The past few years have provided several truly distinctive debuts by diasporic female directors. Gurinder Chadha mined comedy from the intergenerational tensions between Indian women in England in Bhaji on the Beach (1996); Marjane Satrapi ably evoked the energy and bombast of her graphic novel about a free-spirited, forthright girl growing up during the Iranian revolution with Persepolis (2007); and last year saw the release of Ana Lily Amirpour’s mesmeric Iranian vampire Western A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014).
Adding to this growing collection of unique cinematic voices is Mustang (2015), Turkish/ French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s acerbic take on Turkish gender politics.
Set in rural Turkey and framed against the country’s growing religious conservatism, Mustang follows five sisters who are virtually imprisoned in their house after being wrongly accused of indecent behaviour. Undeterred by their uncle’s increasing strictness, the girls continue to rail against their captivity whilst their grandmother seeks out husbands for them.
Ergüven says she envisaged her core players as a five-headed hydra rather than as separate characters with their strength founded in their unity. The film’s central quintet (all of whom are non-professional actors) is unquestionably the film’s strongest asset. The energy in their ensemble performance and their obvious bond gives a naturalism and warmth that transcends the crushing societal oppression at the film’s narrative core.
It is in fracturing this affectionate bond between the sisters that the film most generates a sense of tragedy. As the girls are pried apart, the golden sunlight that had lit the film (evoking comparisons to The Virgin Suicides (1999)) is replaced by a colder, sombre twilight.
Mustang examines the endemic subjugation of women in conservative cultures with a highly critical eye. The girls are made to parade like horses during dressage in front of prospective husbands and forced to take a virginity test to confirm their purity.
Selma’s (Tuga Sunguroglu) humiliation as she is dragged to the hospital after failing to bleed on her wedding night, vividly demonstrates the film’s contention that the female body has become a public site. All of this forms a deeply unflattering portrait of a society that views women as a commodity at the service of family.
Comedy, drama, romance and tragedy form distinct units within the film and the effectiveness with, which these individual modes are realised makes Mustang an ambitious debut. The scene of the girl’s grandmother causing a power-cut to prevent their uncle seeing televised footage of them at a football match, in particular highlights Ergüven’s adeptness at broad comedy. By contrast, the inferences of familial sexual abuse are addressed with a cold economy, unnervingly conveyed by just the sound of a closing door and muffled cries. Yet whilst such scenes work powerfully as individual vignettes, the lack of a central style to link these modes together leaves the film at times feeling jagged and disjointed.
Despite its dark themes, Mustang is not ultimately a tragedy. Rather it is a celebration of the power of camaraderie which brings with it the hope of transcending society’s restrictions. The darker moments of the film may be some of its most potent, yet perhaps the most lasting images are those of Lale (Günes Sensoy) celebrating at the football match. With her ecstatic smile, raucous cheering and unhampered energy, you wonder if there is anything that hopeful, unrestrained youth can’t achieve.
Originally, Mustang was presented in partnership with Phoenix, Into Film and the Film Audience Network. The screening was part of Phoenix’s education programme which gives young people the opportunity to enjoy and engage with a diverse range of cinema from around the world.
Mustang will be screening at Phoenix from Fri 20 – Thu 26 May. Book tickets here.
Words by Alan Morton