a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: Alice Winocour, co-screenwriter; Deniz Gamze Ergüven, director & co-screenwriter
What: Foreign Drama
Where: Netflix DVD
When: U.S. release on November 20, 2015
Why Watch: Mustang marks the debut feature film for Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven and the third for French writer-director Alice Winocour. Oscar-nominated for best foreign language film (set in Turkey and in the Turkish language, it was submitted by France thanks to French financing and producers) and the winner of four César awards in France, Mustang is the result of Ergüven’s wonderings of what it is to be a woman in Turkey, where women’s rights are being constricted by an increasingly conservative government (the film’s reception in Turkey was aggressively negative). It took nine months to cast the film, and only one (Elit İşcan) of the five actresses playing the sisters had acted before. In a rare feat, Ergüven was the only female director of a fiction feature nominated for an Oscar this year.
Set in rural Turkey, Mustang tells the story of five orphaned sisters who live with their conservative grandmother. When the girls are spotted by a neighbor splashing about in the sea with a group of boys – she claims they were “pleasuring themselves” on the boys’s necks while playing chicken fight – their uncle insists things must change, and the girls, once beaten, are removed from school and molded into “proper” women as they’re taught to cook and sew and systematically married off – all because their family’s “respectability” is at stake.
This may sound like a traditional coming-of-age story within a conservative culture, and on the surface, it is. But Winocour and Ergüven have crafted five fiercely independent girls that are so startlingly in sync as they resist – and overcome – the limits placed on them, that they seem a single, magnificent unit pushing against the puritanical patriarchy. When they learn of the neighbors’ betrayal, they transform into a defiant pack as they hunt her down – the five of them swarming her home and finally, surrounding her on the street, defiantly declaring “Who are you to be the moral judge?” It’s a startling moment, early in the film, of unapologetic empowerment; their uncle implies they’re whores and the townswomen blame their grandma for “not doing her job correctly” in raising them, but nothing – and nobody – can keep these wild spirits down.
Which is quite the accomplishment, because these girls are put through more trauma in one summer than any of us can expect in a lifetime. Sexual abuse, house arrest, marriage to strangers, and “virginity tests” – it doesn’t matter; the more bars that are put on the windows, the more determined they are to break free. It begins with little rebellions – tearing dresses, making chewing gum – and small, joyful escapes (the youngest and boldest, Lale, played by the remarkable Günes Sensoy, orchestrates an expedition to an extraordinary all-female fan soccer match) and finally, builds to a gorgeous, operatic crescendo as the last two girls standing (the others are married off or worse) take control of the house that has tried so hard to control them. It’s a beautiful, inspiring, badass, action-packed finale to a raw, funny, and empathetic showcase of the power of women – especially when they band together. These five, long-haired, pale-skinned firecrackers are the definition of #squadgoals.
Winocour and Ergüven carefully (and hilariously and horrifyingly) depict a society’s fear of women and girls’ sexuality, but much more importantly, they empower these very same girls to speak their minds and forcefully take control of their own bodies and lives. It’s a breathtakingly obvious point of view that we don’t see nearly enough in a popular culture – and world – dictated by men. If you care about women, women’s rights, and women’s voices in film, Mustang is not just a must-see – it’s an aspirational manifesto of woman- and sisterhood. And it’s one that immediately landed itself in my list of favorite films.