I watched one truly extraordinary movie a few weeks ago. Mustang is set in rural Turkey. It tells the story of five orphaned sisters, who live with their grandmother in a large and remote house. Girls, both the song and the French-Turkish film Mustang declare, want to have fun. They want to go to dance all night, wear cute clothes, swim, go to soccer games, hook up with boys, and, generally speaking, not have fussy adults always telling them what they can and can’t do. But the five sisters at the heart of Mustang also want to choose who they marry (or if they marry at all). They want to drive, have their own money, go to school, and see the world that lies beyond their remote, oppressive seaside town. They want their lives to be their own, even if it means taking drastic measures to make them so.
Their family is not poor, but it is conservative, and when the girls are seen by neighbours splashing around in the sea on the shoulders of a group of local boys – the gossip is that they have been “pleasuring themselves” on the boys – an uncle steps in, telling his mother, the girls’ grandmother, that things must change. The family’s respectability is at stake.
Mustang tells a straightforward story of female empowerment, but it’s the way it tells that story that makes it deserving of all the accolades it’s received, including an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film. Though the movie has won comparisons to The Virgin Suicides, it has a more distinctly female perspective and is too close to its subjects to feel voyeuristic. I would agree with its Director, The Turkish-born French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang is more like “Escape from Alcatraz”. She balances out the film’s creeping claustrophobia with quiet and sometimes not-so-quiet acts of rebellion, unexpected humor, and warmth, and the result is a tender and fresh coming-of-age film that honors the bonds of womanhood and sisterhood without taking them for granted.
As the girls’ caretakers add to a list of restrictions—no school, boys, digital technology, sports games, revealing clothes—to avoid them being corrupted further, each sister begins to push back in her own way. That might mean slashing a thigh-high slit in a long, shapeless brown dress, or sneaking out with boys, or secretly spitting in the coffee being served to unwelcome guests. The youngest sister, Lale, quickly emerges as the film’s wily hero and audience surrogate—as the specter of arranged marriage quickly closes in on the older girls, Lale’s fight for freedom grows more desperate.
There’s a certain dreaminess to Mustang that helps soften the bleakness of what’s playing out on the screen and I really loved this dreaminess. Ergüven’s camera gravitates toward the hazy light that streams in through the windows of the girls’ house, even as it quickly becomes more akin to a prison. She revels in the sisters’ beauty, youth, and spirit, focusing in particular on their long, untamed hair – a reference to the the animal in the title -, as it catches the wind like a banner raised in defiance.