Light as air it may appear to be, but Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang deals almost exclusively with desperate people, and carries with it a rising sense of outrage at the smothering grip of patriarchal tradition. This quiet rabble-rouser was selected as Turkey’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. And while the film lost out in the end, it’s shortlisting wisely announces it as a film worth keeping on your radar.
We’re introduced at the top of the picture to five orphaned sisters being raised by their grandparents in coastal Turkey. After school one day they go and play in the ocean with their male friends; an innocent act of childhood mistaken by their elders as one of brazen sexual corruption (that this scene is immediately followed by one in which the girls steal forbidden fruit cannot be coincidental). The girls’ grandparents react strictly, shutting the girls in their hilltop home, beginning an escalating regime of supervision and ultimately imprisonment to safeguard them against their inevitable blossoming into womanhood.
So far, so Virgin Suicides. But while the connective tissue between Ergüven’s film and Coppola’s is undeniable, there are important differences also. For one thing, The Virgin Suicides observed a similar phenomenon from the outside looking in; our narrators were the neighbourhood boys left swooning over the missing sisters. Mustang keeps us with the girls. We get to feel their frustration, their contrariness and boredom, their agonising confinement.
Furthermore, Mustang addresses a societal issue still prevalent in Turkey today. Unable to interact with their peers or do anything without supervision, the girls are to be married off one by one in a series of arranged ceremonies in which they have essentially no choice. Their grandfather Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) instigates these marriages of convenience, just as he bars their windows, yet he is faithfully assisted at every step by the girls’ grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas); a sad depiction of a woman entrenched in a system of oppression so completely that there is no swaying her resolve.
The aforementioned desperation is two-fold as the opposing forces in this hot-tempered house push against one another; the older generations, who assume the worst in those they are so fearful for, and their wards, fighting for the opportunity to simply live their lives, mistakes and all.
The young cast is uniformly superb, their exploits captured with energetic handheld camera work. When all five are together they weave into one teaming mass of energy and potential; a strange amorphous creature with ten arms, ten legs and multiple mains of flowing hair. While I may have painted the situation as severe (and it is), Ergüven approaches it with a lightness of touch that relieves the film of a lot of its burden. The Turkish light glows on the house and on the skin of the girls. The sense of their restrained future countered with an infectious rebellious spirit.
This allows Ergüven the opportunity to dapple the film with some much appreciated humour, such as the sequence in which the girls sneak away to attend a football match, or chiefly any instance of defiance instigated by the group’s youngest member Lale (Günes Sensoy). The film is at it’s most pleasing when the sisters are able to one-up their exasperated prison wardens.
Nevertheless, their numbers thin as the marriages take place, and a foreboding piece of narration advises of the last instance we’ll ever see all five girls together. It denotes a key change in the movie’s overall tone. While Ergüven is wise enough not to smother proceedings, she is keen to stress that, while the idyllic setting and abundant beauty on screen may paint Mustang as one of the year’s breeziest visual treats, she still has a point to make.
And make it she does. Again it can’t be stressed how naturally the young leads seem to take to all of this, carving out different sensibilities for themselves. Ece (Elit Iscan) reacts to her grandparents’ pressures with escalating recklessness. Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu) is prone to caution. And, in fairness to her subject, Ergüven acknowledges that not all arranged marriages are cruel disasters, even if Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) and Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) embrace the ritual primarily as an escape plan all of its own.
All of this is scored plaintively by Warren Ellis, whose music cues here openly recall many of those penned for Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. The music is, at times, strikingly similar. Still, Ellis gets to hold court at the film’s end with an extended, rueful and haunting piece that takes us on a journey right along with Ergüven’s lyrical images to the finish line, as Mustang closes a set of parentheses this viewer at least forgot had been left open.
What is tradition worth and where does it fit into a world that is constantly evolving, constantly changing? Mustang provokes us to ask how we secure the safety of our youth’s innocence without blotting out their spirits. Where are the boundaries and how should they be supervised?
When we’re exposed to images of young women being scrutinised like cattle for any signs of sexual interference when their word is ignored, one truly senses the indignation behind the camera. Ergüven hopes for Turkey to evolve. While that need not necessarily mean throwing tradition away, with Mustang, she makes a strong argument for the need for adaptability. Sometimes you can’t rush the speed of change, but you can give it a forceful nudge.