Content warning: This film features elements of sexual abuse.
The coming-of-age stories that frequently grace movie screens are those of teen rebellion, unrequited love, and summer adventures. Deniz Ergüven’s Oscar-nominated film Mustang contains qualities of all of these aspects, but adds nuanced maturity and an overwhelmingly poignant storyline. At the heart of the film are five sisters living in a village on the Turkish seaside, whose strides to live spontaneously are thwarted by the customary guidelines and traditions of their culture.
Beginning with an end-of-school-year trip to the beach with male classmates, five orphaned sisters (Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, and Ilayda Akdogan) return home to their grandmother and legal guardian (Nihal G. Koldas), who greets them with a beating and unwavering accusations. What the girls see as innocent romping is misinterpreted by gossiping neighbors as sexual licentiousness, and the girls are made to submit to a virginity report conducted by their local healthcare center. They are then swiftly stripped of all possessions that can further corrupt them such as telephones, makeup, ripped jeans, and computers. Although showing the beauty of traditional Turkish culture, Mustang emphasizes the patriarchal injustices present in the sisters’ village and family, where a majority of the formal power lies with the man of the house, their Uncle (Ayberk Pekcan). Any efforts to defy the regulations placed upon them are answered with discipline, physical abuse, and stricter detainment in their already-encroaching space.
It is in the house that the girls are trained in domestic skills such as cooking, sewing, cleaning, and serving. Gradually, their grandmother preps them for marriage by inviting over prospective suitors and families and having one selected sister serve refreshments as the guests survey her appearance and manners. Each sister manages the situation in a unique way; some through protest, some through passiveness, and some through outright refusal and attempted escapes. Each circumstance is different, and each has a consequence.
A key component to the cinematography is the emphasis placed on natural light and shadows. The house, which serves as the main setting of the movie, is equipped with many windows and courtyards, all with intricate bars and gates that lend a dark sense of whimsy to the confinement of the sisters. Additionally, the house has a seemingly endless flow of doorways and rooms that create a sense of disorientation. With regards to the music, the director was very adamant that there be no electronic or synthetic sounds, to coincide with her preference of what is natural over what is synthetic. The utilization of natural elements and acoustic instruments supplements the will of the girls to live naturally and organically with their surroundings versus the demands of their uncle and his constant surveillance.
Ergüven was tactful in her portrayal of men and women in Turkish culture. Mustang neither aims for moral simplicity nor does it condemn the entirety of Turkish traditionalism. There are strong women, submissive women, traditional men, and progressive men. No one segment or gender is demonized, but the film does highlight the unfairness of certain aspects. In a Film Society of Lincoln Center panel with the director and actresses who played the sisters, Ilayda Akdogan stated that she and the other women working on the film felt a great responsibility to demonstrate the social injustices facing women in Turkey, specifically in regard to arranged marriage and the concept of purity.
Although its content is fueled by depth and sensitivity, on the surface Mustang is slightly reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1990). Both movies are narrated by main characters and told as stories of the past, and both deal with themes of loss and oppression. More superficially , both films are focused on five sisters in the same age group; however, in regards to substance, Mustang is far more riveting and confronts real world issues, as opposed those such as American isolationism in The Virgin Suicides.
Some argue that Ergüven leaves many questions unanswered and does not evenly distribute screen-time between the five sisters; however, although some girls are more featured than others, the director does a good job of creating a cohesive timeline and each girl serves a different purpose at different points in the film. With regard to questions unanswered and an open-ended resolution, the film is told from the perspective of the youngest sister, so it would make sense that she does not have a fully rounded perspective of their situation.
Mustang tells a poignant story of female empowerment and rebellion. The concepts of voyeurism and fetishization are completely vanquished by the close proximities of filming, and viewers are allowed to peek behind the curtain to see the intricacies of sisterhood, and are also given an intimately tragic tale of growing up female in a male-dominated world.