cooking replace school, and marriages begin to be arranged. The five sisters, driven by the same desire for freedom, fight back against the limits imposed on them.
eyelights: its sober look at misogynistic traditions. its broad yet intimate perspective. its strong cast. its spunky lead. its hopefulness.
eyesores: the grotesqueries and injustices that its characters are subjected to.
“The house became a wife factory that we never came out of.”
‘Mustang’ is the auspicious feature film debut by writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Released in 2015, it tells the story of five orphaned sisters confined and repressed in an ultra-conservative small Turkish town. It’s based on some of Ergüven’s own personal experiences.
Frankly, when the movie played at my local art house cinema, I couldn’t have been bothered with it. Seeing the repression of women isn’t my exactly my idea of a good time out. But, when I started watching female coming-of-age stories, it only seemed natural to include this one.
It turned out to be my favourite picture of the year – thus far.
I think that what makes ‘Mustang’ so powerful is the hopefulness that constantly permeates it, despite the unpleasantness that the girls are subjected to. As modern girls, familiar with and accustomed to modern realities, the quintet has a thirst for self-expression.
It burns brightly in them.
This leads them to defying the rules that their grandmother (under intense pressure from their uncle) imposes on them. It means escaping their four-walled world by climbing down the window, running off to Istanbul to see a football game, reconnecting technology in secret, …etc.
The feistiest one of the group is the youngest, Lale. Though she’s also the most playful of the lot (she’s just a child, after all), she challenges her siblings to stand up to the oppression and even starts planning her own escape. She’s the fire that would save some of them.
What’s interesting about ‘Mustang’ is that it presents various outcomes for all of the girls. I don’t know if Ergüven culled them from her own experiences or if she put down the scenarios that she wanted to explore and then assigned girls to them, but the diversity spoke loudly.
What it affirmed was that everyone is different, not everyone will react to oppression the same way, no future is preordained – that life can be unpredictable. But, most of all, it tells us that hope can be found even in the most hopeless situations; we strive for freedom at all costs.
Even in the darkest of nights, a small flame flickers.
The performances are uniformly excellent. I was really quite taken with the girls even though they are so young you’d half-expect them to lack the maturity or experience to serve up realistic turns. Only one of them has done other filmmaking work, yet they’re all terrific.
If I were to reproach the film anything at all, and I’m reaching, it’s that it plays up the uncle as an utter hypocrite in much the same way one might expect in these stories – expecting his nieces to be “pure” so that they can be married, but vilely transgressing that himself.
This is very commonplace in these tales, but this is also a very common reality for women: that, in conservative circles, men’s expectations of women don’t reflect their own actions. And violation is a reality in many societies, even in more progressive ones. Men can be beasts.
But, beyond this “cliché”, ‘Mustang’ is an incredibly strong first feature. It weaves grim reality and hope with measure, slowly building up the tension in such a way that the finale rings out as a welcome relief and grand victory; it’s hard to watch this and not cheer for the girls.
In fact, I felt for all of them, though I was most taken with our de facto lead, Lale: I empathized with them, feared for their welfare, wracked my brains trying to find a way out for them, and was impressed by and delighted with each one of their oft-miniscule mean of escape.
I don’t know why Ergüven chose to call her movie ‘Mustang’, but one can imagine that, in a patriarchal society that controls women’s freedom from within and without, the girls may have seemed feral, roaming freely with no concern for rules and expectations. They needed to be tamed.
Thankfully, wild horses aren’t easily broken.
Date of viewing: May 19, 2017