In 2015, a film destined to generate strong debate was presented at the Cannes Film Festival: Mustang, the debut feature film by director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. A female movie, written and directed by Ergüven herself, that represents a hymn to the freedom of five Turkish sisters. While in Europe the film was received positively, in Turkey the opinions were mixed. In particular, most Turkish critics questioned the truthfulness of the movie. According to them, it favors a Western perspective. Ergüven, in fact, was born in Turkey but currently lives in France. The director spent her entire childhood between these two nations, attending school in France. That’s why her identity as a Turkish woman is questioned.
Despite the criticism, Mustang has conquered viewers all over the world and won many awards. In 2016, it has won four César Awards out of nine nominations: Best First Feature Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Music, Best Editing. At the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, it won the Europa Cinemas Label Award. In addition, the film received nominations for a Golden Globe and for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film to represent France.
A home that becomes a prison
Mustang follows the story of five sisters who live in a village in the north of Turkey. The girls are orphans and are raised by their strict grandmother and cruel uncle. Their life suddenly changes one day, after playing on the beach with some schoolmates and having innocent physical contact. Their behavior causes scandal in the conservative village and dishonor on their family. From that moment the girls, withdrawn from school and forced to stay at home, only have to learn how to become good wives. Their world, limited to the domestic walls, becomes a prison. But the teenagers do not accept the situation and try to rebel against the wishes of their families.
Ergüven said the movie is not based on a true story. But the initial scandal in the village actually happened in her family. But even if it is a fictional story, she assures that similar events still happen today in some parts of Turkey. Therefore, through the film, the director wants to awaken consciousness and bring attention back to a society that tends to repress female sexuality.
For the most part, the shooting of the film takes place inside a house and in closed spaces. In order not to make the atmosphere too dark, David Chizallet and Ersin Göka use a cinematography based on vividness. Pastel colors and warm lights bestow delicacy and a dreamy aesthetic. This choice contrasts with the horrible situation in which the girls find themselves. Lastly, the enveloping soundtrack by Warren Ellis (member of the group Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) accompanies the narration. His soft music allows the viewer to enter an immersive experience.
Sisters’ stories and female perspective
Like the March sisters of Little Women, Mustang‘s five sisters want to escape the rules of society that see them subjugated and objectified. But compared to Alcott’s story, in Ergüven’s film, the executioners are within the domestic walls, and not all attempts at rebellion lead to freedom.
Many critics compared Mustang to another movie: The Virgin Suicides (1999) by Sofia Coppola. This film also follows the vicissitudes of five sisters locked up at home by their uncompromising parents. There are similarities between the two movies: backward-minded family members, unfair restrictions, punishments, sexual awakenings. But the main difference concerns the perspective through which the events are told. In Coppola’s film, the story is seen through the eyes of five neighborhood boys and not by the sisters, who seem resigned to their fate.
The narrator is the younger sister Lale. She’s a non-conformist and a soccer lover. As the prohibitions and impositions increase, Lela grows and increases her determination to want to be free and happy while trying to save her sisters.
Ergüven’s Mustang is a cruel coming-of-age, that drags the viewers into a whirlwind of emotions: dismay, fear, resignation and hope.