This one will get to you. Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven takes on a difficult subject — the terrible treatment of young girls by relatives enforcing conservative moral prerogatives. Sidestepping issues of religion, she makes a powerful case for the rights of women, with the help of five marvelous young actresses; her show is funny, scary and thoroughly compelling.
The Cohen Media Group-Entertainment One
2015 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date May 10, 2016 / 39.98
Starring Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan .
Cinematography David Chizallet, Ersin Gok
Film Editor Mathilde Van de Moortel
Original Music Warren Ellis
Written by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Alice Winocour
Produced by Charles Gillibert
Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Perhaps this is a “Little Women” for the millennium.
I can’t say that Turkish filmmaking is better than ever because that this is the first film I’ve seen by a Turkish director. Deniz Gamze Ergüven is based in France but born in Turkey. I suppose that defensive Turkish nationalists could attack the movie as presenting a false picture of their country, but that argument is dashed by too much news coming out of countries — not just Muslim countries — that still follow ‘traditional’ practices that turn daughters into prisoners. Last year’s Özgecan Alsan scandal has reportedly spurred a pro-feminist movement in Turkey; hopefully the movie Mustang is helping as well.
Five sisters in a coastal town on the Black Sea, six hundred miles East of Istanbul, romp in the water with some boys on the way home from school. Outraged at this immodest behavior, their grandmother and uncle lock them in the house. They are not even to go to school, as to avoid contact with young men. All effort is made to get them married off as soon as possible. The youngest, Lale (Günes Sensoy) might be all of 12 or 13 years old. The girls are taught cooking and cleaning; anything that might stir unclean thoughts is locked up, including the girls’ computer. But the girls find ways to sneak out to see boys, and Lale encourages her sisters to run away to attend a big soccer game. One by one the girls are married off. They accept or rebel according to their natures; they are prisoners given no choice over anything. The uncle eventually puts bars on the windows to keep his girls — who before would not think of disobeying him — from escaping. One of the girls has become so rebellious at being treated like property that she no longer cares what happens to her. And young Lale proves determined to make a real escape.
Mustang is a real eye-opener. It makes one think about the concept of family: why we have children and to what degree parents should have power over them. The girls in this show lost their parents years ago, which cuts them off from a direct appeal to mummy and daddy. The grandmother and uncle are only concerned about what the neighbors think, and their provincial mindset sees the girls as only future wives, for whatever young men can be found for them. This may have worked well in an old tribal system, but I should think that the women had more control in real primitive cultures. Modern Turkey has its modern women leading more westernized lives, but this is not really a foreign problem – extreme religious tyranny over young people is just as common here. The wave of religious fundamentalism sweeping the world — and America too — is having the same chilling effects on women’s rights.
The movie dodges the religious angle entirely, making the culprit simple conservatism. The girls are only normally interested in boys before the ‘horrible crime’ that changes their lives. But when they’re cloistered like breeding stock they rebel with all the normal forms of delinquency. First they sneak around, and then when they realize how powerless they are, they brazenly dare their uncle to catch them. A couple of the sisters have casual sex with boys that cross their paths — if they’re being treated like whores to be sold in marriage, why not? If their guardians don’t value them, why should they care?
The film title reflects the way the director sees ‘her girls:’ they’re free and natural and the straitjacket of conservative control is a crime.
The five young women are like teens anywhere, and Ms. Ergüven captures their relationships and characters well. Each is different. They put up with the family engagement visits. In each case the grandmother and uncle receive guests, with the assurance that the daughter they’re pushing that day, ‘is very special.’ It doesn’t matter that the guardians think they’re doing the right thing. The girls can tell that they’re just pawns in this game. They are the property of their guardians and will soon be the property of their husbands. It’s human slavery.
The perfect expression of the dilemma occurs when one of the girls fails to produce a bloody bed sheet on her wedding night. Both sets of parents are awaiting this evidence that the marriage has been consummated, so all can go home. The new bride has no voice in anything; she doesn’t even bother to insist that she’s a virgin when they rush her to a doctor to be examined. It’s humiliating. Why should she care what any of these people feel about her?
As the director explains in her interviews, this traditional treatment of daughters is a violation of human rights. Rather than being protected, the barely adolescent girls are sexualized for a specific life function and nothing more. They’re denied normal childhoods and denied an education. They’re barred from any contact with anything away from family (paternal) control. The good news is that, even though some very bad things happen, the spirit of these bright little women can’t be totally snuffed out. One of the daughters has the guts and determination to flat-out escape. It seems impossible, but little Lale treats it as a do-or-die mission. She starts by barricading herself and her bride-to-be older sister inside the house; the uncle’s new iron bars allow them to successfully lock everybody out. It’s all still very credible, and it gives the show a terrific uplift, even if we’re tense all the way up to the final shot.
The director shares screenwriting credit with Alice Winocour, a French director in her own right. Their focus is on the girls at all times. Each has a distinct personality and a different reaction to being dehumanized. There’s no reasoning with the guardians — the girls might as well be animals, considering how they’re treated.
Mustang is a really affecting movie — anybody with a daughter should side with these unloved daughters against oppressive ideologies and for every person’s right to a chance for self-determination. That the show is a fun, positive experience is quite an achievement: these girls are spirited and resilient, and we cheer and cry for them all the way.
The Cohen Media Group-Entertainment One’s Blu-ray of Mustang is an excellent encoding of a smartly directed show. The handheld camerawork (in 2:35 widescreen) never draws attention to itself. The little country town is shown in little glimpses, without standard establishing shots. What we see never seems that foreign. These Turks aren’t peasants. They live in good houses; the men drive pickup trucks and carry guns in their waistbands. It’s not that different than Arizona.
The disc comes with the director’s earlier film, A Drop of Water. The 20-minute short is about another family fracas involving an outraged father whose protest gets a woman deported. An interview piece with the five actresses that play the sisters was apparently taped at Cannes; they become excited about posing for a photo with George Clooney. A trailer is included as well. I guess an enthusiastic sector of the audience will really like this movie, which is truly about ‘women power.’ The rest of us would do well to learn its lessons. I fear that, in the present climate, plenty of people here in the states will be on the side of the conservative oppressors.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Interview video with the actresses, Deniz Gamze Ergüven short subject A Drop of Water, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 4, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson