Combining humour, drama and social commentary to great effect, it is not surprising that Mustang was amongst the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards. Furthermore, it is not surprising that this has been compared with Sofia Coppola’s 1999 directorial debut The Virgin Suicides as there are certainly similarities in that both films track the experiences of five girls kept virtual prisoners in their home due to the religious zealotry of their parents. Whereas The Virgin Suicides is set within a fanatical Christian home in American suburbia, Mustang takes place in small town in Turkey in which local customs and traditions are very much in keeping with the patriarchal hegemony that pervades Islamic culture. Neither film sets out to demonise a particular faith, rather targeting those individuals who use their religion as a justification for the subjugation of others. Along with the girls themselves, director Deniz Gamze Erguven has included several other characters that serve to challenge the traditional thinking around the role of women in Islamic society.
With school done for the year, five sisters (Lale, Nur, Ece, Selma and Sonay) head to the beach to celebrate, playfully splashing about, laughing and sitting atop the boys’ shoulders. When they arrive home, gossip has preceded them and their grandmother (Nihal Koldas) admonishes them for engaging in ‘immoral’ behaviour, mortified that the girls have been ‘rubbing their vaginas’ against the necks of the boys. In an effort to demonstrate the ludicrousness of her grandmother’s accusation, one of the girls starts to smash some chairs, declaring that “these chairs touched our assholes! That’s disgusting.” It soon becomes apparent that the grandmother’s rebuke is less to do with her own opinion than it is her awareness of how her son Erol – the uncle with whom the girls have lived following the death of their parents – will react. Sure enough, Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) is livid and subsequently declares that the girls are never to leave the house unsupervised, going so far as to install bars on the doors and later – after the girls have proven resourceful at escaping their upstairs bedroom – on the windows as well, a course of action that hilariously backfires later in the piece.
Now confined to the house, the girls find themselves subject to further indignities, denied access to a computer and telephone, all the while being trained in the necessary skills (sewing, cooking etc) to become dutiful wives to men chosen by their uncle. The five young actresses (Günes Sensoy, Dogo Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan and Ilayda Akdogan) are all great, with each character becoming the focus of events at various times, although the story is ostensibly delivered from the point-of-view of Lale (Sensoy), the youngest of the sisters who becomes increasingly determined to free herself from the shackles of her confinement and avoid the same fate as the older girls. Erguven, who co-wrote the screenplay with French writer/director Alice Winocour, does not shy away from addressing the way women and female sexuality are commodified in Islamic culture. Sonay (Akdogan) explains to her sisters that when she sneaks out to meet her boyfriend, she only has anal sex to protect her “virginity’, while Selma (Sunguroglu) finds herself subjected to a visit from her in-laws on her wedding night to view the blood-stained bed sheets that would prove she was a virgin bride.
There is no attempt at moral simplicity here, nor does it condemn entire segments of Turkish society as the girls do occasionally experience unexpected acts of kindness from those who could otherwise victimise them, such as Yasin (Burak Yigit), a young local man who befriends Lale and ultimately plays a critical role in her emancipation. Yasin brings some balance to the way men are portrayed in the film as he appreciates Lale’s free-spirited determination. In fact, he is the only male the girls meet who doesn’t treat them with disdain, demonstrating that the ingrained prejudice the girls encounter at home is not necessarily an attitude that exists in the minds of all men, or all Muslims for that matter. The cinematography from David Chizallet and Ersin Gok emphasises the hazy light that streams in through the windows and captures the beauty, youth and spirit of the five siblings. Yes, it is depressing at times in its depictions of patriarchal oppression, but an exhilarating final act ensures that Mustang ultimately leaves you feeling hopeful.