Review by Eliza Janssen
It’s hard to say why the title of Denis Gamze Ergüven’s debut film is “Mustang”, but it could be because its protagonists are, at heart, wild, untameable horses. The visual connotation of horses galloping across an infinite plain is definitely appropriate for a narrative so devoted to freedom. Then there’s the five sisters’ hair; long, dark manes that act as flags announcing their independence, even when the “shit-coloured clothes” their grandmother forces them into try to make them look dowdy and repressed.
The sisters’ grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) and Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) may be my least favourite movie characters of the year. Not that the actors who depict them aren’t talented. Grandma and her squad of dogmatic old lady pals, who teach the girls to roll dolmades with one hand while installing bars on their windows with the other, are terrific. It’s just that their crusade to oppress the five young protagonists is so doggedly inhumane. By the film’s third act I was hoping Erol might be somehow trampled to death by the eponymous horses, but hey, you can’t always get what you want.
What do the central sisters do to deserve the overbearing restrictions their uncle insists upon? Basically, on the last day of school, they go swimming at the beach. And splash water at boys. And steal some apples from a cranky old man’s garden. This indecency, reported to their grandmother by a conservative neighbour, gets them locked up inside the house for the summer. Mustang captures that stifled summer with devastating sensitivity, and as it becomes clear that the girls’ imprisonment will only make them stronger and closer, the film adopts a sense of genuine inspiration.
It takes a while for each of the girls’ individual personalities to emerge, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For maybe half an hour, the five are one beautiful tangle of limbs, sitting in a heap like baby otters and playing dumb games. We only meet the girls as individuals once they’re locked away in grandma’s crucible of domesticity. Here we go, in order from oldest to youngest: romantic Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), pragmatic Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), silent rebel Ece (Elit Iscan), girly Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), and boyish Lale (Günes Sensoy).
As the baby of the family, and so the least qualified to understand the injustices she’s dealt, Lale is our eyes to the film. It’s her passion for soccer that initiates the girls’ most triumphant moment—an escape to a soccer game attended only by women, after male fans have been banned for hooliganism. There, the girls feet thrum greedily on the stadium seats, and their joy is completely infectious. A lot of the emotional heavy-lifting in Mustang is done by having the sisters affirm their unbreakable spirit implicitly; there are no big feminist speeches, and the girls are never in conflict with one another. I mean, Sonay chases Lale around the kitchen when she steals her bra and stuffs it full of tissues. It’s in silly moments like that, in how the girls keep each other laughing as the walls close in, that their indomitable, distinctly sisterly strength is revealed.
Their captors’ chokehold tightens and the girls realise that some bolder effort has to be made if even a couple of them are to stay together. Whether through being hastily married off, or by more tragic means (that reminds me: you should wear waterproof mascara to this movie), the sisters are separated against their will, and it’s up to Lale to organise a permanent escape plan. These developments might make you want to cry, or ball up a fist in frustration, but the film is never bleak. It stays true to its naturalistic lead performances through loose, breezy direction, a decision which removes any trace of sentimentality from scenes which could otherwise be pretty maudlin.
The penultimate moments of Mustang are heart-stopping because Ergüven never lets us forget that the obstacles the sisters face are systematic; even if they can escape their awful misogynistic uncle, no police force will take their word for the abuses they’ve suffered because each injustice has its origins in tradition. You can’t kill an attitude. And for this, the film’s conclusion is all the more impressive in how it resolves the sisters’ problems. It’s at once surprising and so satisfying you’ll kick yourself for not realising it sooner.
It’s important to remember that although Mustang was shot on location in picturesque, sun-bleached Turkey and features a Turkish cast, it’s produced by a French company and predominantly French crew, and as such should not be considered strictly educational as a portrait of typical Turkish girlhood. Having said that, Ergüven’s lack of status as a native participant in Turkish cultural tradition doesn’t obscure her obvious empathy for the plight of her characters. The director was pregnant during the shooting and production of the film, a fact which drew the ire of her lead producer, who claimed that in this state she was incapable of successfully directing the film and tried to have Ergüven kicked off the project. Thank god, then, that this particular case of discrimination didn’t stop the creation of a stirring and acutely relevant film which seeks, ironically, to combat the same strain of sexism which almost prevented its existence.[share]