Mustang (Turkey/France/Germany/Qatar 2015)

The five sisters together

The five sisters together

In a Turkish village on the Black Sea coast, five orphaned sisters celebrate finishing school for the summer by splashing in the sea with boys – only to be incarcerated by their grandmother and uncle who view their behaviour as unseemly and provocative. Instead of summer holidays they begin lessons at home in preparation for future marriage. Written by Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Alice Winocour and directed as a début feature by Ergüven, the film has been welcomed as a film by women about sisterhood and growing up under the restrictions of a conservative society. Deniz Gamze Ergüven is part Turkish and part French and the film is a co-production.

Mustang is a stunning film and it’s no surprise that it has been celebrated by film festivals in Europe and North America and nominated for an Oscar in a very competitive competition. (But I’m intrigued about how it will fare in Asia.) In the UK the film is the second title selected for the BFI’s new distribution support scheme and it has been widely seen and discussed by enthusiastic audiences. Many of the reviews have made a reference to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (US 1999) – especially in the US. Certainly there are obvious similarities, but the film also uses ideas shared with other films in its universal story about families, conservative communities and girls’ adolescence in the face of the modernising impact of globalisation. One important difference to The Virgin Suicides is that it is narrated from the girls’ point of view. One sequence in particular reminds me of Jafar Panahi’s Offside (Iran 2006), with the struggles of young female supporters to watch men’s football in perhaps the most joyful sequence in the film. The depiction of rural weddings also makes me think of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (India 2001) as well as several weddings featured in Palestinian films.

The film’s title refers to the term for a wild horse in North America and Ergüven intended her young women to have the same romantic appeal as the mustangs of folk songs and Western movies. In the production notes for the film she tells us that the mustang symbolises:

my five spirited and untamable heroines. Visually, even, their hair is like a mane and, in the village, they’re like a herd of mustangs coming through. And the story moves fast, galloping forward, and that energy is at the heart of the picture, just like the mustang that gave it its name.

Ergüven goes on to refer to other ways that the five sisters are symbolic:

The film expresses things much more sensitively and powerfully than I ever could. I see it as a fairy tale with mythological motifs, such as the Minotaur, the labyrinth, the Lernaean Hydra – the girl’s five-headed body – and a ball that is signified here by the soccer match that the girls long to attend.

Lale (Günes Sensoy) is the youngest of the sisters and the most 'modern'?

Lale (Günes Sensoy) is the youngest of the sisters and the most ‘modern’?

These two statements are key to the specific form of representation used in the film. This is not a neo-realist or social realist account of girls in a rural community. The five young women were found in various ways through the casting process. One had previous acting experience – Elit Iscan (Ece) was one of the children in Times and Winds (Turkey 2006) by Reha Erdem and again in his 2008 film My Only Sunshine. Tuğba Sunguroğlu (Selma) was spotted on a Paris-Istanbul flight and the other three were found via auditions in France and Turkey. The film’s plot does suggest that originally the girls came from Istanbul, so the sense that they are already ‘modernised’/’westernised’ is given narrative authenticity. It’s also important that the youngest sister, Lale, is the narrator and that by definition she is the most ‘modern’ – and therefore the one most likely to resist confinement. (She’s the one who supports the football team.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I was rooting for the girls all the way through, but even so I was surprised that I began to cry during the last scene which I did feel was a little too neat in its resolution – but clearly my emotional responses told me differently. Taking a more distanced view, I recognise the director’s argument (she also co-wrote the film with Alice Wincour) that the story uses symbolism rather than social realism. Even so, I think it might have been even more powerful if the five sisters had been represented a little more in social realist style. There are quite a lot of shots of the girls stretching in the sunlight streaming in through the windows of their room/prison with their graceful movements, beautiful legs and luxuriant hair. Are these shots designed for a ‘female gaze’?  A debate about the aesthetic choices in the film would be good. I should note that the music in the film passed me by, but I understand that it is important. Whatever my reservations, this is a film that should be widely seen – it would be good if it developed the status of a La haine in its appeal to a youth audience and its questioning of assumptions. What’s happening in Turkey is both shocking and sad. The irony is that throughout the Arab world, in that strange way that ex-colonial ties work, it is Turkish film and TV which is bringing about the seeds of a social revolution in Muslim countries.

There is an ongoing discussion about the film on ‘Conversations About Cinema‘.


  1. keith1942

    I enjoyed this film and it is impressive in its style and performances. However, my reservation is summed up by Roy’s comment, ‘universal story’. I felt the film lacked the specificity that one gets in [say] a film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The film is presented mainly [but not completely] from the point of view of one sister. But the context and setting are underdeveloped. I noted Roy wished for more ‘social realism’. A friend who watched the film thought that the family were the conservative anachronism rather than realising that it is a whole community: one that is a ‘1,000 km’ from Istanbul. I rather felt that the film took the stance of an insider but that the perspective was one of an outsider.
    I was struck by how the title of the film is from North America. The film could have used horses strains from the area, maybe Turkoman or Arabian? Readers who have seen Ceylan’s Winter Sleep / Kis Uykusu (2014) will presumably remember the important scene involving a wild and struggling horse.


    • Roy Stafford

      Yes, I didn’t think of Ceylan’s horse, but it too could be part of a symbolic narrative. I agree with all your points but I think that the director wanted a narrative based around symbolism in order to appeal to a specific audience. I’m waiting to see how the film’s reception might change over time.


  2. Rona

    This film seems to be doing well in a sometimes difficult market, especially at this time of year and some unseasonably hot weather in the U.K. (For any international readers, that’s very much a local joke for Brits). Reading the magazine Sight and Sound (July 2016), its U.K. distributor, Curzon Artificial Eye, stated that its Oscar nomination helped and particularly as it was for a female director. Jon Rushton (head of theatrical distribution) made an interesting comment: “There has been a really low number of female directors who have been nominated . . . People found that as a way in. Also, Deniz is super cool and glamorous. We probably got as much director-based press coverage on Mustang as we have on most of our films.” (Sight and Sound July 2016).

    I really loved the film – for reasons I’ll outline briefly below – but the warning bells are ringing with this comment. Rushton is not personally responsible in the way in which he represents the industry context. Where my work is based, and my long years spent with Kathryn Bigelow, I see the same patterns in media coverage that Bigelow has had to deal with since the 1980s. Ergüven has revealed her first feature, at 37 years old, and she has, therefore, worked a number of years honing her craft to produce such a striking film. Educated at La Fémis in Paris (the same film school attended by those such as Alain Resnais, Claire Denis – as the Institut de hautes cinematographiques – and, more recently, François Ozon and Céline Sciamma) she quotes a range of influences in her media interviews. Presumably those are the same interviews that generate a buzz about her ‘glamour’. Many years ago, Kathryn Bigelow excited coverage about her long mane of dark hair (quite Mustang-like) which created such comments on her as a woman, rather than as a filmmaker.

    Ergüven, in her interviews, is more than happy to talk about issues of sexualisation, especially in relation to the changing face of Turkey. She has expressed her concerns about the culture that dresses its women in “shapeless shit-coloured dresses” (a term of insult these young women use to retaliate against their initial accuser): “Because I was constantly going back and forth between the two cultures, what hit me was this filter of sexualisation that governs every aspect of women’s lives in Turkey . . . It starts at a very early age, as is the case for the characters in the film (Screendaily, November 2015).

    As Roy highlighted in his original post, this is a mythical tale and its intimacy and ‘artful artlessness’ in terms of cinematography, I think, can deceive. The narrative is more schematic and structured around symbolism than the natural performances and cinematography suggest at first. There is great emotional impact to the moment where the house – which the uncle/grandmother have turned as a prison- changes its significance (I’m really trying to avoid spoilers here!) without it being heavy-handed in filmic or narrative terms. As in all great prison escape dramas, there has to be a moment where the power shifts; Ergüven subverts the obvious moment – the moment of freedom (we could call it a ‘Shawshank’ moment) – and cleverly reverses it using the space of the house which has proved such a defining narrative space for the characters. And its European/independent sensibility – even if the director cited Escape from Alcatraz (1979) as an influence – means there’s no ‘obligation’ to make a happy ending.

    Where might we think about this film, given Ergüven is French, but talks about herself as a Turkish filmmaker? It was similar to films like Offside (2006) and made in similar circumstances and it has that pure moment of joy at the football match. I DID return to Nuri Bilge Ceylan – Turkey’s influential auteur – and his development from something as intimate (to me) as Uzak (2002) with its delicate interplay of uncomfortably distant familial relationships through to a couple in Iklimer (Climates (2006)) to producing something like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011). That epic film, and its characters in a mythical landscape without reducing them in their complexity, was a masterwork. I truly hope that marketed glamour does not obfuscate Ergüven’s potential (like Ceylan) to produce epic out of the domestic. I think – as Keith rightly hints – there is a variety of influences, North American as well as European. She now has the finance, apparently, to make her first unproduced script – the one she brought to a Cannes filmmakers workshop where she met Alice Winocour (Augustine (2012)) who encouraged her to make something closer to her own experience. With Halle Berry attached, The Kings is about the L.A. riots – an epic for her sophomore film perhaps?


  3. keith1942

    I can see the point of Rona’s comments. My main reservation is that I thought the film lacked a grounding in the actual Turkish culture it depicts. Something that Offside seemed to me to have and which I also found in Bande de Filles (2014). In the case of an individual film this is a point of criticism, but I think this is part of a wider trend. I have posted comments earlier about filmmakers from outside the dominant capitalist countries who make films funded internationally and often in English language rather than in their native language: a couple of films by Abbas Kiarostami would be examples. What we appear to have here is ‘third world cinema” [for want of a better term) being expropriated by advanced capitalist industries. We already have a plethora of foreign language films expropriated into English-language versions, usually inferior. This is a one-way global culture.


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