When I heard those words in voice-over I thought: yep, that’s what it feels like to grow up. In Deniz Gamze Ergüven‘s debut film, Mustang, five orphaned girls fight to escape the oppressive nature of their adoptive family and cultural surroundings.
The banding together of women in transition is a natural process, especially when their collective goal is to counter a patriarchal force. We see this, “us against them,” separatist mentality in films like Thelma and Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes, and even Kill Bill. But the narrative behind Mustang is a bit darker and more historically conscious.
Current Day Turkey
Actually, Ergüven received some violent backlash from her homeland of Turkey over Mustang. Perhaps this was because it hit a little too close to home. The director’s portrayal of conservative traditions like arranged marriage and modest dress for women, as well as violence among men are reflective of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s (frankly archaic) views on gender roles in Turkey.
Ergüven believes the plight of women in Turkey is, “now very grave,” which is another reason why her film is so important, as it successfully brought about heated discussionin the Turkish sector of women’s rights. With last month’s attempted coup against the Turkish government, the rest of the world is now rightfully paying attention.
Premonitions about Turkey’s instability are present in Mustang as we witness men rebel and generations clash. There is a pitch invasion at a national football game, leading men to be banned from the next match. In addition, the young women who feel empowered to think more freely are forced into shapeless frocks.
Seeing The World Through The Eyes of Girls
In an interview with Huffington Post, Ergüven said, “For me, it’s very important to look at the world through the eyes of girls. In cinema history we have always been looking at the world through the eyes of men.” I think Ergüven succeeds with Mustang in creating a new world where women (specifically the youngest sister, named Lale) are its guide.
From the POV of the sisters, we can quickly see the absurdity of societal and familial pressures facing them, and we can also understand why they must band together. When the girls are seen “pleasuring themselves” on the shoulders of boys (they were playing a chicken fight game in the water) they defend each other fervently against the hands of their grandmother. She literally has to pry each sister away one-by-one as they cling on to each other.
The Presence Of Touch
One key to expressing emotional closeness on screen is the presence of human touch. Through shots of the girls lying down together, playing like little children or simply embracing, director Deniz Gamze Ergüven invites us to feel the familial love that exists between the young women of Mustang. In fact, the film both begins and ends with an embrace, creating a circular sense of love.
When tragedy strikes the family, the girls take to resting in darkness, lying lethargic in bed. One sister lightly brushes her fingers against another’s arm, comforting her. The girls lie in a pack-like fashion, as if they were wolves. Someone’s foot touches another’s leg. Their hair blends together. They sleep for what seems like days, mourning a loss. But their soft affection for one another brings them back to life.
Cinematography And Color
The color palette in Mustang is beautiful: blue, grey, and cool tones reflect rural calm. Since the girls are forced to spend most of their time indoors, they are often seen in relative darkness, the mood somber. But interspersed with these darker shots are playful, sun-lit moments. The light of day brings softer colors like light pink and seaside blue, which wash over the screen.
At one point, the girls move from the dull, quiet countryside to an energetic red-toned soccer stadium. Brilliantly, the camera moves swiftly with them, in a hand-held style. The contrast between shots in the home and this new kind of movement is obvious and electric. Boredom meets excitement, the thrill of freedom captured in loud light and sound.
“Women must be chaste and pure”
During one scene, a voice from the television says, “Women must be chaste and pure, know their limits, and mustn’t laugh openly in public.” This statement eerily reflects President Erdogan’s views on women and reminds us of the reality facing many Turkish women. The girls of Mustang are marred by the cultural ideal that a “a woman is above all else a mother,” leaving no room for extramarital affairs or anything that would taint their reproductive duties (a.k.a. going to sports games, socializing, etc.)
The sisters are shamed for playing an innocent game with members of the opposite sex and are swiftly turned into wives and mothers-in-the-making. They sew clothes, learn to cook traditional meals, and meet with prospective partners.
Based on the very little I knew about this film before watching it, I was honestly expecting more of a cultish thriller like Dogtooth. But what I got was something closer to Like Water for Chocolate meets Virgin Suicides. I hesitate to make any comparisons, though, as Mustang truly has its own flavor.
All in all, this is a film grounded in cinematic beauty and visceral sensation. Ergüven, along with cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok, appeal to the tactile senses, creating intimacy within the frame. Equally as important, though, is the emotional bond cultivated between the sisters.
Mustang offers us a glimpse into the conflicted world of the Turkish woman: her struggles, her joys, her need for freedom. Though the film portrays only a small subset of Turkish women, Mustang provides a much needed voice to a population that is ready for rebellion.
Originally published at www.filminquiry.com on August 22, 2016.