If you’ve ever wondered what a more mature, more nuanced and more relevant version of The Virgin Suicides would look like, you’ll be happy to know that is exists in the form of Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang. This emotionally tense movie follows five orphaned sisters who are confined to their home by their legal guardians, their grandmother and uncle, after a neighbour catches them having some innocent fun with some male classmates. In the small Turkish town in which they live, this neighbour’s misinterpretation of the children’s play turns into a matter of maintaining the girls’ reputation, chastity and honour.
Mustang is another one of those movies that reveals just how oppressive societies can be, especially those outside of Western culture. The film offers a special case as it takes place in Turkey, a country that is a bit of a mixed pot of religions and that falls equally into Europe and Asia. But it’s proximity to Asia and the often oppressive cultures that are borne there has more of an impact on the country than is appreciated. Throughout the film, we are given a clear and succinct idea of what is considered to be a woman’s place in the world even though the bulk of the film takes place in the sisters’ house and the camera seldom drifts off of them at any given time.
News in the background, the gender segregation when guests arrive, the domestic expectations of the girls, the way they are meant to look and dress are given by way of conversations among the elderly ladies who begin frequenting the house, the television that runs during meal times (when no one is allowed to make a sound) and the judgmental looks on the faces of the people these five, strong-willed girls face.
Despite their imprisonment and their inevitable future of domesticity and wifedom, the girls remain rebellious in a quiet, subtle way. We see this when we watch them sunbathing in bikinis during the hot summers, the youngest and still pre-pubescent sister wearing a stuffed bra to mimic her older sisters’ womanly figure and the clever and conniving way the sisters plot to escape their barricaded house in order to have some fun and live a little.
Their grandmother equally wants them to be happy, but is also trying to keep them from being fodder for the town’s gossip. This we see clearly from the start: despite beating the girls for their supposed obscenity she tries to reason with her son—their uncle—about not being too harsh on them. When she discovers they have escaped, she commissions her daughter-in-law to help her keep their uncle from finding out. When she sees them indulge in their girlhood activities she lets them be and allows them the little bits of freedom they can grasp.
Their uncle is the quintessential misogynist who has very strict ideas of how women should act and with whom the majority of the male-dominated country agrees. This inevitably gives him more power than he’s entitled.
Almost no one in the entire film ever seems to see the girls as human being, forcing them to get certificates to ensure their virginities and introducing them to potential suitors without notifying them ahead of time. They are consistently seen as things to be controlled and this is a fact that isn’t hidden at all: it’s the way society is and it’s the unfortunate norm.
The five leads—Güneş Şensoy, İlayda Akdoğan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu, Elit İşcan, Doğa Doğuşlu— are those wonderful actors who are totally unknown but will remain memorable. Not only do they all have striking features that boast classic beauty, they are very natural and fall easily into their roles, casting just the right amount of reality and fiction to keep the audience enthralled whenever they’re on the screen.
Mustang is a disturbing movie because it shows a story that could too easily be a reality and reminds us that privilege is subjective and that sexism is still universal in this day and age.