Mustang (2015): the beautiful story of five fillies fighting for their rights in traditional Turkey

Mustang by Deniz Gamze Ergüven was one of the great sensations of Cannes in 2015 and received great critical acclaim with a shower of well-deserved awards culminating in an Oscar nomination for best Foreign Language Film in 2016, ironically as a French film.

At a time of political instability and return to hard-core conservatism in Turkey, the film, which tells the story of five orphaned sisters in a small coastal village by the Black Sea, feels bitterly current and candid.

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The film begins with what could be first interpreted as a rather innocuous and inconsequential event. Teenage boys and girls play in the water at the beach on a summer’s day after school. They splash water at each other, climb on to each other, laugh and scream. A pretty harmless and familiar scene on any Western beach, but an act of ultimate provocation in rural, conservative Turkey. As the scene unfolds, by lingering on the bodies of the teenagers, using slow motion and close-up effects, Ergüven drops some hints about the gravity of the situation. Petrified villagers are left staring at the scene and something terribly wrong is happening. Soon after, Lale (Güneş Şensoy), Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) and Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan) get a big telling-off by their mortified grandmother, who has been caring for them ever since the girls’ parents died ten years ago.  The girls’ uncle, Erol, who is the only male living in the house, accuses the grandmother of having been too lenient and liberal in the upbringing of the sisters, and so, to avoid further embarrassment, she agrees to lock up the “filthy” girls at home, away from school, to take books and computers out of their reach, and to start teach them how to be decent housewives and cooks. It’s a complete shock to the girls, who have enjoyed full freedom until now as they realise that their childhood, their dreams, their innocence have just been snatched away from them.

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Sowly starts a claustrophobic descent into Hell for the pretty and unruly sisters locked in their leafy prison. The longer they spend in the house the more desperate they become. From having to deal with boredom and mundane chores to start off, they are then successively forced into marriage (a happy one for Sonay, a sad one for Selma), humiliated with virginity tests, abused by men and pushed to the edge. The tension in the film builds up into a chilling climax where the last remaining two sisters, Lale and Nur narrowly escape what has become a fortified prison.

With its 5-sisters-locked-up-at-home plot, its bright colours and apparently idyllic settings the film seems close to The Virgin Suicides (1999) by Sofia Coppola. But the themes the film explores have more to do with Ergüven’s criticism of a medieval Turkish society that treats women like commodities rather than human beings. Because it is so stylistically different to Ken Loach’s realistic style and to the drab look of the recent I, Daniel Blake, the comparison may seem far-fetched, but Mustang shares with it a similar way of treating very difficult issues with a certain optimism, lightness and sense of detachment. However awful the situations they are in, whether it is Daniel Blake taking on England’s unfair benefits system or young freedom-aspiring Lale in Mustang, the characters seem to bravely carry their burdens, rebel against injustices but never give in to self-pity or pathos.

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Despite the dramatic situation, there is a lot of humour sprinkled across the film. Not just dark humour as a bittersweet acceptance of a blighted fate. But jolly, wholehearted humour that lifts the spirits and brings a lot of hope when you think all is lost. One hilarious scene in the film is when the sisters sneak out of the house, jump on a bus to go and see a football game in a nearby town, a game which has banned hooligans and is only allowing female supporters in. All the women in the stadium are having a wonderful time cheering and singing, the day is an opportunity to let go of all the daily frustration and repression they endure. Back home all the men in the family are gathered to watch the game on TV when all of a sudden the grandmother recognises the girls on the stands. Before the men notice anything, the aunt runs out to smash the TV aerial and electrical mains to protect the girls and prevent them from being seen. This is in spite of all the shame and resentment she feels towards them, a proof of deep-rooted female solidarity, or an act of self-preservation to protect what’s left of the family honour, who knows?

The detachment between the harshness of the injustice that the sisters have to face and their apparent impassiveness allows the film not to fall into a full-scale gloom and doom report of the dire situation of women’s rights in Turkey, a country that is yet usually regarded as a modern, moderate and tolerant Islamic cultures. But at the same time, the accumulation of abuse and atrocities that the girls have to endure is treated so lightly that it sometimes takes the shock factor away, leaving the spectator uncertain as to what to think and whether to care. It feels like Ergüven has tried to fit in too many different problems in the same story, a flaw reminiscent of two films I saw recently which also tell the stories of abused women, albeit in a very different way: Precious (2009) by Lee Daniels and Lilya 4-Ever (2002) by Lukas Moodysson. Both are excellent movies but the stories they tell are so gloomy and depressing that you can’t help questioning the plot, hoping that in real life, a single person couldn’t decently be struck by such accumulation of bad luck.

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Mustang offers a very personal perspective on the ambiguities and contradictions of Turkish society, straddling Europe and Asia, conflicted between a Western culture that it both loathes and yearns for, and a growing Islamic influence that is ostensibly more traditional, conservative and male-dominated. The beautiful Black Sea scenery is exquisitely filmed and you can almost smell the sweet fresh figs as they are being picked. But however stunning the setting, however delightful the perfume of fresh figs, the film clearly shows that they are worth nothing if you haven’t the freedom to enjoy them.

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