“Women are helping women to be free, and it is joyous to watch”
Jess Baxter reviews Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut film Mustang and highlights the rarity of a film that doesn’t pit women against each other
Mustang is the debut feature from Turkish/French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven; the story that unfolds is one of intense, female defiance breaking through the constraints of a patriarchal, Muslim community. However, Islam is never made the focus of the plot. Instead, the film is less of a critique of religion than a portrait of the suppression it can create, as is epitomized in the lives of five young sisters.
One of the first scenes we see is a group of young girls playing on the beach with friends in the dusty, watercolour tones of a weekday afternoon. Their laughing, bickering and play-fighting as they sit on each other’s shoulders echoes any happy childhood, and I found myself smiling at familiar sisterly taunts and teasing.
But village talk is already spreading in the short time it takes for the girls to get home. Listening to grotesque whispers, their grandmother rebukes them all for ‘pleasuring themselves on boys’ necks’, an abhorrent, perverse interpretation of harmless and innocent gameplay –between children, let us not forget. The sisters are appalled, and fiercely defend each other from the physical abuse that ensues, demonstrating the heart warming solidarity that runs throughout the film.
This, as the narration of the youngest sibling puts it, is when ‘it all turns to shit’.
The sisters’ conservative family, who view blooming sensuality as a threat to family honour, transform the family home into a ‘wife factory’. Makeup, risky clothing, mobile phones (and ironically, a postcard picture of Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’) are torn away from the sisters’ rooms. Their adolescence, once so full of life, becomes a psychological prison of barred windows, ‘wife-training’ and claustrophobia, in stark contrast with the beauty of the outside Turkish countryside. Each sister begins to be torn away from one another in a series of arranged marriages.
Yet not all is depressing as it sounds. Beneath the family secrets and stifling boredom, the sisters’ rebelliousness thrives. They find self-expression hidden in late night whispers, dancing around in rainbow-coloured knickers and literally escaping the confines of the house to go to a football game.
This latter scene is one of the most uplifting in the film. Men have been given a taste of their own medicine and, unusually, are banned from attending the televised game, and the ecstatic sisters are integrated into a matriarchy of all-female football spectators. Back at home, even the older matrons of the house rather comically rush to protect the girls from the prospective fury of their uncle by cutting out the entire village’s electric power lest someone should recognise them. Women are helping women to be free, and it is joyous to watch.
Mustang has rightly earned a nomination at this year’s Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film (yet Ergüven is the only woman filmmaker to be nominated for such). The casting has been the focus of critics’ praise too – the widely unknown and amateur female actors are admired by the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Petra Collins. And you can see why – while her acting is incredibly convincing and mature, the 13-year-old actress Günez Sensoy retains the sweet and innocent persona of being a child amongst cooler, older sisters. The girls walk, dance and chatter like nymphs on screen, with shimmering brunette hair sweeping their backs. Kind of like a European Haim.
While watching this, I learned that we are all too ready to expect tension between women in films. If you’re like me and are too lazy to even read the Wikipedia introduction of a film, you may think while watching the beginning of Mustang that these sisters are going to be rivals at some point and compete against each other, Mean Girls-style. I think to myself ‘Surely one sister will be jealous of another?’, as Sonay is happily married to her lover and Selma is unhappily married to a stranger. ‘Surely there will be an attempt of sabotage?’ ‘Surely there will be an argument on screen soon?’
One of the most surprising things about this girl squad is that there never is. The girls, in moments of tender naturalism, tease each other for big bums or small boobs, but these things remain unimportant against the real enemy of the monstrous oppression they face. Tugba Sunguroglu, who plays older sister Selma, says that the wedding scene (where they all put their heads together in one beautifully intense shot) felt so horribly real and emotional that the tears they cry are genuine.
Mustang is a film about unshakeable sisterly love; it is about a young girl stuffing her bra with socks, while at the same time being forced into an unwanted marriage; it is a story of turbulent escapism and unwavering solitude. It makes you want to grow long, chestnut hair and dance on the beach and tell midnight secrets with your girl pals. And above all, it makes you want to be brave.
Images provided by the Watershed