Mustang is a powerful and timely drama, but more impressively it’s also exhilarating, stylish, and fun.
I don’t know about you, but I always have this problem. A friend will call up:
‘Oh do you want to go see this great new foreign film?’
‘Yeah, sure – why not?’
‘Cool, it’s all about female oppression in Turkey’
‘You know – arranged marriages, virginity checks. Serious stuff’
‘Oh.. actually I – oh no we’re out of balloons in the house! I can’t believe it. I’ve gotta go buy some more balloons, this is really an emergency. Sorry, maybe next week’
A lot of my friends act the same way when I call up about ‘big issue’ dramas too. You instantly imagine an unrelentingly grim film – one where an innocent hero is repeatedly punished and eventually destroyed by an horrifically unjust system, while a steady sense of doom hangs over everything. And for me this is what makes Mustang very special – while it does interrogate the oppressive forces at work within Turkish society, it also brings to the fore, and vibrantly celebrates, the thing being oppressed – teenage girls and the onset of female sexuality.
Mustang follows five orphaned sisters – Sonay, Selma, Ece, Lale and Nur – who early in the film have a gleeful water fight with some boys after school. When a cranky old neighbour rats them out for being impure, their grandmother is furious and decides to take action to set her grandchildren on the right path, enlisting the help of their stern uncle Elos. Lale narrates as bars go up on the windows, their clothes are replaced by ‘shit-coloured clothes’, and cooking classes start as the house is transformed into what she calls a ‘wife factory’.
Meanwhile the girls are still doing the type of things regular teenage girls do. The biggest surprise from me wasn’t how different their lives are from teens in other countries, but how similar. The girls get into fights over stolen bras, they yell threats at eachother, make fun of each others bodies, escape to meet boys, and bring up innuendo to make each other laugh. It’s one of the most engrossing depictions of adolescence – its energy, potential, and clumsiness – that I’ve seen on screen. The girls are like a natural force, a wild torrent of hormones overspilling with vitality that we then watch being dammed up and contained. And as the bars go up around them, the compromises they make are novel, but their desires are not, remaining relatable and engaging.
All this is shot through a gloriously summery style. There’s very little darkness or gloom in Mustang. It doesn’t just shine, it glows. The sunny and languid cinematography gives their imprisonment a hazy warmth. For the first half of the film the girls are often shot as a set. They’re entangled, toppling over each other, and mingling constantly so that it’s difficult to separate them all. I was genuinely unsure who was who for a while, and it reminded me of a really great description by Marcel Proust of a set of girls;
‘[there was] flooding over the group a wave of harmony, the continuous transfusion of a beauty fluid, collective and mobile’.
As their imprisonment begins and their fates divide them all, they begin to visually separate and become distinct in their destinies.
The closest film that sprung to mind was The Virgin Suicides. Like Coppola’s film, Mustang achieves the tricky balance of showing the girls bodies and sexuality without objectifying them. It struck me while I watched it – depicting teenage female sexuality is tough. The body of a teenage girl is a central image in consumerist culture, and sexualising their bodies is something we’re hit with all day in ads, music videos and movies. So when you want to use cinematic language to depict 5 girls growing up and the fact of their burgeoning sexuality, it takes careful directing to separate it from more exploitative depictions. Effacing their desires altogether, and showing them as simple victims of the outside world’s preoccupations would do a huge disservice to their agency. Mustang is a triumph in how it keeps the sisters plot agency alive within the limits of their confinement.
Their beauty and their desire are also important for the film’s plot – it’s an element that drives everything around them – both the boys who chase them and the relatives who want to control them.Mustang really intrigued me in how it treated the oppressors – in particular their grandmother. First of all, she means well. She is sincerely trying to do the right thing, as she sees it, by setting her granddaughters on the ‘right path’ to marriage. She does everything out of love, and as the plot progresses, the hurt she’s willing to ignore becomes more and more troubling. Ideology in the film isn’t a simple case of cruel vs kind – it’s much more complex than that – the kindest relative can do the greatest harm.
The girls are often told that this is for their own good – they’ll inadvertently tease men if they dress in a revealing way, their beauty will cause mens desire to inflame, and since men’s desire is uncontrollable they have to be housed for their own protection. They’re 5 red rags in a world of bulls. It simply makes sense to save them from all this pain. They have an essential purity that elevates them, and they need to protect this purity and get rid of everything else – desire, anger, impulsiveness – that is incompatible. I tried explaining it to a friend after – it’s like if someone went to Peter Parker’s house and said ‘you’ve got this wonderful gift – to, em, sling webs – but you can’t wisecrack, yell too loud, like girls or be too grossly human because those things are incompatible with someone who has a quality that’s so special’. It’s oppression by elevation. Protecting their ‘gift’, by violence if necessary, simply makes sense to the world around them.
So if your friend rings asking to go see Mustang – GO. Not only is it fascinating and important but you will be engrossed, laugh a lot, and be left with a lot of ideas to chew on.