Mustang focuses on five teenage sisters bucking against oppressive patriarchal tradition in Anatolia, but the power of the film is compromised by the writer/director’s didactic approach.
When films are driven by a political agenda, the dramatic fundamentals are all too often compromised: characters and their circumstances tend to function primarily as validators of the filmmaker’s ideological position. The result is a neat, black-and white version of the world that masquerades as “the way things are” but is actually reflective of the filmmaker’s ideological bias.
Such is the case with Mustang. On the surface of it, this is a coming-of-age story of female empowerment that strikes a blow against the oppressive in-grown patriarchy embedded in traditional communities such as the coastal village in Turkey’s north in which the film is set. Fine, except that writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven has picked an easy target and set it up as a strawman. Knowing her mostly urban audience will be onside and sharing her righteous indignation as she blasts away, she has mounted a manipulative argument in the manner of a politician, with no semblance of balance.
Thus, she idealises her protagonists – five uniformly gorgeous, free-spirited, orphaned teenage sisters – while resorting to stereotyping in portraying their oppressors as a clueless community of sexist hicks mindlessly accepting of and blinkered by centuries of rusted-on Islamic cultural tradition. While there may be some truth in this depiction, as is always the case with stereotypes it is not the whole truth. Forget nuance, omit any redemptive elements, excise any inconvenient detail of traditional life that does not accord with the attack agenda – that’s the strategy here.
In the opening scene, the five sisters and a group of male classmates dash into the sea in their uniforms, ecstatic that school has just broken up for the summer. The girls hoist themselves astride the boys’ necks, and with much squealing and general hilarity attempt to unseat each other.
Harmless enough, but unbecoming in any culture. These are not pre-pubescent kids – there is surely a sexual undertone to this mode of play. Here we move to a major problem with the scene and the film generally: it doesn’t ring true because the director imposes an urban – even Western – sensibility and set of values on a traditional Islamic backwater. The cavorting girls with their thighs wrapped around boys’ heads are not products of their culture! This scene could be set in the US, Western Europe or Australia. But in a traditional Islamic community in northern Turkey?
When word of the sisters’ unseemly antics gets back to their grandmother, she is understandably upset, but her response is extreme. She grounds them – permanently! Phones and computers are locked away, and the sisters are garbed in traditional long murky brown dresses. The only schooling they get from this point is in domestic skills. It soon becomes clear that marriages are to be arranged for each of them, starting with the oldest.
The only freedom the sisters have is in their interactions with each other in the sanctity of their bedrooms. They josh and loll about in underwear, falling about all over each other. It’s delightful stuff to a point, but the camera veritably leers, traversing their beautiful young bodies with a voyeur’s eye. There’s a sense of tactility about these scenes: skin on skin, skeins of lustrous long hair everywhere (manes, mustang, wild – geddit?). You can almost smell the pheromones.
No doubt the point of these scenes – and there are a lot of them – is to celebrate the physical beauty of the girls, and to emphasise the joyous youthful female energy that abounds in them, despite their incarceration and oppression. Whatever the filmmaker’s intention, the girls are clearly sexualised in the manner in which they are presented, which is more like concubines in a harem than gambolling sisters. If the director was a westerner and male, there would be howling accusations of exploitation from the reviewer gallery. Yet the silence is profound, at least going by the reviews I’ve read.
As the film progresses, the sisters seem ever more like displaced urban girls than locals. Some arrange trysts with local lads (how, without any means of communication?). One explains to her sisters that she and her lover have sex “the back way” to preserve her virginity. Another is so rebellious and libidinous that she gets it on with a hastily arranged lover in Uncle’s parked car while he is attending to some banking just across the road. Two of her sisters keep watch. Really? A scene like this would not be out of place in an American frat flick. It is utterly implausible that it should occur in the centre of a little Islamic Anatolian village.
It transpires that Uncle, who resides in the house with the sisters and grandmother, is sexually abusing one or more of the girls. This is what the patriarchy throws up, then: hypocrisy, debauchery, incest, perhaps even paedophilia. The debasement of females is virtually without bounds, apparently. It is notable that there is only one male in the movie who is any good at all: a truck driver with whom the youngest sister, Lale, strikes up an unlikely friendship. He is an ever cheerful pillar of working class decency who will never have any power in the village hierarchy, and is therefore innocent and immune from the demonization Ergüven applies to the rest of his community.
For all these gripes, there is no doubt that this is a well-intentioned, heart-felt film. It is moving, especially in its late stages, and engaging as a story. The performances are generally good, with Günes Sensoy irresistible in the lead role as the feisty young Lale. If you accept the film purely on its own terms without questioning the authenticity of its relationship with the real world and people it pretends to represent, it works, and many will leave the cinema stirred by and sharing in the self-righteous outrage of the filmmaker at the plight of the five sisters, and by extension all women in regional traditional Turkish Islamic communities.
There is no doubt that the director’s cause is a worthy and just one, but I believe she undermines it with a narrative and five female protagonists that lack authenticity. But how can this be? She is Turkish. She should know how things are in her own country.
Pondering this, I felt some discomfort in my critical stance, especially since Mustang has been universally acclaimed and nominated for a Best Foreign Film award at this year’s Oscars. Then I came upon this authoritative article by Selin Gökcesu, a Turkish national, that I believe vindicates my critical stance: The Rumpus Review of Mustang: Five French Girls Walk into an Anatolian Village. I urge you to read it.
As well as criticising the film for reasons similar to mine, the writer, a woman, provides some illuminating background on the director. While Ergüven was born in Turkey, she has spent most of her life in France! It shows.
Movie website: http://en.unifrance.org/movie/39224/mustang
Australian release date: Thu 23 June (at Cinema Paradiso in Perth)
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