AFI FEST 2015: Mustang, by David Bax
Only a handful of reviews written in English exist of Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang at this point but, already, a comparison to The Virgin Suicides is beginning to feel like a perfunctory component. The association is an appropriate one but it is telling that we find commonalities – not just with a novel/film but with the American experience – in this tale of teenage girls living under drastic religious and familial oppression in provincial Turkey. The foreignness of the setting is taken over by the relatability of the human spirit and how it is just as likely to rise above as to be crushed in ways equally impressive. Ergüven’s blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar produces a potent concoction, both unique and universal.
Five sisters – Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu) and Lale (Günes Sensoy) – live with their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and unmarried uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). At some unidentified point in the past, the girls’ parents died but we can imagine something of them as modern figures, given the contemporary social attitudes the sisters display in the opening sequence. Having just finished the school day and finding the weather to be pleasant, they run down to the beach with some male classmates and splash around in the water. When they arrive home, the grandmother immediately starts beating them with sticks. At first, the girls and we the audience are at a loss as to what they’ve done wrong. But a neighbor has told of the girls’ frolicking and, when the grandmother describes their innocent game of chicken fights as rubbing their private parts on boys’ necks, a sinking realization of the world they inhabit rolls in. Almost immediately, the sisters are pulled from school, locked into a house that has had its computer and phones sequestered away and trained in the domestic arts; the home becomes “wife school,” as Lale – our most forefront protagonist – describes it. Things don’t stop with cooking and sewing lessons, though. Before too long, Erol is arranging marriages for the older girls.
Similarities to The Virgin Suicides are both obvious and revelatory. That story of Midwestern Catholic severity may not have included stripping the girls of their agency as completely as Mustang’s nuptial processes do but it is instructive to reflect on the prejudices that let us tell ourselves that devastatingly strict religious interpretations are not the stuff of the Western, Christian world. Ergüven’s decision to start by showing us the characters in a state of recognizable exuberance sets our perspective firmly on the inside, able to feel these experiences not as observers but the same way Lale and company do as participants.
Of course, the approach wouldn’t work without Ergüven’s adeptness and economy with cinematic language. Astonishingly, this is her first feature film. Her camera both moves and rests as if it is another sibling, entirely comfortable in the home. The film itself is as buoyant as a puppy when the girls play their make-believe games (like swimming through blankets on a bed as if it is a pool) and languorous in its ennui when the games run out and the nothingness of their future sprawls out before them toward the horizon like humid plains. Ergüven conducts her cast like an organic orchestra, eliciting soaring yet naturalistic performances. It’s that same unadorned verisimilitude that injects danger into the film, nonchalantly depicting the troubling but real custom of firing guns into the air in Turkish wedding celebrations.
Ergüven clearly has statements to impart on the damage done by this kind of reading of religious doctrine. She doesn’t lead with that, though, instead weaving it into the fabric of her film. Mustang is a movie about people that tells a story and captures a set of feelings. It’s like a lot of movies in that way and like very few in its powerful successes.