'Mustang' Is a Joyful Tragedy

Deniz Gamze Ergüven's exuberantly defiant debut film follows five sisters who fight sexist traditions in a remote Turkish village.


Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Cast: Güneş Şensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Burak Yigit
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Cohen Media Group
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-11-20 (Limited release)
UK date: 2016-05-13 (General release)

The view from the family home of five sisters living in a remote Turkish village on the Black Sea is the kind of vista for which wealthy travelers pay dearly. Nearby mountains are covered in lush forests and the ocean slaps musically into sandy beaches below.

This panorama is also a taunt, because the sisters will never be allowed anywhere near it unless a male guardian accompanies them. Even then, they won’t be allowed to play and run and laugh, but instead will be expected to follow like docile sheep in shapeless dresses.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven's Mustang begins with youngest sister Lale's (Güneş Şensoy) narration, “One moment we were fine, then everything turned to shit.” The change begins when Lale's favorite teacher leaves for Istanbul and they all decide to go down to the beach with some boys from school. They splash around, have chicken fights, and generally act like the kids that they are.

On their way back home, they grab some fruit from an orchard and are chased off by a farmer with a shotgun. It’s all a swirl of exuberant laughter and wind-tossed hair -- evoking the manes of wild horses -- the sisters seeming more like a single entity than five individuals.

That illusion of freewheeling fun is swiftly shattered once they’re back at the house they share with their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), their parents having been dead for ten years. here they're accused of “whorish behavior”, which apparently has the entire village talking. Sitting on a boy’s shoulders is apparently enough to be considered “sullied”.

At first, the girls fight back, wrestling and banging on doors and shouting like protesters demanding their rights. Then they charge into the street and lash out at a gossipy neighbor, noting her “shit-colored dress”. As often happens when protestors come up against the forces of authority, the sisters are quickly and harshly reined in. The ironclad mores of their village, particularly its insistence that girls and women are men's property, snap into place.

The girls' grandmother, hoping to protect them, undertakes a training regime, trying to distract them from the gorgeous outdoors by teaching them to cook and clean. Lale calls their transformed home a “wife factory”.

A brief respite occurs when the sisters find out about a soccer match that only women and girls are allowed to attend (the male villagers are being punished for their own unruly behavior). Forbidden to go, the girls sneak out and catch a ride on a chartered bus filled with screaming and dancing fans. The interlude is a jolting blast of joyous energy, the sisters exploding with pent-up energy.

The film makes clear the villagers' panicky fear of independent femininity in the clampdown that follows. As bars and barbed wire turn the girls' home into a literal prison, the excessive response would be funny if it weren’t taken so painfully seriously by so many furious men and terrified women.

The seriousness of the sisters’ situation becomes even clearer not long afterward, when Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) is married off and the groom’s family is angry that they can't find blood on the honeymoon bedsheets. Dragging Selma down to the hospital for a blackly comic “virginity report”, the groom's family stands menacingly at the nurse’s desk, the father-in-law making sure that she sees the handgun stuck into his belt.

Such carefully balanced moments illustrate how Ergüven's film at once reveals repressive attitudes without flinching but still tells a story more about the light than the dark. She captures the spark of these sisters in their geometries of sun-dazed play and laughter, but also shows the traumas they undergo, as they are married off, one by one.

Mustang's naturalistic streak recalls Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, revealing the stakes felt so earnestly by teenagers and also indicting the brutality of unquestioned conventions. As the events tick along in bursts of tension and release, sorrow and yearning, we see the girls growing up, almost against their wills.

A joyful tragedy, if such a thing is possible, Mustang starts playfully, winds its way through comedy and melodrama, and ends in qualified hope without ever quite losing its appealing lilt of innocence. This isn’t only a bold debut from a brilliant new talent, it’s also one of the most beautiful and evocative films to be seen on screens this year.


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