The Film Snob has a life. He also has a day job. Well, this is just a silly, roundabout way of explaining why I don’t have the time to see all the movies I’d like to in their original theatrical runs. Of course, I catch up on the interesting films I missed during the past year or so by watching the DVD when it comes out, or catching the movie when it streams or airs on TV.
For instance, I’d been hearing a lot about a film called Mustang that came and went last year. It’s from a Turkish director, Deniz Gamze Ergȕven, and although there are no horses in the picture, the title evokes the image of wild horses in its story of five sisters whose boisterous energy and love of life resist the cruel process of being tamed for marriage in the male-dominated culture of Turkey. I finally saw the movie, and it’s a real miracle, a beautiful and stirring feminist drama.
Mustang begins with the youngest sister, Lale , played by Gȕnes Sensoy, saying a tearful goodbye to her female teacher, who is moving to Istanbul. Her four older sisters, all close in age ranging from 17 to 13, have come to walk her home. Along the way, they play in the water at the beach with some male classmates, at one point sitting on the boys’ shoulders while they try to knock each other off into the water. But when they get home, they find that their innocent play was witnessed by a nosy neighbor, and their grandmother scolds them severely for supposedly pleasuring themselves with boys.
The girls, as it turns out, are orphans who have been raised by the grandmother, who loves them but is vigilant concerning their reputation. Much worse is in store when their uncle gets wind of what’s happened. He swoops in and precipitates a gradual shutting down of the sisters’ freedom, even closing them inside their house with barriers and fences. Now, instead of going outside, they are given instruction every day on how to cook, clean, and sew. The next step in the plan is to marry the girls off one by one, which is done by arrangement with the grooms’ parents. But the sisters, closely bonded with one another, are determined to find ways, large or small, to resist this suffocating authority.
Ergȕven brings out the best in the five young starring actresses, only one of whom had ever acted before. Their scenes together, with the playfulness and intimacy that only siblings can share, are models of naturalism, and the contrast with the harsh measures arrayed against them is shown forcefully without indulging in exaggeration. Mustang wisely depicts the sensibilities of girls who have their own dreams and personalities, chafing against the restrictions of their limited social roles, without having to explain much of this in dialogue.
Thankfully, Turkish society is secular enough to have allowed this film to be made, but the Turkish critics savagely attacked it for its feminist point of view. Ergȕven, who lives in Paris now, has said that she doesn’t think she could make another film in Turkey, given the backlash. Mustang has been widely honored internationally, however, winning numerous awards. And they are well deserved.