Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
There are feminist motion pictures, and then there is Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s MUSTANG. 2015 has seen a smorgasbord of powerful female protagonists, giving us the nonchalant ass-kicking of Charlize Theron, Brie Larson’s endless maternal attention, Cate Blanchett’s path for self-fulfillment over a heteronormative padlock, and Jennifer Lawrence’s refusal to continue serving as a free-of-charge maid, but nothing has been quite as tear-jerkingly impactful as Ergüven’s tale of five sisters against all of MANkind.
We’re not even going to give this film the dignity of a proper mention
MUSTANG accomplishes what seemed to be an insurmountable feat for many of these films: the ability to consistently keep its political agenda in line with its narrative threads, allowing the emotional roller coaster to not only inform its audience on all of the awful cultural customs that come with being a woman in a conservative Muslim household, but also the beauty of being a young woman in a forward-thinking Islamic country. Consequently, Turkey is never painted in thick coats of black and white; rather, the film flirts with the idiosyncrasies of such a westernized nation, stuck in a peculiar shade of grey. Tragedy and comedy all service Ergüven’s agenda, and somehow, the depth of the plot and its unique characters are never lost in the shuffle.
Never mind, we’re all dreaming of a world sans SUFFRAGETTE
Following the lives of five siblings in their early-to-mid teens who are being raised by their grandmother and conservative uncle, MUSTANG explores the intricacies of discovering one’s sexuality in a household that is a generation behind the norm. Staging its drama around the concerns of arranged marriages, remaining unsullied, and a compliance to the wills of the patriarchy, Ergüven frames her coming-of-age tale within the confines of a home as outdated as the ideology that the family represents. Ever growing in its fortifications, the film’s five heroes continue to search for all ways and means to escape from their claustrophobic environment, imbuing the film with a marvelous passion for life.
Where Ergüven strikes absolute gold over her contemporaries is in how tactfully she explores the bridging destinies of her five protagonists, allowing them to not only represent the dismantling of a healthy family amidst an oppressive ideology, but the comprehensive fate of Turkish women across the nation. This is poignantly underscored by a haunting use of conservative propaganda that emanates through the radios and televisions inside the protagonist’s home. MUSTANG is never playing in absolutes, its protagonists and supporting cast all struggling with cultural expectations, whilst trying to satisfy one’s desires or protect the other from an even greater evil.
Ergüven uses her saturated aesthetic to full advantage here, creating a gorgeous film within the quaint Turkish village. Bright summer lights and adrenaline-filled coming-of-age adventures make for a first act that is light on tragedy and heavy on nostalgia, reminiscent of Rob Reiner’s work in STAND BY ME. This consequently serves to contrast the films ever-growing sense of impending doom in its second and third acts, allowing its political message to shine as youth expires and conservative adulthood begins to consume the lives of the five leads.
Much like DOGTOOTH, but without lesbian things
MUSTANG should be a modern masterpiece of storytelling, boasting some of the best child acting of the year and incredible emotional nuance amidst the what could have been abrasively manipulative images of child brides. But the film makes one disappointing misstep halfway into its narrative, greatly damaging the traumatic impact it could leave on its more conservative viewers. By reducing a guardian figure to a deviant halfway into the narrative, audiences no longer see his character as a man with an outdated view of the world, but rather as an incarnation of evil that begins to paint the film in exactly those black and white brushstrokes that it so elegantly avoids until this point. As a result, the laymen in the target audience that this type of political commentary aims to address are likely to have trouble identifying the pressing issues that come with the treatment of women in 21st century Turkey.
Thankfully, everyone can identify with the Bollywood-inspired dance scene
Somehow, against all odds, MUSTANG never manages to feel calculated or clichéd, intentionally avoiding the narrative beats that an audience member would expect, or willfully playing into these moments in order to subvert the reaction that the viewer anticipates from the film’s voyeuristic antagonists. Accented by a fantastically understated soundtrack by the great Warren Ellis, MUSTANG methodically balances its subtle segues between melodrama and childhood nostalgia, making audiences cheer for the girls who stick it to the man and explore their sexuality regardless of parental restrictions, and cry for those who are forced to take a virginity-test after merely playing at the beach with a group of boys. MUSTANG is marvelous filmmaking and shockingly topical to boot, and although it may be a little sanitary—even synthetic—for viewers accustomed to Turkey and its citizens, the film does a fantastic job creating universally accessible cinema that aims to bring change to the current political climate.