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gal-dem film club: Mustang, a bittersweet Turkish delight

13 May 2016

Oscar-nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film”, Mustang follows five orphan sisters on the brink of adulthood.

Set in a remote northern village of Turkey, the movie opens on the last day of school as the youngest sister tearfully says goodbye to her teacher, who lives in Istanbul “a thousand kilometres away”.

School out celebrations lead to a run into the sea with a few male classmates. However, a snooping neighbour spots them and immediately reports their behaviour as indecent to their grandmother (Nihal Koldas), quickly turning their innocent revels sour, with a forced trip to the doctors for a virginity test.

Their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) steps in, as a figure of patriarchal rule, obsessing over the state of the girl’s hymens, neurotically accusing their grandmother that they are sullied. Whilst these claims remain untrue, this incident sparks a military operation as a team of aunts enter their home, removing all items deemed “perverted”, including mobile phones, computers and any tight clothing, and are replaced with long “shit-coloured” gowns that are enforced, especially when men are around. Metal bars are also installed for good measure, growing higher and higher throughout the film, acting as a growing symbol of the sisters’ lack of control, turning their home into a literal prison.

What makes this movie so moving to watch is that the audience are led through the eyes and ears of the youngest sister, Lele (Gunes Sensoy). Sensoy’s portrayal is phenomenal and she perfectly encapsulates the coming-of-age onlooker, frustrated at the changes occurring around her as she observes her home has become a “wife-factory” and helplessly watches her elder sisters get placed on a string of arranged weddings. Through the eyes of Lale, the audience are spared the more sinister aspects of the sister’s lives, including late night visits from their barbaric uncle, filmed out of sight though will still make many recoil in their seats.

As they approach puberty and teenage life, the grandmother is hasty to marry the sisters off, as a form of protection.  The repeated refrain that each sister is “one of a kind”, as they are shown in front of local dullard men, comes as a harrowing lie as one by one sisters are treated like cattle.

Despite these sinister aspects of their lives the director, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, brilliantly interweaves moments of warmth and upbeat comedy through the sisters’ acts of rebellion. It is these moments that make the audience really rally for the sisters as we watch them clamber down a pipe outside their bedroom window, making fake doll heads of themselves, desperate to regain their past freedom. 

It is also the sisters’ love for one another that makes the film so compelling to watch, and it will come as a surprise for many that this is the first feature movie for all five actresses. Barely aware of their sexual aura, they laze around in rainbow coloured underwear, sunbathing together as they desperately try and keep hold of their childhood which is rapidly slipping away. This is further aided through flashback shots of their earlier moments of their idyllic freedom, provide much needed joviality to the onscreen action, which grows more gripping and heart-wrenching as the arranged marriages grow more urgently implemented.

Surprisingly, the topic of religion is not incorporated into the story, marking the film as more of a critique of the suppression of female expression that everyone will be able to relate to, rather than specifically about Turkey’s growing trend towards secularism.

The only minor qualm with Mustang is that the middle sisters are at times difficult to distinguish with regards to personality – getting lost within the more vocal siblings. Overall Mustang is a fantastically moving piece, shot to perfection that will leave you gripped to your seat.

Bristol’s Watershed are partnering up with the BFI to encourage a ripple-effect featuring Mustang and other hand-picked foreign language films, that only make up a shocking 0.5% of film distribution in the United Kingdom, to spread the word about great films.

Mustang is out today in cinemas.

Rating: 4.5 stars