(directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)
My parents recommended Mustang, a Turkish film they’d seen at their local film club, which complements some of the Middle Eastern films I’ve been watching recently. Like those, it focuses on the experience of being a young woman in a conservative society, and the ways in which an exuberantly Westernised younger generation can sometimes clash with their more traditional elders. It centres on the story of five teenage sisters who, after being spotted playing with boys from their school, are subjected to a strict imprisonment by their disapproving grandmother. Yet the abiding memory of the film isn’t the constraint of their new lifestyle, but the amazing warmth and love that exists between the sisters and their determination to regain control of their lives.
It starts so innocently. It’s the last day of the school year and Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Ece (Elit Iscan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu) and Lale (Günes Sensoy) stop off at the beach on their way home with some friends: they climb on the boys’ shoulders and have wrestling contests in the sea. Drenched and giggly, they head home afterwards to find their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) waiting for them, fuming and humiliated. They’ve been spotted, indulging in unacceptably close contact between the two sexes. Their grandmother is beside herself: the neighbours will think them sluttish, loose; their virginity will be suspect; their family honour will be besmirched. To make matters worse, the news gets out to the girls’ uncle Errol (Ayberk Pekcan) who, in the absence of their father (they are presumably orphaned) acts as their male guardian. He insists that the girls must be taught a lesson, and so their reconditioning begins.
The house, which for so long has witnessed the girls’ games and squabbles, becomes a factory, meant to churn out meek, domesticated, marriageable young women at the end of it. The grandmother rallies her female neighbours, who come together to hold classes for the girls on cooking, sewing and proper deportment. The story is seen primarily through the eyes of stubborn, smart little Lale, who bristles at the idea of spending her life turning out prettily-fluted pastry nibbles. For Lale, all that matters is the success of her local football team Trabzonspor (the nearest city to their village is Trabzon, formerly Trebizond). But she can’t go to the matches. It’s obviously unthinkable that a little girl would be allowed to go among so many men. But, when hooliganism means that an upcoming match is restricted to women spectators only, Lale decides that she must find a way to get out and to support her team.
As you watch, you begin to see the differences between the various sisters, both in their characters and in the way they respond to their imprisonment. Lale (a simply splendid performance by the young Sensoy) is bright and prickly, determined to find a way to escape. As the youngest, she is allowed out now and again to run chores – as she hasn’t yet hit puberty, her virtue is less problematic than her older sisters’. She makes good use of this liberty by taking driving lessons from the indulgent delivery guy Yasin (Burak Yigit), who takes her under his wing like a big brother. Her sisters don’t have quite so much ability to plan for the long-term. The eldest, beautiful Sonay, decides to cut her losses and manoeuvre herself into marriage with her long-term boyfriend. Plainer Ece, resigned to living in Sonay’s shadow, doesn’t have the spirit to resist her grandmother’s machinations for long. And Selma is pushed ever closer to her limit at the thought of forced marriage. When Nur, the next-youngest to Lale, is set up with a prospective husband, Lale decides that the time has come to take matters into her own hands.
The film is hard-hitting because it shows the unforgiving way that such communities react to any sign of independence or sexual expression from young women – even if it takes a mild form that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in the West. It’s heartbreaking to see the sisters’ struggle to regain autonomy over their lives, and downright scary to see the vehemence with which their male relatives and neighbours react to their efforts. This is an angry film, although it doesn’t rant and rave. Its anger simmers underneath, as it lays out the situation: look at these young women; look at their supposedly progressive education; the opportunities they should be able to expect from the world; and look at how all this crumbles in the face of a desire to control and subdue female self-expression. It’s an impressive achievement from Ergüven, who not only directed, but also co-wrote the film (with Alice Winocour).
This needs to be seen: not only does it make an important point about the need to develop opportunities for girls across Europe and the Middle East, but it has wonderful performances by the five young actresses. As I said earlier, Sensoy is the one who makes the strongest impact, channelling remarkable strength and courage for her age, but all four of her screen sisters convey complex and thought-provoking angles on the struggles for self-direction. Bittersweet, sobering and inspiring all at once, it’s a rewarding – but far from easy – couple of hours.