An astute and moving Turkish drama that celebrates female empowerment and camaraderie.
Sarah Ward
Published on July 04, 2016


Remember the name Deniz Gamze Ergüven. The Turkish-French filmmaker may have only directed one feature to date, but it's a movie audiences won't forget in a hurry. In focusing on the troubled plight of five sisters confined to their home, Mustang might bring The Virgin Suicides to mind. Yet there's much more to the film than the comparison might indicate.

Setting her film in a conservative seaside village in northern Turkey, Ergüven probes the complicated reality that siblings Lale (Günes Sensoy), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) face on a daily basis. Stuck in a patriarchal society — and in a house overseen by a strict uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) and dutiful grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) — their teenage lives are not their own. They're not allowed to just be girls who want to have fun; they're future wives, mothers and caregivers, destined to be defined by their husbands rather than themselves.

Indeed, when Lale characterises their existence as "a wife factory", her choice of words couldn't be more fitting. As the youngest child as well as the film's narrator, it's through her eyes that viewers experience both the harsh limitations that dictate the sisters' days, and the need they feel to break free. It all starts when school winds up for the summer, with the quintet heading to the beach to splash around with a group of boys. By the time they get home, news of their apparently inappropriate behaviour has already reached their relatives' ears, inspiring a regime of virginity tests, locked doors, barred windows, cooking lessons and desperate attempts to marry them off.

Being trapped in such a restrictive situation is as devastating as it sounds. And yet, thanks to the sisters' different personalities and Lale's undying defiant streak, the narrative is also laced with amusing moments and ample tenderness, as well as the spirit of female empowerment and camaraderie. As co-written by Ergüven with Augustine filmmaker Alice Winocour, the Academy Award-nominated effort proves as much a celebration of young women refusing to simply do what they're told as it is an indictment of the male-controlled status quo.

It's also a film that's immersed in blossoming femininity from start to finish. While Sensoy steals every scene she's in with her naturalistic charm, her four main co-stars are no less effective. Cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok shoot the movie to stress intimacy even amidst rampant oppression, while the score by Warren Ellis evokes both tension and yearning. Accordingly, though Mustang is undoubtedly concerned with domination and escape, it's not a tale of victims, but rather a testament to resilience.


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