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.
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‘.