The debut film by Turkish-born, French-raised filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven is a strong, convincing drama that explores the bond between – and treatment of – five sisters living within an ultra-conservative Turkish village. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture earlier this year and won four prizes at the Césars, including one for the screenplay by the director and her writing partner Alice Winocour (herself the director of the recent thriller Disorder), and one for the original soundtrack by the Australian musician Warren Ellis. Few of the award ceremonies and festivals – major or minor – appear to have picked up on the excellent ensemble performance by the cast, though, particularly those playing the five sisters, who between them had very little acting experience beforehand. Their naturalistic performances are uniformly excellent, and together they completely convince as siblings, whether they’re sharing in-jokes together or goofing around in tangled heaps on the floor.
At the beginning of the film we see all of the girls – Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale, in order of age – on the last day of term, innocently playing with several male schoolmates in the sea. A minor amount of physical contact between the (still clothed) girls and boys causes a scandal to erupt within the community, and the sisters are all harshly punished for their behaviour by their legal guardians: a grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) and her son Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), who is also the girls’ uncle. (The boys, presumably, are not punished, and the screenplay implies as much by ignoring the other party completely, instantly highlighting how girls are treated differently.) In the wake of the incident – supposedly based on something that happened to the director when she was young – the three older girls are subjected to tests at the hospital to check that they are still virgins, while Lale (Güneş Şensoy) – the youngest and sparkiest – verbally attacks the woman who was originally outraged by their behaviour. The subsequent drama is an example of what happens when oppression escalates; the house the girls live in is turned into a ‘wife factory’, with toys and items used for communication locked away and cookery lessons taking place on a daily basis. Marriages are arranged for the older sisters, and the five are kept under house arrest. They rebel, sneaking out of the window to meet boys and, during one life-affirming scene, they attend a high profile football match where only female spectators are allowed (a couple of these have taken place in Turkey during the past five years). This causes Erol to add metal grilles to the doors and windows of the house, imprisoning the girls who are not yet old enough to marry.
The situation the girls are placed in is uncomfortable to consider, but conversely Mustang is – for the most part – an uplifting experience, given that the emphasis is on the dissent expressed by the sisters, as well as their unshakeable bond, which is as strong at the end of the film as it is at the beginning. One thinks of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, of course, and the two films share a hazy, soft-focus visual style, as well as certain plot points, though of course from a cultural perspective there’s some distance between them. The film caused some controversy within Turkey on its release, and the subject of women’s rights is a political hot potato within the country, given that it has repeatedly been raised as a problematic issue within the European Union, an organisation Turkey has sought accession to for a number of years. In the film the city of Istanbul is presented as a place where liberal attitudes prevail – at least in the eyes of Lale, who intends to go there if she can escape the house – and I’d be interested to know just how accurate Ergüven’s presentation of a divide between progressive city and conservative countryside actually is. It’s beautifully shot by David Chizallet and Ersin Gok, with the stiflingly-hot, early summer shoot and setting ensuring that blinding sunlight creeps into the frame repeatedly; you can feel the stickiness of the heat. With Lale in particular the film has a focus, a fearless girl whose acts of rebellion grow in tandem with her own determination to be independent and free. I hope the character and the film more generally inspire young women who are subjected to similar treatment, if of course they’re lucky enough to be able to see Mustang or are able to contribute to change within their own society. Ergüven’s film is a damning indictment of a culture in which young women are bartered and exchanged like cattle, but it’s also a force for good, and confidently-made.
Directed by: Deniz Gamze Ergüven.
Written by: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Alice Winocour.
Starring: Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit İşcan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu, İlayda Akdoğan, Nihal Koldaş, Ayberk Pekcan, Erol Afşin.
Cinematography: David Chizallet, Ersin Gok.
Editing: Mathilde Van de Moortel.
Music: Warren Ellis.
Running Time: 97 minutes.