School is out for the summer and five free-spirited teenage sisters head for the beach. Full of girlish exuberance, they splash in the sea with schoolboy friends. They swim, fight playfully, and clamber on the boys’ shoulders. We could be almost anywhere in the world, but this is a far-flung village on Turkey’s northern Black Sea coast, ‘a thousand kilometres from Istanbul’, and the teenage idyll is about to ‘turn to shit’, in the words of the youngest sister, Lale.
Since the death of their parents, the five girls have been raised by their grandmother and her son, the girls’ uncle. Home from the beach, the girls find that a censorious neighbour saw them on the boys’ shoulders and interpreted their innocent gambolling as obscene behaviour. ‘Pleasuring yourselves!’ their grandmother shrieks. Under pressure from her conservative and authoritarian son, their grandmother confines the girls to the house, removing anything that could possibly corrupt them further – make-up, phones, computer, and magazines.
Removed from school and isolated from their friends, skimpy clothes are replaced by shapeless, ‘shit-coloured’ sack dresses. After subjecting the three oldest girls to medical inspections to check their virginity, the house is turned, in Lale’s words, into a ‘wife factory’ as the girls are given instruction by local women in traditional cooking and home-making skills and their grandmother begins to arrange marriages, starting with the eldest, Sonay.
Mustang is a fast-paced, emotionally-charged debut from Turkish director Deniz Ergüven who deftly places the crushing of the girls’ free spirits in the context of a society in which women find themselves threatened by violence and increasingly forced into traditional female roles.
The subject matter is dark, but Ergüven builds the narrative tension with moments of freedom and rebellion. A high point of the film comes when the youngest sister engineers their escape to attend a football match. Their uncle has barred them from going, ruling against them mixing with men at the ground. But after a pitch invasion during a previous match, only women are allowed to watch the game. The girls break out, but are caught by the TV cameras and seen by their uncle who installs iron gates and bars over every door and window.
Imprisoned, one by one the sisters are brokered for marriage like cattle. Then, on the night of her last unmarried sister’s wedding, the youngest girl, dreaming of taking control of her life and escaping to Istanbul, rebels.
Ergüven has spoken of taking the film’s title from the wild horses that gallop on the prairies of North America, and of feeling the need to move away from ‘the naturalism that is so dominant in today’s cinema’:
I wanted to portray these girls like a five-headed monster. They were like supernatural, otherworldly creatures for me with their long hair, which was reminiscent of a horse’s mane.
The success of the film – which has been garlanded with awards and nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar – is that, although its story is quite specific to present-day Turkey, the powerful yearning of its young, female characters to assert their own identities taps into universal emotions and aspirations.
Nevertheless, as Erguven told the New York Times, ‘At the bottom of this film is the desire to tell what it is to be a girl and a woman in Turkey’, a country where women have been able to vote since the 1930s, in which the laws and institutions protect women, but where women’s rights are now being challenged. Speaking to the Guardian, she elaborated her concern about the position of women in Turkey under the increasingly autocratic rule of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan:
The one good thing is that Turkey was a democracy – yes, you can say it in the past tense now. It remains [as a result] extremely vigorous. The population is youthful, and literally simmering. Its cross-currents are moving deeply. You can feel that it will go in one direction, or another. […]
The way he [Erdoğan] speaks: he makes them [women] fragile with his messages, whether subliminal or explicit. There is a certain way, he says, of being a woman: you have to be a mother and at home, and that’s all. When you see a man, you should blush and look down. It’s like something from the middle ages. The subtext is that women are only seen as sexual. That’s why they must cover every inch of their skin. This is dangerous because it generates more violence against them, it makes it OK for men to act like assailants. Rapes happen everywhere, but in Turkey women come out on to the streets to protest because such attacks only seem to echo what the government is saying.
In that interview, Erguven refers to the events of 2015 when Özgecan Aslan, a university student, was murdered after attempting to resist rape by a minibus driver, his father and his friend. There were widespread protests at what was seen as the government’s inadequate response to the crime, and to its supposed normalisation of rape, particularly with regard to non-conservative women. Erdoğan responded by attacking the protesters for their behaviour; some of them, un-Islamically, had been seen dancing.
Erguven’s film brings us closer to sensing what it is like to be a woman in Turkey, where the place of women in society is being contested, and secular values are being contested by the conservative government of the AK (Justice and Development) Party, who are very vocal on what women should and should not do.
Mustang is particularly powerful and effective because the director avoids portraying the girls simplistically, and she leave the drama’s implicit feminism unstated. The film gains its emotional power from Erguven’s sensitive observation of the girls as ordinary, free-spirited young women, whose supposed transgressions are imagined and then magnified in the judgemental minds of others. The film is particularly good at exposing male double standards: while the men proclaim their concern to maintain the purity and honour of the girls, they’re always thinking about sex. And their uncle is not averse to raping two of the sisters.
Mustang is gorgeously shot in a kind of dreamy luminosity that helps soften the bleakness of what’s happening in the story. The camera captures the hazy light that streams in through the windows of the girls’ house, even as it becomes more like a prison. Erguven revels in the sisters’ beauty, youth, and spirit, and above all else her film soars because of the brilliant acting she has drawn from the five unknown leads.