Set in a village in present day Turkey at the start of the summer, five orphan sisters are spotted playing with boys at the beach. The ensuing scandal leads their guardians to take drastic action, with some surprising results. A timely parable about women’s rights, brilliantly acted by its young cast.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven | France/Germany/Turkey/Qatar | 2015 | 97 mins | 15
School’s out and in a remote backwater of Northern Turkey, five orphan sisters (the youngest being Lale through whose eyes the story unfolds) are spotted frolicking in the sea with some of the boys. Scandalised villagers tell their guardians who proceed on a course of drastic actions with which, however, the free-spirited girls do not willingly cooperate.
Mustang’s Turkish director and co-writer (with Anna Wincour, whom she met when they were both film students) Ergüven, as the child of a diplomat, grew up in Turkey and in France, where she now lives. Like most would-be film makers, not least women, Ergüven had a struggle breaking in. It took nine years after leaving film school for Mustang to reach the screen, but she was inspired by a long held abstract desire to make a film tackling the question of what it is to be a woman in Turkey today, something which only became concrete when one of her cousins married. “Everything that happened around the wedding was beautiful, synergetic, especially the vividness of the young Turkish people who were present at the celebrations” she said. When the opening scenes of innocent school girls and boys playing in the sea at the end of term occurred to her, she knew the story she was to tell, much of it drawn from her own life: “the little scandal in the film did take place in my family, albeit not as violently”.
Most of the filming took place in Kastamonu, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, ironically where the reforming secularist Ataturk made a speech in 1925 declaring that coeducation should be the norm. Within a decade women had the vote and there were 18 women in parliament. Ninety years on, while still constitutionally a secular state, Turkey is headed by Islamist-tending president Erdoğan whose thought for International Women’s Day last year was “A woman is above all else a mother”. So, although women have equal legal rights, it is perhaps not surprising that child marriage, honour killings and other examples of women’s oppression are still common in parts of the country, and that the film was vilified there on its release. To play the sisters, Ergüven had recruited five young Turkish girls but after she and they received threats, decided to withdraw from making another film in her homeland and is locating her next effort in Los Angeles.
Visually the film is a feast of colour and close ups, with what at times feels to me, at least, like a surfeit of lush young limbs but which one broadsheet reviewer described as a recurring motif “meant not to titillate but as bursts of naturalism”. Ergüven agrees this is her intent, and has herself stated that she hates the constant and hideous sexualisation of women in Turkey and thus, as Time Out observes, her film rightly challenges society’s view of women and girls’ sexuality: “as if somehow a 12-year-old girl showing her legs is as dangerous as waving around a loaded gun”. See what you think.
The beautiful sound track, scored by Warren Elllis (known for his work with Nick Cave), warrants an essay all to itself, but here is Ellis’s own account of what he was trying to do: “I chose the alto flute as the voice of Lale and the viola as an answering voice, like a chorus in a Greek tragedy. They both have a nobility about them and also a sadness/melancholy which resists being mawkish. The girls’ actions are always dignified and I wanted the music to echo this. The alto flute also reminds me of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, and there was aspect of a Western in Mustang that I wanted to give a certain nod toward. The performances are dignified and strong, and I wanted to avoid over emotive music. It seemed to queer the pitch to some extent, and I like counterpoint when it comes to the relationship between music and image…..I think 70% of what I do is done without image, the rest is a process of targeting in on what’s required. With Mustang my immediate thought was of Picnic at Hanging Rock by Peter Weir. There was something with all the hair, the sunlight and unfettered energy”.
As for the Western aspect, the film takes its title from the wild horses galloping on the prairies of the Wild West, an image which came readily to the director’s mind when working with the girls who are “carefree with their long hair and liberated bodies”.
Mustang has many layers: on one level, it’s a teenage coming of age story, with familiar themes, character and behaviours, albeit in an unfamiliar culture where one minute coltish adolescents are romping in their bedroom and playing with their computers, and in the next receiving the sort of treatment which in our culture would be deemed child abuse. At another level, it’s raising questions about where we stand in relation to regimes where democracy – and women’s freedom and rights – are threatened. Ultimately, the film is uplifting and moving because Ergüven, while examining the girls’ oppression, leaves us in admiration of their heroism, solidarity and struggle for freedom. Much of her success in this is owed to the brilliant performances of the girls (only one of whom had acted before) particularly Gunes Sensoy as Lale.
Ergüven was the only female film maker to be recognised in this year’s Oscars, with her nomination for Best Foreign Language film. Mustang has attracted many other awards and nominations, including at Cannes, the Golden Globes and the César Awards.
Weighted vote 87%