The endeavour to capture how summer, freedom and youth feels on film is one attempted all the time, from feature films to glossed-up advertisements. Deniz Gamze Ergüven does a very good job of it in the opening scenes of Mustang, in which the protagonists of the film, five young sisters, tumble after each other: out of school and down to the nearby beach, teasing each other, laughing together, splashing through the water with a group of male schoolmates. The sense of heady, golden days and the unfettered ease of camaraderie between the sisters in these first scenes becomes the point of juxtaposition for the rest of the film: within minutes, their freedom contracts as they arrive home to a worrying grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and a storm-faced uncle. Spurred by the disapproving gossip of their neighbours, both adults are in a fury. The playful jockeying with their male classmates is read as sexual: the girls are degenerates, sluts, for riding atop the boy’s shoulders. Their grandmother’s rage, even her physical discipline, turns out to be almost protective. She is seeking to pull them into line before their uncle notices their transgressions because it is his rage that is truly dangerous.
The youngest sister, Lale (Günes Sensoy), who narrates the film throughout, tells us, “everything changed in the blink of an eye.” Her conviction in the sudden-ness with which their uncle’s rage convulsed, and their freedom contracted, is the bequeath of a certain naivety. As the film progresses, the events happen with such unrelenting force that there is a deterministic air to them, both social and fantastical, that makes her incredulity seem endearing yet inexplicable. It seems Ergüven intended the film to function as a socio-political commentary on the forces which determined the events of the film well before Lale experienced them: patriarchy, gender and power in Turkey. Yet the superb but stylised production and cinematography and the carefully designed plot (co-written by Ergüven and French scriptwriter, Anna Wincocur) give Mustang a faintly fable quality – a darker fairytale, a warning on patriarchy.
The film maps their experience of gender, as the varying consequences of moving from girlhood to womanhood become increasingly clear for each girl. The easy, light camaraderie of the early scenes is never totally vanquished: that is part of the charm – and the international crossover appeal – of the film. Their uncle, Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), literally cages them within the house. He throws out any possible contaminants to their enforced purity: cellphones, makeup, their old clothing, to be replaced with new chaste dresses. Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), one of the more irrepressible and confident sisters, tears a slit in hers. He installs metal bars over the openings, the windows, yet the older sisters lie in the sunny spots of their house to sunbathe regardless. Each sister is written with a distinct yet familiar personality, different iterations of the cultural image of the teenage (or, in Lale’s case, pre-teen) girl. They approach their imprisonment and their respective relegation into early marriages with the local boys with varying degrees of acceptance, resignation, defiance, mischief and mirth. While Sonay successfully contrives her own happy marriage with her secret boyfriend, the other eldest sister, Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), enters hers with a deep reluctance tempered only by apathy. When Selma does not bleed on the sheets on her wedding night, the family of her new husband take her immediately to a doctor to anxiously await his evaluation of her virginity. What unfolds is both hilarious and achingly dire: at the doctors questioning, she announces in a monotone that she has slept with hundreds of men. His examination finds her hymen intact and the bemused doctor asks her why she lied. She shrugs.
The moments of humour and triumph in the film are crucially important for persuading the viewer to commit to the film’s intensifying emotional journey. A brief but glorious escape by all the sisters to watch a soccer game is probably the anchor of the film in this regard. The ensuing horror of their grandmother and her friends, and their hasty concealment of the escape from Uncle Erol, plays out with incredible comical effect. It is that certain sort of humour, the potency of which relies upon genuine investment or identification from the audience, in their protagonists, to succeed. Later in the film, this emotional commitment to the future of the girls becomes sharpened, narrowed by the effective departure of the four older sisters into their marriages, which leaves Lale and Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), the second youngest sister, to struggle alone against the abuse and control of their uncle. The well-crafted final sequences become incredibly tense. Shot in the night, they take on that nauseating dreamlike quality of being plunged amongst a danger that can only be fled from.
Although Mustang does many things incredibly well, one of Ergüven’s most impressive feats is her ability to tell a story that is essentially about the oppression and abuse of women by men, about patriarchal power that masquerades as morality, without committing fresh violence in representation. Sexual abuse is visually implied, rather than witnessed; the skilful cultivation of emotional intensity acts as a proxy for violence in provoking anxiety and fear for the sisters among the audience. The obvious analogy between the titular free-running mustang horses and the sisters is underscored by the camera’s treatment of their (manes of) long free-flowing hair that turns their hair into symbols of perceived and actual sexuality. This is the closest Ergüven comes to creating a trope or object out of the sisters and that’s a significant advance over many other cinematic depictions of oppressed or abused girls1. The only caveat on Mustang, however, is that the audience (particularly an international audience) should bear in mind that the film is carefully constructed to resonate – again, fable-like – with its viewers; and that we should not read into the film meanings that are pre-structured by the moralising impulses of the West.
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