“…Then everything turned to shit.” One of the most awarded films of the last year almost didn’t get made. When Deniz Gamze Ergüven announced to her female producer that she was pregnant, especially when the latter already struggling to finance the film, the producer left. Describing juggling filming duties during her pregnancy as “about as quintessentially female as you can get,” it’s an important anecdote, because it also speaks to the wider themes of MUSTANG, a film that points a razor sharp finger at the repression of women in rural Turkey, but one that also acknowledges global issues around women’s rights.
Following some perceived “scandalous” behaviour of playing on the beach with boys, five sisters (Günes Sensoy, Tugba Sunguroglu, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan and Ilayda Akdogan) are placed under virtual house arrest by their conservative uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) and their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş). As the youngest, Lale (Sensoy) comments in her omnipresent narration, the house became a “wife factory” that they rarely leave. The film chronicles the emotional and sexual coming of age of these five girls as they deal with this sudden loss of freedom, and the realities of their new lives slowly sink in.
The heavy topic and rapid loss of innocence that the film explores is balanced by the impeccable casting Ergüven has selected for her first feature. Very early in the film the conservative aspects of Turkey are contrasted with the otherwise carefree childhood the girls were experiencing, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. The strength of MUSTANG, therefore, is in the building of its characters, an impressive feat considering the actors’ relative inexperience. In fact, all but one of the leads had no prior screen acting experience (save for 21-year-old Elit Iscan, in the beautifully tragic role of Ece), and its this realness that translates a rage-inducing tale of oppression to something more relatable. Told through the narrative lens of Lale, our incredulous response is not so different to hers, and the firebrand 13 year-old newcomer Sensoy, someone who is just as likely to lock her elders out of the house than submit in resignation like her two eldest sisters. It’s her enthusiasm that gives the film its brightest moments of levity, as she leads all five girls to briefly escape to a soccer match in town. By the same token, the dark moments of the film (dealing with molestation and abuse) are also glimpsed through Lale’s eyes, giving us one arm’s length of removal but adding to overall sense of innocence lost.
With the exception of a handful of scenes that take place outdoors, the majority of the film is a single-set environment. Thanks to David Chizallet and Ersin Gok’s photography, there’s a terrific use of light. Most scenes take place within shot of a window or some other light source, acknowledging the outside world while never allowing the girls a chance to get close to it. Later in the film, when Ece starts behaving “dangerously” in Lale’s words, a scene of Ece inviting a boy into a locked car to sleep with her is glimpsed from the outside in, so that even in the outside spaces there’s a notion of being trapped. Bad Seed and Dirty Three member Warren Ellis provides the atmospheric and César Award winning score, steering clear of manipulatively emotive music and giving the actors space to explore their characters on their own terms.
Far from being a Virgin Suicides for the Turkish set, MUSTANG carries a topical message while maintaining a compelling narrative, mostly thanks to the phenomenal cast. While it also offers a glimmer of hope for a better life, it’s a hope that comes with the preceding despair, shining a light on something that must be spotlit until tales like this one are no longer contemporary.
MUSTANG screened at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2016. From 23 June 2016, it plays in limited release in Australia from Madman Entertainment.
2015 | France, Turkey | DIR: Deniz Gamze Ergüven | WRITERS: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Alice Winocour | CAST: Günes Sensoy, Doga Doğuşlu, Tuğba Sunguroğlu | DISTRIBUTOR: Madman Entertainment | RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes | RATING: ★★★★½ (9/10)