In the interest of full disclosure, I am a White male in my mid-thirties and grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class small town in Pennsylvania. I am the definition of a suburban man-child. Now, that being said, let’s talk about Mustang, the debut film of Turkish born filmmaker .
Mustang tells the tragic story of five adolescent sisters as they spend their summer imprisoned in their family house after being innocently playing with local boys. On the last day of school, the five sisters (portraying the equal parts of innocence and adolescent curiosity by unknown and first time actors) decide to enjoy the summer sun and walk home. They make a detour to the Black Sea with some local boys; splashing, dunking each other, and having chicken fights.
That simple, innocent fun will lead the girls to severe punishment. The girls are being raised by their conservative grandmother (known simply The Grandmother and played by Nihal G. Koldas) and uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan)- the death of their parents never fully explained- in a rural village in Northern Turkey. News of the girls “rubbing their private parts on the neck of boys” makes its way quickly to their Grandmother, who beats the sisters individually and unexpectedly as soon as they walk in the door. Of course, any Western influences that might promote sexuality (or individuality) are quickly locked away.
The girls are not allowed to return to school and the house is increasingly turned into a prison- metal gates are erected and stonewalls raised. The Grandmother and other elderly women provide daily lessons on cooking and sewing to prepare the girls for their upcoming arranged marriages. It is around this point that the film begins to take the form of a prison escape drama (The Shawshank Redemption of Middle-Eastern adolescent girls, perhaps). The youngest sister Lale (Gunes Nezihe Sensoy) becomes determined to make her way to freedom in Istanbul. The other sisters are Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), the eldest, Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan) and Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu).
Erguven has been drawing a lot of comparisons with her first feature film to another talented female director- Sofia Coppola. Coppola’s debut film The Virgin Suicides (2000) also deals with parental misunderstanding over their daughters’ sexuality. Mustang, however, has greater weight added to it by having to deal with Western influences and a traditional patriarchal society. Erguven also co-wrote the screenplay alongside French writer/director Alice Winocour (Disorder). The day after Erol hears of the incident at the beach, he drives the girls to the doctor’s for virginity tests. It is well known (if not often ignored) how unfairly and, at times, inhumanely women in Arabic cultures are often treated. And, according to most teenagers from anywhere in the world, they too are unfairly treated.
Teenagers will rebel and they will be punished. The ignorant and extreme punishment against the five sisters, however, that continually increases throughout the film does not solve anyone’s problems or validate the punishment but only creates greater conflict and grief down the line by forcing a culture stuck in the past on the young girls. Mustang is a film for debate and conversation among anyone who sees it. Fortunately, freshman director Erguyen has a natural talent at bringing out the humanity of her characters – even the often Erol is more seen as ignorant and hopeless than knowingly cruel. If it weren’t for these fresh, raw performances, the film would easily become a boring treatise on Women’s Rights instead of the hopeful tale of escape that it is.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
I am actually excited and interested in what films will follow Mustang in Erguyen’s young career. Whether, like Coppola, she will continue down the path of making increasingly personal films that alienate audiences or if she will take the art and soul of her freshman film and apply it to an ever-growing cinematic world.