Mustang, a quietly beautiful debut from French-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, speaks volumes on Turkish society’s double standards towards girls, the strength of sisterly bonds, and the suffocating patriarchy of home and beyond
In a sleepy coastal town by the Black Sea region in Northern Turkey, new metal gates, window grilles and a garden fence is being put up around a family home. The precautions are not against burglars, but a means to protect that most precarious and contingent of things - the so-called “purity” of the five girls within. Set in Turkey and in the Turkish language, Mustang is nevertheless a French production with a talented newcomer, French-Turkish Deniz Gamze Ergüven, in the director’s seat.
A bittersweet story that follows five sisters as they face the hard consequences of little more than simply growing into adolescence, Mustang is full of spunk and determination, just like its five young actresses.
Events snowball at the beginning of summer when a neighbour sees the girls play-fighting in the sea with male classmates, celebrating the last day of school. As orphans, the five preteen and teenage sisters share a bond that makes them a micro-family among themselves already, and their teasing and giggles betray hardly any guile to their budding sexualities. Yet the girls’ grandmother and guardian - a hard-pressed woman equal parts anxious of gossip and under pressure from her son and the girls’ uncle, Erol, to make sure “those girls turn out right - chastises them harshly for this innocent play. Their uncle drags the two eldest to a doctor for virginity tests. The girls find themselves bored out of their minds as they are stuck at home learning how to embroider, stuff vine leaves perfectly, and wear “shit-coloured” modesty dresses, as our feisty 11-year-old narrator Lale (Güneş Şensoy) aptly puts it. By the time the marriage suitors begin to roll in, the girls know they are merely headed from one prison to another.
With its beautifully natural pacing and tone; a camera that feels quite feminine, for its non-voyeuristic way of showing the girls’ restlessness in their domestic space; and an original score by Warren Ellis that adds an arthouse feel, Mustang surprises in that it is a debut picture. Little wonder the film picked up three prizes at the Lumière Awards, five Césars, and was the French nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars earlier this year. It is a fast start for the 37-year-old director: last year’s Cannes jury highly acclaimed the debut, and Halle Berry has just come on board for Ergüven’s next production.
Its critical aptitude shows Ergüven’s nuanced explanation of Turkish, and many other cultures’, fears with regards to the natural development of girls (both sexually and intellectually, as they are also kept from school in the fall) and adults’ propensity to read sexual deviance in innocent circumstances. As Ergüven later reveals, it is often the “safe” domestic space that imposes an early and traumatic sexuality upon girls, especially within societies that, in the director’s insightful words, hold women responsible for “[creating] disorder because they generate desire” in the first place.
That is not to say the film does not have gentle moments of comedy, levity and love amongst the serious subject matter, or aesthetics that merit praise regardless of whether it delivers a critique. However, it hits hardest in its ability to communicate an aspect of conservative Turkish society that has not received much exposure to Western film-goers. Though Turkey boasts a long film history (Its “Yeşilçam” period was to its industry what the Golden Age was to Hollywood) and has established auteurs like Palm D’Or-winning Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep, 2013), a number of misconceptions remain about the secular yet complex nation. Patriarchy in Mustang shows how it works in insidious ways, propagated by male and female members of society, hinging on the idea of “namus”, or honour - which, in a conservatism that is universal, hinges the very fabric of society upon the idea of virginity. Indeed, there is little to no role for Islam in the story; this may surprise Western viewers who imagine Turkey is part of the Muslim Middle East, but it captures the unique conservatism of secular Turkey exactly. Patriarchy is dictated and disseminated by socio-cultural norms and gender traditions before religious scripture. It lives in the hawkish eye of the neighbour aunty; the in-laws’ insistence on seeing the blood-stained wedding sheet; the equating of female sexuality with shame; and the early marriage to quickly curb any danger of being “spoiled”. The girls rebel where and how they can when their options quickly narrow down to marriage only: Sonay (Ilayda Akdoğan), the eldest who manages to negotiate her way to marrying her beau, has already been engaging in a daring sexual relationship; Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) adopts a catatonic state of passivity during her wedding night; our feisty narrator and youngest sister Lara (Güneş Şensoy) secretly learns how to drive; but for one sister, protest must be more extreme.
Elit Iscan explains, “even though the film is talking about situations happening in Turkey, woman’s rights issues are also relevant around the world, women are being persecuted by men everywhere. There are people from Korea and the U.S.A. and Italy who said to us, ‘I felt very close to these girls. I felt like I was one of them’.”
Perhaps the most nuanced achievement of Ergüven’s film is that it has not set out to either paint a picture of a particular society, nor generalise the experience of all women: yet, in acknowledging the applicability of either, shows us both a particular and a global story. Mustang is not the experience of all Turkish girls, as there are vast differences within Turkish society - differences are anchored in the economic, but layered with multiple other factors that shape different parts of the demographic. From the staunchly secular, republican old guard who turn their noses at the headscarved, conservative lower middle classes to the separatist and often suppressed Kurds; from the liberal upper middle class students hopping home to Istanbul between semesters at US universities to religious young men who sympathise with a Turkish Islamic cleric currently in exile. It is, however, a shared experience of varying degrees for girls around the world. As one of the film’s young actresses Elit Iscan explains, “even though the film is talking about situations happening in Turkey, woman’s rights issues are also relevant around the world, women are being persecuted by men everywhere. There are people from Korea and the U.S.A. and Italy who said to us, ‘I felt very close to these girls. I felt like I was one of them’.”
Equal parts a languidly-paced, touching story of female bonding, and a quietly tense thriller near the end, Mustang is a many-layered debut from a filmmaker who is, hopefully, only at the beginning of many more memorable works.