Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Deniz Gamze Erguven
Stars: Gunes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Dogslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan.
This powerful, bittersweet coming of age drama from Turkey has been winning awards and wowing audiences at film festivals around the world, and was Turkey’s official entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Five orphan girls (Nur, Selma, Ece, Sunay and Lale) live with their conservative grandmother (Nihal G Koldas) and their strict Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan, from Winter Sleep, etc) in a small Turkish village situated on the Black Sea. On the last day of school before summer holidays begin the girls are seen cavorting in the water with a group of school boys. It was all innocent fun to celebrate the end of school, but a nosy neighbour informs the grandmother about their licentious and immoral behaviour.
The girls are quickly punished. The family fear that rumours about their inappropriate behaviour may ruin their chances of marrying a suitable local man. They are confined to the house and forbidden to return to school where they may encounter temptation. The house is slowly transformed into a prison of sorts, with bars placed over the windows and doors. All forms of temptation are also removed from the house – computers, telephones, televisions – to protect their virtue. The five struggle to find ways to alleviate the boredom.
The girls are confined to the house where they are taught essentials of becoming a good wife – cooking, sewing, etc – and the house becomes “a wife factory” in the words of 12-year-old Lale (Gunes Sensoy), the youngest of the five girls. Lale also has a rebellious streak and does not want to be married off to a complete stranger. She organises several attempts to escape the claustrophobic and confining environment. There is one sequence in which she manages to convince her siblings to sneak out of the house so they can watch a soccer match with an all female crowd. This incident shows a more human understanding side to one of her aunts as she takes some drastic action to protect them from the repercussions of this act of defiance.
But ultimately the uncle’s actions and determination to marry the girls off leads to tragedy.
The tale unfolds from the perspective of Lale, who refuses to let circumstances crush her spirit. She is a strong and spirited character, and her attitude and desire to be free is reflected in the choice of title for the film.
Mustang is a sobering experience and offers a critical exploration of female sexuality and the strict moral codes that govern many similar societies. The film gives us some insights into the ugly realities of the patriarchal nature of this society and highlights the injustice of its treatment of women who are systematically oppressed and subjugated. At the same time it is also a celebration of feminine ideals, female empowerment, freedom, and the resilience of the human spirit.
Mustang is the debut feature film from Deniz Gamze Erguven, who collaborated with French writer/director Alice Winscour on the screenplay. She directs with intelligence and compassion, but she doesn’t pull her punches either. Mustang is an indictment of the dehumanising effects of these conservative moral values and centuries old traditions that are out of step with more modern thinking. Erguven’s script is perceptive and the well developed characters draw us into the story. Mustang invites comparisons to Sophia Coppola’s superb and haunting 1999 coming of age drama about the sexual awakening of teenage girls with The Virgin Suicides, as it shares a few thematic similarities with that film.
Erguven auditioned hundreds of young girls from France and Turkey for the roles. She draws good performances from the inexperienced cast, most of whom are nonprofessionals but who manage to deliver naturalistic performances. The five young girls develop a strong bond that seems natural and it adds to the central dynamic. First timer Sensoy is a stand out with her strong and natural screen presence. Pekcan brings an aggressive and fanatical quality to his performance as the overbearing and strict uncle.
The film has been gorgeously shot by cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok, and the use of handheld cameras in certain scenes is effective and controlled. There is also a moving and atmospheric score from Warren Ellis, a regular collaborator with Nick Cave.
Erguven effectively ramps up the tension in the final act as Lale encourages one of her sisters to escape from the house. But the film manages to end on an optimistic note that holds out hope, not only for Lale but for other girls in a similar situation.