Five sisters and five portraits of the beauty and tragedy of youth.
Mustang is an absolutely stunning debut feature by Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. The setting is a remote, unspecified part of the Turkish countryside, somewhere along the sea, and vaguely referenced as being 1,000 km from Istanbul. In the opening sequence of the film, the youngest sister Lale (Günes Sensoy) is seen bidding a tearful goodbye to the girls’ teacher, who is moving away to Istanbul. Excited by the nice weather, the sisters walk home and, on the way, they go right into the sea with all their clothes on, very innocently splashing about playing chicken with some fully clothed boys in the water. The jaunt into the water seems fun, bright, innocent, and reminiscent of youth.
By the time they get home, the hot sun has dried the girls off and they walk through the front door laughing. They stop laughing, however, when they see the look on their grandmother’s face. We soon learn that the five sisters are orphans and have been raised by their grandmother (Nihal Koldas) and their Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) since their parents’ death a decade ago. A woman from the village had seen the girls splashing about with the boys in the water and told their grandmother about their scandalous and immoral behavior. Horrified by his nieces, Erol takes all five of them to the doctor, where the three eldest, Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), and Ece (Elit Iscan) are tested for their virginity.
From this point forth, it is no more fun for the girls. As Lale puts it in her voiceover narration, their house becomes a “wife factory”, where various aunts and village women train them in cooking, cleaning, sewing, and other tasks that will make them into good, dutiful wives. As the film progresses, the tensions get progressively higher. The house becomes more and more like a prison as the walls are made higher, gates are installed, and eventually bars are even welded onto the windows.
The greatest merit of the film is in the way it expertly paints five separate portraits of five separate personalities. Each of the sisters is trapped within the same stifling, confining situation. Each is surrounded by authorities who do not listen to her. Each is destined for an arranged marriage that has utterly no consideration for her happiness. First, we see Sonay and Selma get married. Sonay is lucky enough that her secret lover proposes. In an ironic way, she has prospered under the oppressive system, benefiting from having had a secret romance so that she can marry a man whom she knows and whom she is in love with. On the other hand, Selma marries a man after knowing him for less than ten minutes. As a result, she is despondent during her wedding and expresses a hopeless acceptance of her fate. She isn’t happy with her situation but feels nothing but a profound powerlessness.
Ece is next in line for marriage. Her grandmother arranges several suitors for her, but she begins to act unstably, driving them all away. It is revealed that her uncle is sexually abusing her and she eventually kills herself. Ece experiences the most extreme form of oppression and, being a girl of action and impulses, takes the most extreme actions to escape it. Finally, we are left with little Lale and Nur (Doga Doguslu), the two youngest. These girls are the fighters. Lale has been the observer and narrator throughout the film. She has watched her sisters, watched her relatives, and watched her world around her. This essentially equates Lale with the audience. She is our liaison into this world. She becomes a part of the camera. What Lale sees, we see. What she doesn’t see, we do not see.
For example, once Sonay and Selma have been married off, they are absent from the film. The only time they return is for a few very brief shots of Ece’s funeral. This view of the world through Lale’s eyes is what lends the film its emotion and heart. The whole film takes place under bleak circumstances, but Lale’s attitude and strength give the audience the courage to keep watching and make the film more than just a hopeless image of oppression. At the end of the day, Mustang is at once harrowing, heartwarming, funny, and startlingly relevant. What Deniz Gamze Ergüven has crafted is more than just a film. She has created an important document of a culture and a religion that are at odds with the contemporary world and a nation of people unsteadily transitioning from generation to the next.
Mustang was directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven and stars Günes Sensoy, Doga Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, and Ilayda Akdogan. It screened during the Directors’ Fortnight at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, in the Special Presentations section of the Toronto International Film Festival, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, and we screened it at the New York Turkish Film Festival. In its 15th year, the festival has become one of the leading film festivals in New York. The festival was sponsored by Turkish Airlines and America.
Cohen Media Group’s MUSTANG DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo will be released on May 10. Both include A Drop of Water, a short film by Ergüven, an interview with the cast, collectible booklets and more.
Photo credits: Hollywood Reporter.