Mustang is a terrific film from first-time director(!) Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who is of German and Turkish descent. As such, Mustang deals primarily with how five young orphaned sisters deal with the strict stranglehold of their small, conservative Turkish village. This could very well be described as a coming-of-age film, though I’ve come to realize that coming-of-age films made by men and those made by women often tread very different territory. Coming-of-age films made by men (especially those starring boys/men) often rely on a lot of unrealistic fantasy and wish-fulfillment – i.e. The Graduate, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Risky Business, Superbad, etc. On the contrary, coming-of-age films by women about girl (particularly teenage girls) often dwell upon just how tough and terrible it is to be a girl growing up. Off the top of my head, Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Dee Rees’ Pariah, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, and Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl are all excellent recent examples of this. Even Mean Girls (written by Tina Fey), although a comedy, still spends ample time uncovering how tough it is to be a girl in high school.
The fact is that girls often have a harder time transitioning into young adulthood than boys do. The societal pressure and expectations are just far more pronounced and entangle themselves with puberty in complex ways with real-life ramifications that lead to much confusion and trauma. Thus, from the very start of Mustang, we are given a hint that the real antagonist of the story is that of patriarchy, which presents itself in very concrete ways very early on in the girls’ lives. The sisters are, from oldest to youngest: Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), and Lale (Güneş Şensoy). The film starts with them playing a game at a beach with a couple of their male classmates – an ordinary end-of-school activity. Yet once they reach home, they are scolded by their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş), who accuses them of “pleasuring themselves” by sitting on their shoulders during one particular water game. Already, the double standards are underway – the boys had equal part to these games, yet aren’t even remotely held to these similar expectations of piety. While the girls are banned from leaving the house from that point on, the boys remain free to roam outdoors and play as children do. Yet as the film continues to play out in its naturalistic minimalism, it’s clear to see that nothing about this particular instance is unusual – rather, it’s just to be expected from living as a young woman under kyriarchy.
One aspect of films that I’ve found distinguishes women filmmakers from their male counterparts are how their female-to-female interactions are written, staged, and directed. On that note, judging solely by the little filler scenes that project the sisters’ interactions with one another, it’s clear to see that Ergüven herself was once a preteen/teenage girl. I don’t have sisters, but I did grow up with a lot of female cousins and the silly, little scenes that showed the sisters playing, giggling, and doing damn near everything they can to keep themselves sane in their house-prison are so spot-on. Every single nuance is there – particularly the fascination with each others’ growing bodies – and it’s so important that these details of female relationships are further documented in narrative film without the filter of the male perspective or male gaze. One of my very favorite scenes of the film occurs when the sisters collectively pool their efforts to sneak out of their house to attend a soccer game – one rare event from which men are banned. Amidst the ecstasy and excitement of the loud onlookers of the game, it’s so refreshing to watch so many women in one location, celebrating happily in unison over an experience from which they would normally be forbidden. And with not a single man to be found in this audience, it’s a rare instance of true pleasure that, unfortunately, is also quick to fleet.
Just as light and intimate as the first third of Mustang is, the remainder of the film dwells into some pretty dark and unsettling territories. At least, the prospect of being forced into arranged marriages – which is prescribed as a punishment toward the girls by their grandmother – is terrifying to me. As per Ergüven’s exquisite understanding of the female experience, the way she carves out each of the girls’ personalities and the path they aim for dealing with their situations at hand are so excellently devised and, once again, natural. Sonay and Selma are the first to be married off; the former manages to convince her grandmother to let her marry her boyfriend rather than a suitor, while the latter is sent to the doctor’s office to get her virginity checked after there is no blood after consummation (debunking the whole hymen myth in the meantime). I really liked the character of Lale from the very beginning – being the youngest sister, it’s evident that the flame of youth and vitality still brightly burns inside her. On that note, it’s saddening to see just how compliant her older sisters are to the situation at hand, as if their own flame had long been blown out as they come to the understanding of just how powerless they are against the patriarchal stronghold that guides their lives. Later, ongoing pressures from all directions, along with sexual abuse at the hand of her uncle (Ayberk Pekcan), lead Ece to take her own life. These are very real consequences to very real situations, the most tragic part being that this is the daily life of girls and women everywhere.
I really didn’t expect Mustang to put me at the edge of my seat, but this was exactly the case during the latter parts of the film’s final third. The desire to leave the house soon becomes a necessity, a fight for survival rather than a yearning for privilege. When they finally do escape, the claustrophobic feeling that encapsulated practically the entire film is finally released, much like exhaling after holding one’s breath for ninety minutes. Remember when I mentioned earlier that coming-of-age stories featuring men are mostly wish-fulfillment, while those about women are darker and more realistic? Well, just how the latter situation isn’t always the case (The Breakfast Club isn’t all about the men, Stand By Me is far from fantasy, etc.), wish-fulfillment also exists in coming-of-age films by women. It’s no surprise that most girls and women who are coerced into arranged marriage have no agency and are therefore expected to act against their wishes. While it’s hard to label Nur and Lale’s escape a “happy ending”, so to speak, it’s not hard to imagine that their proactivity is more promising than their former situation.
First and foremore, Mustang is about sisterhood. It’s so rare to see a film that so lovingly gazes upon female companionship, painting it in such broad yet delicate, detailed strokes. All five young actresses in this film play their parts so perfectly, communicating with one another in ways where even mere glances send the message that they’re all battling this problem together. While the predicament is particular to that of a conservative Turkish upbringing, it’s not difficult to see parallels in our contemporary Western society, one which values a girl’s virginity more than her vitality. This has quickly become one of my very favorites of 2015, and with such a strong debut already under her belt, I’m super excited to see what else Deniz Gamze Ergüven will present to us in the future.