The first thought I had after watching Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s poignant debut film “Mustang,” which she co-wrote for the screen with Alice Winocour, (Augustine) was that the title should have been changed to “Repression.” The 97 minute runtime of the character driven drama centers on the lives of five orphaned sisters living in a countryside town located in Turkey. The movie’s narrative is told from the point-of-view of the youngest sister, Lale (Günes Sensoy). Lale, along with her four siblings, Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan), and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), at the start of the film, are under the guardianship of their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas). After the grandmother is told lies by her neighbor, that the girls were engaging in lascivious actions at the beach with male members of their school, she proceeds to throttle them around individually, when they arrive home, and then contacts their uncle, Erol (Ayberk Pekcan).
When the uncle arrives, he gives the grandmother a piece of his mind for her apparent unwillingness to correctly discipline the girls. Erol comes to live with them, and is there for the purpose of instilling, what he feels, is a much needed structure of rules and regulations. The confrontation between the siblings who yearn for freedom, and their puritanical and ill- tempered uncle who wants to treat them as second class citizens, sets up the remainder of the film. Throughout the narrative, the underlying psychological dread of what is taking place is given a chance to grow before it reaches its crescendo during the closing minutes of the movie.
Erol’s first action is to drive the girls to a medical center, so that a doctor can examine them individually to determine if they are still virgins. Even though the doctor states after his examination that the girls have not had sex, Erol, and in part, the grandmother, begin to take strict measures to ensure that the chastity of the sisters remains so until they are married. As if the sisters were dangerous criminals, who were sentenced to prison, iron bars are installed on the windows to make sure they can’t leave the house, and to insure that no one, especially boys, sneak in.
The new law and order vibe of the girls’ home life, however, doesn’t stop with the bars on the windows. The sisters must be chaperoned if they want to leave the house, and can only do so if their outing is approved. Additionally, they must dress in traditional Turkish garb when in public, or when company comes to visit. The telephones and computers have been removed from throughout the house, so the sisters will not be able to have any unapproved contact with the outside world. Furthermore, the sisters no longer even have the escape from their restrictive environment that school would offer them. Erol has forbidden them to return to school, and instead, has the girls spend their days learning from their female elders, among other things, how to cook and clean for their future husbands. Additionally, the grandmother, with an almost frantic zeal, begins to arrange marriages for the sisters. She gives no heed to their consent, and with the exception of one sister, who she acquiesces to let marry her boyfriend, she gives no regard to love when it comes to attempting to entice suitors to marry her granddaughters.
Through all of the bad times, as much as they can, the girls take comfort in one another. They are portrayed as a tight knit group, whether laying together, all in one bed, while whispering secrets and telling jokes, or enjoying bubble gum that their aunt teaches them to make. In one wonderful act of defiance, led by Lale, who loves soccer, the girls go to great lengths to sneak out in order to watch a game played at the national stadium. During those scenes, the siblings are shown having a wonderful time, a rare instance during the film where they are free to behave and express their emotions in the manner they wish to.
The movie premiered on May 19, 2015 at the Cannes Film Festival. Critical praise was strong for the movie, which among various other awards was nominated for both the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. Highlights of the film include the entire cast, especially the sisters, who collectively, I felt, didn’t present a false note in their performances. In addition, Warren Ellis’ score, which is subtle, helps to advance the narrative by keying in at the right moments with music that is emotionally relevant to what is taking place in a given scene.
“Mustang” showcases that there are still a number of places throughout the world where the patriarchy clings to the absurd notion that women are meant to lead a subjugated life, where all of their decisions are determined by their husbands, or the male head of the household. Ergüven and Winocour, do convey to a viewer that they feel the punishments inflicted upon the sisters are extreme, but avoided being overwhelmingly preachy about the subject matter. I concluded, that instead, they left it up to the viewer to pass the final judgment on the adults in the girls’ lives, and how their actions toward them impacted each of the siblings, collectively and individually.