The Europa Cinemas Label Award winner at Cannes 2015, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature Mustang has had quite the journey, through to its nomination at the 2016 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. The film’s place in the Glasgow Film Festival Audience Award seems modest in comparison, but the buzz around the film was keenly felt, acknowledged by festival director Allison Gardner’s proclamation that this film is: “my favourite child of the festival”.
This is an appropriate analogy, as Mustang follows five teenage sisters in rural Turkey who – after an innocent game with their male schoolmates – are accused of indecency by their guardian grandmother and uncle, who look after the girls after their parents passed away a decade earlier. As a result, the house is removed of any potential “instruments of corruption” as the girls become increasingly imprisoned within their own home. The girls are modern and strong willed as a unit against their oppressive forebearers, but this begins to crack when they start to be coupled off into arranged marriages.
While the family and community apply a sanctimonious attitude towards the practice of arranged marriages, there is a dark sexual tension simmering underneath the surface and throughout the village in which the film is set. The girls, for instance, are paraded around the town for the men’s interest and while everyone seems to pretend sex (and potential abuse) doesn’t exist, there is an unnerving, unspoken feeling that everyone knows what is really going on. This tension quietly bubbles for the majority of the film and when it finally boils over in the final act, it does so with devastating effect. What starts off as a coming-of-age film becomes a rebellious road movie.
The impact is keenly felt, as the bond between these sisters is strong and genuine. While eldest Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan) seems to have the most knowledge and control, it is the youngest, Lale (brilliantly performed by Güneş Şensoy in her debut) who is the most defiant and strong; she leads the girls and devises for them to express themselves. In a charming scene, she leads the girls to a see her beloved football team Trabzonspor playing the mighty Galatasaray in an important match. The scene has a daydream feel, expressing this fleeting moment of freedom.
Mustang is a gorgeous tale of the human spirit breaking free from the oppression of society, expertly directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. The film succeeds on every level: brilliantly acted by a largely amateur cast, beautifully shot by David Chizallet & Ersin Gok and all topped off by an incredibly moving score by the longtime collaborator of Nick Cave, Warren Ellis. Each beat is truly felt and one can tell that this is a very personal story to its director.