Set in rural Anatolia, the opening scenes depict a classic image of youth (post-school) as the boisterous sisters run along the beach carefree and frolic in the ocean with a group of teenage boys whilst wearing their school uniforms. However, following this seemingly harmless interaction, a series of lewd accusations ensues, implying that the girls were acting inappropriately and somehow ‘pleasuring themselves’ whilst sitting on the boy’s shoulders. In a classic case of ‘Chinese Whispers’ the reputation of the family is at stake, affecting the sisters' eligibility to marry, ultimately leaving the grandmother no choice but to begin ‘wife training’ to rein in the behaviour of Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale.
Rather than go to school and socialise, the sisters are forced to cook, clean and sew, with all their personal belongings taken away for fear that it could ‘corrupt them’ in some way. As the girls slowly but surely witness their diminishing freedom and begin to rebel, none are more vivacious than youngest sibling Lale, an adventurous tomboy who loves football. After her strict misogynistic Uncle bans her from going to her team’s final, the sisters decide to sneak out and hitch a ride to the game from truck driver, Yasin. The girls have the time of their lives in the all-female crowd (men were banned due to violence at a previous match) but after their Aunt and Grandmother spot them on television, it appears that the way to constrain the girls is to marry them off one by one.
Mustang does a fantastic job at challenging gender stereotypes through mixed generations in conservative Turkey. Throughout the movie, there are shots of the family preparing and eating food, with reference to the traditional housewife role of Turkish women (and women in general). This is contrasted with lots of intimate shots of the sisters lounging around together in their bedrooms, sometimes half-dressed and appearing completely comfortable with their bodies and the freedom that comes with such a lack of clothing.
Unlike their elder female family members, the girls are not prudish and like most teenagers they are sexually curious - although by this point it is only oldest sister Sonay who has secretly indulged in the opposite sex. As well as a very invasive ‘purity test’ at the beginning of the movie the, oldest siblings have to endure the embarrassment of showing their ‘stained sheets’ to their family after the consummation of their marriage, much to their mortification.
The film features many such problematic scenarios, such as the girls being told to cover up their sexuality by wearing conservative clothing and then exposing it to the whole family by showing evidence of their lost virginity. To make matters worse, a seemingly honourable male figure in the film turns out to be a child abuser who is never brought to justice, again echoing the hypocrisy and façade of the gender divide in Turkey (and many other countries in contemporary society).
The male characters in this movie are presented as being socially superior to women, with little regard for them as individuals; they are not equal, merely housekeepers, care givers and sexual partners. As the sisters are slowly married off in age order, we see a catastrophic domino effect of the life slowly leaving their personalities as they are forced to conform to archaic, unfair sexist society. As the walls get higher and their world gets smaller, the audience is left wondering how these poor girls will escape, and who is brave enough to make the break first?
Aside from the actress playing Ece (Elit İşcan), the sisters were played by virtual unknowns from Turkey, which I felt added a great degree of authenticity to their characters and the story as a whole. Director Deniz Gamze Erguven clearly has some very strong feminist ideals in this film, with her motivation arising from experiences which are emblematic of her own upbringing as a young woman in Turkey.
In interviews, Erguven has continuously expressed her wish to change the perception of women in her native country and close the gender divide in the hopes of giving women a stronger voice. Despite a number of tragic events in Mustang, I found the film very progressive and positive with youngest sister Lale being the outstanding heroine of the film. She is smart, confident, ambitious and even takes it upon herself to learn how to drive in a bid to escape to Istanbul and live a more prosperous life.
Istanbul appears as a sort of cosmopolitan Mecca to Lale; a place that offers freedom and also where her beloved teacher moves to at the beginning of the story. Throughout the movie we see Lale’s small acts of rebellion such as her dazzling array of funky footwear and her lack of fear in approaching the opposite sex. Learning how to drive and wearing fashionable clothes are things the modern woman can take for granted, but for Lale, this is her making a bold statement in being true to who she is. Beautifully shot with great music and some incredibly relevant topics, Mustang is a must see for men and women alike!
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