Mustang, directed by French-raised Deniz Gamze Ergüven and co-written with Alice Winocour, has all the elements of a blockbuster film replete with clear-cut heroes and villains, a child protagonist narrator on the cusp of womanhood, and battles between hypocritical familial tyrants and independence seeking youth. The film is set in the cultural swamp-land of a remote Turkish village, Inebolu, Kastamonu, where the men of the town presumptuously revel in oppressive patriarchical traditions that encourage tyranny and the sexual abuse of female relatives as a man’s right and due.
This beautifully written, dynamically executed film whose symbolic title refers to the “wild, freedom-loving” protagonist, begins when the youngest of five orphaned daughters, Lale ( Günes Sensoy is invested throughout), tearfully says goodbye to her teacher who is moving to Istanbul. When she and her sisters decide to walk home along the beautiful beaches of their village, they encounter neighborhood boys around their age with whom they romp in the ocean. This is the precipitating incident that by degrees destroys their innocence and hope for their future and imprisons them in a system of values that drains their identity, autonomy, and vitality, like blood-sucking parasites.
A neighborhood woman, clearly depressed and bitter about her own life sees them having fun. She maliciously spreads rumors that the young girls behaved like whores as they cavorted with the young boys. Their grandmother who had previously been open with them and allowed them free rein to go to school and enjoy their lives, is censured by the community and her own son to lock up the five girls in their home and prevent them from going out until they are married. They are even banned from any social intercourse with young people, including going to school. This defining event ends their happiness and sets them on a doomsday path from which only two will escape.
The girls loss of freedom and independence is soulfully stirring to all who in youth and even old age struggle to maintain their identity apart from others who would restrict it. The girls are like birds in a cage who beat their wings against the oppression that occurs from a culture and community that is itself afraid of individuality and self-empowerment. Their fate forces them to seek out each other for their inspiration to create joyful moments. As the bars enclose them, these moments evanesce.
To mitigate her fear that she has been raising whores, the grandmother (the despairing Nihail G. Koldas), with the prompting of her son, frowning uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan is truly villainous and frightening), decide to bring families to their home to set up arranged marriages. Uncle Erol is particularly nefarious; we come to understand from where his hypocrisy stems; he has his pick of nieces to sexually abuse and has started with the oldest, Sonay (the lovely, exuberant İlayda Akdoğan). Sonay is fortunate in that she has already found her love; however, her sister Selma has not. And she must suffer an arranged marriage to offset her “whorish” behavior and become a legitimately oppressed wife who will be beholden to her husband and her husband’s family.
A particularly poignant scene occurs when the five girls who have been bonded together in joy, support, and great love for one another, are despondent at having to say goodbye to their sisters. Selma (doleful Tugba Sunguroglu), is particularly distraught at being sent into a man’s arms whom she does not love and finds loathsome, a fact clearly brought out at their joint wedding during which Sonay happily celebrates and Selma sits practically in tears. Narrator Lale (Güneş Şensoy is superb), viscerally understands and vows that she will not have the same fate. Along with her other sisters Ece and Nur, the three increase their rebellions provoking Erol and their grandmother to intensify their security measures to restrain the young women. In one of her dangerous escapes out of the house, Lale makes friends with a kind, hippy-type, young truck driver, whom she persuades to teach her how to drive as increasingly events move toward tragedy.
Ece (Elit Iscan), is the next in line for Uncle Erol to sexually abuse before she is married off. Lale notes a change in Ece’s behavior. Where she had been more quiet before, she becomes loud, dangerous, and defiant of their grandmother and Uncle Erol. In one instance, she sneaks off with a young man who is a stranger and Lale sees them in the car together. Just in time he sneaks away before Uncle Erol catches them. Ece clearly has been angered into rebelliousness to become what the community has accused her of, and though Lale doesn’t quite understand the fullness of Ece’s rebellion at Uncle Erol’s hypocritically “making her into a whore” via his nighttime visits, the cumulative miseries that have upturned their former happiness persuade Lale that she must save Ece and Nur from living lives that are not what they have decided for themselves. We empathize with Lale, for we know when she is the last daughter to be married off, like her sisters before her, Uncle Erol will imprint his hatred and violence on her soul with sexual abuse as he has felt privileged to do with his property Ece, Selma, and Sonay and eventually, Nur.
Ece’s terrible fate is the climax of the film. Lale intuits that with her act, she has taken a stand and spoken out in a loud cry against an ancient, fearful system of folkways that remove women’s identity, power and autonomy. With her act, Ece has delivered herself to freedom and has said, “No!” with courage, proving her own choice is better than what her Uncle and grandmother decide for her. Her inspiration empowers Lale, who is spurred to seek freedom for herself and Nur.
But all ways of escape are closed off. The house is a complete prison with bars on the windows, high walls, and no keys. Nur is the victim of nightly visits by Uncle Erol, and her marriage has been arranged to an unappealing suitor. The situation is in crisis, for tomorrow is Nur’s wedding day. Lale must work fast to break through Nur’s resignation and despair to encourage her to fight for their freedom and run away. But how will she effect this and how will they escape safely and get far away from the inevitable wrath and torment from Uncle Erol and their grandmother which promises to engulf them if they are caught?
This is a terrific film. From the acting ensemble who are wonderful, the modulated and inspiring music, the varied cinematography and dynamic, resonant story telling, you will be engaged and cheering for Lale’s desire to be her own woman and follow in her teacher’s footsteps. It is deserving of every award that it has won and the nominations it has garnered. And if it doesn’t win the Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film Category for which it is nominated, (Oscar contender Son of Saul should be in its own category for a special Oscar; it is so devastating and real), at least it is receiving a wider audience than it would have if it had not been nominated. Deniz Gamze Ergüven has created a masterwork with this first film. It is a must see.