Dir: Deniz Gamze Erguven | Cast: Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeyneb Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan; Nihal G. Kolda, Ayberk Pekcan | 97min | Drama | France/ Turkey/Germany/Qatar.
Turkish director Deniz Gamze Erguven has won international awards for her short films. Her feature debut is an emotional and ideological tour-de-force exploring how five sisters fight repression in a small Turkish village: Mustang is a vehement political statement and a great example of female solidarity.
On the last day of school, five orphaned teenage girls have a harmless water fight on the beach with their male friends. After watching them, a sneaky neighbour informs their grandmother (Koldas) and uncle Erol (Pekcan) complaining of “sexual perversion”. The girls are literally barricading into their home, their grandmother dragging the three older girls off for a “virginity test” in hospital. But the draconian behaviour doesn’t end there -‘phones, mobiles, computers and TVs are confiscated, as the girls are forced into frumpy clothes, their grandmother insisting on cooking classes to keep them ‘suitably’ busy, prepare them for marriage and making the house into a “wife factory.
Mustang feels like a story from medieval times but this is rural Turkey in the 21th century Turkey. What makes it so enjoyable is the girls’ ingenuity in the face of discipline. Sonay (Akdogan), the oldest, at least gets the husband she wants: her long-term boyfriend Ekin. But Selma (Sunguroglu) ends up with the clumsy Osman, whom she hardly knows. Ece (Iscan) tries to fatten herself up by eating sweats non-stop to put her future – unloved husband off – but commits suicide in the end. But grandmother and uncle go on regardless: finding a husband for Nur (Doguslu). The two grown-ups share a guilty secret: uncle Erol is has been abusing Nur sexually for quite a while. The youngest Lale (Sensoy), the most spirited of the quintet, finally takes over: whilst the wedding party is outside, waiting for the bride to emerge, Lale and Nur are barricades themselves into the house, before trying to escape to Istanbul.
Shot in the Inebolu, in the North-East of Turkey, with an all-Turkish cast, MUSTANG nevertheless has a West-European aesthetic since Erguven grew up in France. Sexual politics are in the forefront: whilst the girls discuss their bourgeoning sexuality openly with each other, for the grown-ups this topic is a taboo.The grandmother leaves a ’50s “guide for girls” on the kitchen table. And when Selma’s hymen does not rupture during the couple’s first intercourse after the wedding, the enraged parents drag her to a hospital, where the understanding doctor can calm them down. The old woman’s complicity with her son over his abuse of Nur, is unfortunately not only a problem encountered in Muslim countries. Which leads us to the wider implications: the excuse that forced marriages are necessary for social peace in Islam societies (as voiced by the grandmother and her son) is just a scam: Men very much participate in all the “vices” of modern Western culture, they just do not want to give up their privileges: since the repression of women forced to live in the medieval times in 21st century.
DOPs Ersin Gok and David Chizallet evoke a perfect ‘huis clos’ atmosphere in the house: the gloomy images give a feeling of lock-down, with the ugly clothes as prison garbs. And whenever Lale escapes to learn to drive, meeting the friendly Yasin (Yigit) – who teaches her – alas with no success – the sobriety recedes and the colours become bright and joyful. Even the mention of ‘Istanbul’, a heaven of freedom, brightens up the atmosphere in the house. The ensemble cast are outstanding with a dynamite turn from debutant Sensoy: her Lale is so full of vitality, resistance and ingenuity, that in spite of her age, she pioneers the fight for freedom. MUSTANG is not perfect, there are over-melodramatic moments in the football stadium with the girls celebrating in an all-female crowd – but the powerfully passionate, stringent offensive approach Erguven choses, is impressive. AS
MUSTANG IS ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 13 MAY 2016