In Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut film Mustang, five young orphaned sisters – Lale (Günes Sensoy), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) – full of life and natural vigour discover the price of womanhood in a conservative, patriarchal society intent on suppressing it. Present day rural Turkey is the setting: a country currently undergoing creeping Islamisation under openly religious rulers and one that has long been torn between its eastern and western identities.
From the film’s first shot Ergüven makes the sisters the centre of her attention, all five almost constantly in frame as an inseparable organic unit. We first encounter the girls in tears as they bid farewell to their beloved teacher Miss Dilek (Bahar Kerimoglu) at the start of their summer holidays, unaware of the much greater deprivations that await them. A little innocent play with some male classmates at the beach is observed and misinterpreted by a God-fearing neighbour, who alerts the siblings’ grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) and gets them locked up at home for the summer. Instruction in the dos and don’ts of being a wife begins immediately, and one by one the sisters are married off. After the girls outwit their guardians and figure out how to escape, Erol adds steel reinforcements to the property’s windows and gates, setting into motion a climactic siege and a dramatic prison break.
Ergüven’s unassuming yet accomplished visual style – consisting primarily of close-ups and tracking shots of the five sisters – ties us to their fates both physically and emotionally, and enables us to experience first-hand their stunted horizons as they are confined within the house. But she also – despite Mustang’s serious themes – unashamedly celebrates the girls’ beauty, femininity and irrepressible joie de vivre as they play together, skip and dance through corridors, and glow in the summer sun. As in the recent Room, space and freedom – and the denial thereof – are an essential part of the message Mustang attempts to convey. This is evident visually in that the film’s rare expansive shots come during moments of forbidden freedom, such as the early excursion to the beach and later covert sorties and escape attempts.
Lale, the youngest of the sisters and voice-over narrator, embodies this libertarian impulse as she pirouettes in her underwear to shock her grandmother and secretly learns to drive her uncle’s car. But the girls are denied their freedom in another, equally harmful way. Along with their physical captivity, they are also banned from attending school and instead prepared for marriage in what Selma calls a “wife factory”. Ergüven thus draws attention to the emancipatory power of education, and insists that its denial be seen as a form of oppression. Viewed in this light, it is symbolic that as the grandmother clears the house of ‘corrupting’ influences, she includes a postcard of Eugene Delacroix’s famous portrayal of the French Revolution ‘Liberty Leading The People’, in which Liberty is of course, a woman.
Despite all of Mustang’s brilliance, a few aspects of the script – while not damaging to the overall experience of the film – are questionable in hindsight. First, while they are dramatically understated, a couple of shocking events in the film (including a suicide and molestation) feel peripheral to the main story and seem to have been included for grimness’ sake. A few other incidents are just plain implausible, and jar with the gripping believability of the rest. Nonetheless, these are small qualms about a triumphant debut feature with an important message that masterfully balances its personal and political concerns.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka