By Elias Savada.
The emotional stability of five delightfully effervescent sisters is mightily tested in Mustang, a biting and anguishing indictment of conservative religious ideology set in present day northern Turkey. It’s a powerful debut feature from Deniz Gamze Ergüven, a Turkish-born cinephile educated in Paris and Johannesburg, who displays an incredible aptitude to capture a heartfelt story surrounded by an organic sensuality, while also focusing on the harsh reality foisted on the teenagers. The film, a subtle and formidable statement, has mustered numerous festival trophies and is a strong contender (from France, even though the film is in Turkish) in the foreign language category for the February Oscars.
The vibrant, long-haired girls, orphaned for a decade and living with their stern grandmother (a fierce Nihal Koldas), enjoy life and learning. The older ones have discovered boys in a giggly way, one where a class in sex education would be mighty helpful. Lale (Gunes Nezihe Sesnoy), the youngest, has sensitively attached herself to the progressive female teacher/mother figure Dilek (Bahar Karimoglu), but her mentor’s future is in Istanbul rather than the school house of a small village on the edge of the Black Sea. As a school holiday starts, the girls, glad to be off from their studies, innocently venture into the nearby sea for a fully-clothed game of chicken fight, also including some male friends. Perfectly fine if the setting is Coney Island. Not so much in a land rife with thousands of human rights violations.
Their home quickly becomes a microcosm for a fundamentalist sector of Turkish society, showcasing a repressive family matriarch and particularly the girls’ virulently angry uncle (Ayberk Pekcan), who is convinced the beauties are all whores. He puts a quick end to their playful lives, first by harsh capital punishment, then with home imprisonment. When their virginity is tested (literally!), the oppressive uncle takes the results to task and begins to handle their futures through a series of arranged marriage. Despite the drastic measures, the girls try to remain upbeat, yet their bleakness is foretold in a shot of the uncle’s car, with him and the girls, heading into a tunnel. A very dark tunnel.
Bye, bye freedom.
Mustang showcases women as subservient figures in a male dominated society. Female emancipation seem just around the corner, especially when a key soccer match that Lale wants to attend (but has been refused by her uncle) suddenly becomes a completely female crowd event because of male rowdiness in a previous game. Another wily house escape nearly works, but repercussions quickly rain down on the sisters. And so it goes.
The situation worsens when Ekin (Enes Surum), the boyfriend of Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), boldly proclaims his love. Miraculously, she manages to have the uncle and grandmother bless their marriage. Dreary instruction on food preparations and other household chores necessary to please a potential husband become compulsory. Their lives turn to shit (the color of the shapeless clothing that must wear), but they still manage some moments of uplift, shedding their drab wardrobes to reveal a budding sensuality.
Despite the lockdown, the barred windows, the confiscation of all things Western (revealing clothing, makeup, computers, cellphones, regular landline phones) likely to “pervert” their minds and bodies, fleeting flashes of the film are mischievous teases that break up the repressed sexual desires of the older girls. The lighting by director of photography David Chizallet gives some of the group shots an idyllic luster, perhaps influenced by a grand portrait artist or, more likely, the films of Eric (Claire’s Knee) Rohmer. “Girls, semi-clad, thinking of better lives together,” might be the painting’s title.
There are shades of Sofia Coppola’s influence, too, particularly her first feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999), which also dealt with a family of five teenage sisters and their overprotective parents. Coppola could easily pass as a sixth sister in Mustang. Concerning the five youngsters carrying the film, all but one are non-actors. The exception is Elit Iscan (Ece), who became the muse for all others to follow. Of the others, three came via auditions, but one, Tugba Sungurolgu, was found by the director on an Istanbul-Paris flight. Nice discovery. They all vibe.
The bittersweet score by Warren Ellis, of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, offers a violin-themed sadness to the affair. The hand-held camera work keeps many of the shots framed close to the actors for an intensely intimate connection with the viewer.
When you repress the free spirit showcased in Mustang in such a cold-hearted manner, the results are hardly unexpected. The astonishing portrait feels so authentic that you might be driven to tears from the overall sense of depression.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.