Mustang

June 23, 2016
Günes Sensoy in 'Mustang' (2015)
Günes Sensoy in 'Mustang' (2015)

Put five teenage sisters together in one household and it’s a recipe for chaos. Put them into a provincial household in Turkey and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. First-time director, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, has made a film that sums up the violent contradictions that face a young generation of Turks growing up in a society torn by competing traditions of Islamic puritanism and the westernisation put in train by Ataturk in 1924.

Turkey is often held up as proof that Islam and social progress can cohabit within one nation. In Mustang, Ergüven and her co-writer Alice Winocour shows there is a long way to go before old practices can be laid to rest.

The movie begins with a startling voiceover. “It’s like everything changed in the blink of an eye,” says the youngest sister, Lale (Günes Sensoy). “One moment we were fine, then everything turned to shit.” Suddenly we’re all attention.

It is the last day of school in a small town on the Black Sea, with students going home for the summer holidays. Five orphaned sisters – Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale – whose ages range from maybe 10 to 16, decide to walk rather than take the bus. On the way they head to the beach and engage, fully-clothed, in some watery horse play with their male class mates.

It’s innocent fun but word has got around that the girls have been sexually compromising themselves. The neighbours are scandalised and the girls’ grandmother (Nihil G. Koldas), is distraught. Their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), is furious and declares that drastic measures must be taken, starting with the removal of all potentially corrupting items, from make-up, phones and computers, to a postcard of Delacroix’s Liberty leading the people.

The first step is a quick dash to the doctor to make sure everyone’s virginity is intact. School is now banned, and in Lale’s words the house becomes “a wife factory”, staffed by a battalion of village ladies who offer instructions in the arts of cooking and sewing. In place of their western clothes the girls are expected to wear long, shapeless brown dresses. The house is reinforced with bars and and gates until it resembles a prison.

It becomes apparent that the plan is to marry the girls off as quickly as possible. And so begins a procession of village families through the house, as neighbours bring their eligible sons to seek a bride. It’s a depressing scenario, with the girl expected to bring tea and coffee to the guests, while Grandma pronounces her unvarying sales pitch: “She’s one of a kind!”

Some viewers may think wryly of Mrs Benet’s efforts to marry off her five daughters in Pride and Prejudice.

We see the different reactions of the sisters, from Selma’s grim resignation to Sonay’s eagerness to marry her school boyfriend. Lale is the rebellious one, feeling frantic at watching the girls being picked off one by one. She may be the youngest but she is the least willing to submit to the fate decreed by her uncle and grandmother.

Although the villagers are narrow in their outlook, and Uncle Erol has his own designs on his nieces, not all the relatives are portrayed in a completely negative light. The grandmother, in particular, is convinced she is only acting in the girls’ best interests. After all, she was married off in the same fashion to a stranger when she was a teen and had to learn to love her husband.

Neither are the girls as innocent as they protest. They have a typically adolescent fascination with sex, and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) seems to have done everything with her boyfriend apart from sacrificing the precious hymen that must be intact on wedding night.

As one can imagine, Mustang has been subject to some ferocious attacks in Turkey while gathering accolades in other parts of the world. Ergüven was born in Turkey but raised in France, making her seem like an outsider to conservative critics.

Earlier this year the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It would be a shame if the feature were condemned or praised for purely ideological reasons, when it may be enjoyed for the performances of the five young amateurs who play the daughters, whom the director has described as “one body with five heads”.

Mustang may sound like a melodrama but it is also a wonderfully natural portrayal of the way teenage girls think and act the world over. It’s a coming-of-age tale in which the subjects are not allowed the privilege of finding their own paths to adulthood. For Lale the story is different because she is obliged to grow up in a hurry if she hopes to resist the fate imposed by the dead hand of tradition. The smallest sister is the real mustang of the group – a wild creature that refuses to be tamed. She’s the only one about whom her grandmother might truthfully say: “She’s one of a kind!”

Mustang
Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Written by Deniz Gamze Ergüven & Alice Winocour
Starring Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihil G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Burak Yigit
France/Germany/Turkey/Qatar, rated M, 97 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 25th June, 2016.