France’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, Mustang is, not surprisingly, a riveting drama about five beautiful Turkish girls whose lives are turned to hell by age-old practices.
It is the start of the summer. In a remote village in the north of Turkey, Lale and her four older sisters come home from school, innocently playing with boys in the ocean. Their parents have passed away and they are being brought up by their grandmother, whose reception when they return home is volatile, to say the least. She scolds them incessantly and points out their sinful ways, accusing them of engaging in debauchery, when that never even entered their heads and certainly isn’t reflective of what they did. They merely frolicked in the water at the beach, sitting atop the shoulders of some of the schoolboys.
Their grandmother’s anger is nothing though compared to the strict, disciplinary approach taken by her son, the children’s uncle, who lives under the same roof. The family home slowly but surely turns into a prison for these lively youngsters. Classes on housework and cooking replace school and, before you know it, marriages begin to be arranged. The sisters, driven by the desire for freedom, fight back against the limits imposed upon them. The consequences of taking this action are significant.
Co-writer and director Deniz Gamze Erguven was born in Ankara but has lived most of her life in France. She spends her time going back and forth between France and Turkey, where most of her family still lives. She feels particularly concerned by stories set in Turkey because the region is “really fizzing … everything is changing”. She says recently the country has swung towards a more conservative position. Erguven wanted to talk about what it is like to be a girl and a woman in modern-day Turkey, where the condition of females is, more than ever, a major public issue.
Every time she returns, she feels, “a form of constriction that surprises me”. “Everything that has anything to do with femininity is constantly reduced to sexuality. It’s as if everything a woman or even a young girl does is sexually loaded. For example, there are stories of school principals who ban boys and girls using the same stairs to get to class. They build separate staircases.” Erguven talks about a conception of society emerging that reduces women to baby-making machines that are only good for housework. And that, in spite of the fact that Turkey was one of the first countries to give women the right to vote, in the 1930s.
The title is drawn from the meaning of mustang, being a wild horse and that, of course, symbolises the film’s five spirited and untamable heroines. The minor scandal that the girls provoke by climbing onto the boys’ shoulders before being reprimanded actually happened to Erguven. She regards the film as a fairy tale with mythological motifs. She sees the five girls as “a kind of five-headed monster that loses a part of itself every time one of the girls is absent from the story.”
I must also mention the music, which was composed by Warren Ellis of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Only one of the performers chosen had any previous acting experience and yet they gelled so well as a group. There is a great vitality and zest for life about them. Clearly the biggest personality, as dictated by the script, was the youngest, Lale, and the child chosen was a revelation. She was cheeky and engaged and outraged. She saw the situation deteriorating and wanted to do something about it. She was the one really pushing the envelope and virtually demanding to break free.
I loved the way that the film picked up momentum from the get go and didn’t let up. While the innocent frolicking was what set events in train, from there we – the audience – see the screws turned tighter and tighter until something has to give. We genuinely care for the children and what will become of them and yet are powerless to intervene. These are the best kind of movies, where you are so involved … and outraged.
Deniz Gamze Erguven is to be highly commended for crafting such a moving story from the innocence of youth and the mistaken ideals of adulthood. Rated M, Mustang scores an 8 to 8½ out of 10.
Director: Deniz Gamze Erguven
Cast: Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu
Release Date: 23 June, 2016
Rating: M – Mature themes, sexual references and violence
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television