Director: Deniz Gamze Erguven
Screenplay: Deniz Gamze Erguven, Alice Winocour
Producers: Charles Gillibert
Starring: Gunes Sensoy, Doga Douslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sungroglu, Ilayda Akdogan
Country: France, Turkey, Germany
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 97 mins
As I write this review of Deniz Gamze Erguven’s internationally-produced debut feature Mustang, it is a volatile time for race-relations in my home country of Britain. Triggered by the result of the EU referendum, racially-motivated crimes have risen considerably and the mood is one of horrifying regression. I mention this context because the few negative reviews I have seen of Mustang have all mentioned how it depicts Turkey in a way that panders to stereotypical viewpoints of the country and its inhabitants. This is the sort of criticism I have seen levelled at many films over the years and, while there must always be a consideration of cross-cultural perceptions, demands on filmmakers to avoid dangerous areas of their own culture which have been exaggerated and distorted elsewhere by swastika-stained nuance-removers seem to impose too tight a set of restrictions on artists trying to tell specific stories. The only way Mustang can be construed as offensive in these terms is if you see every film as having a duty to wholly represent its country to the rest of the world. Mustang is clearly not attempting to do this and instead looks at one family’s diverse interpretations of their culture, their religion and their own personal desires.
Set across the period of one summer holiday, Mustang begins with Lale (Gunes Sensoy), the youngest of five sisters bidding an emotional farewell to her teacher who is leaving for Istanbul. Lale and her sisters walk home to enjoy the sunny afternoon and along the way they become involved in an innocent game with some boys. Unfortunately, they are spotted by a local woman who interprets the physical contact involved as scandalous and when the girls arrive home they are confronted by their furious grandmother (Nihal Koldas). Although they are beaten and called disgusting, the grandmother’s fury is nothing compared to that of their uncle (Ayberk Peckan), who responds by turning their house into a prison which gradually becomes more and more secure as the girls find ways to defy their enforced captivity. Suddenly, the intelligent and passionate young women have to face the prospect of being married off to virtual strangers and assuming the traditional housewife roles revered by their guardians.
The subject matter of Mustang is familiar from other sources but Erguven imbues it with a freshness by focusing so strongly on the five girls and their varying reactions to their impending dehumanisation, rather than placing the focus on their oppressors and merely using the victims as pawns in the narrative. In sharp contrast with those accusations of negative cultural depictions, Erguven and her cast not only provide each sister with a strong personality of their own but also show the different extent to which they are able to take control of their situation. One sister is able to use her strong will to broker a deal with her grandmother that ultimately gets her what she wants. Another sister simply goes into emotional shutdown, while others decide to assert their individuality in whatever way they can. Chief among the resisters is little Lale, the untameable mustang of the title, who takes it upon herself to fight back on both her own and her sisters’ behalves when the tight-knit group begins to be split up. In this role, Gunes Sensoy is remarkable, managing to combine a realistic youthful exuberance with a ferocious resilience in the face of potential opposition.
Also worthy of note are the varying reactions of the adults. While Erguven undoubtedly places the focus strongly on the girls, she does not reduce the older cast to a one-dimensional, united force against them. Indeed, through subtle details that are easy to miss on first viewing, Erguven shows the grandmother’s hurry to marry off the girls to be motivated by a protective instinct rather than a mere unquestioning devotion to her own values, while a truck driver named Yasin is easily swayed from a keen awareness of his own need to protect himself as he develops a touching friendship with Lale. Erguven also avoids tonal cliches to the extent that some reviewers have taken Mustang for a comedy. While there is too much dramatic weight throughout to really call it a comedy, the film has links to coming-of-age serio-comedies like Stand by Me and Now and Then in its summer settings and close examination of youthful comradeship. A very funny scene in which Lale convinces her sisters to accompany her to a football match manages to encapsulate Mustang’s complexities quite neatly, mixing laughter with a moving, unacknowledged moment of solidarity between the adults and children. There is also a small detail which shows that oversimplification of gender issues does not always favour the men.
Told with a beautiful conciseness which arrives at a rewarding, multi-layered final image in just over an hour and a half, Mustang is a deeply intelligent but accessibly entertaining film which matches the importance of its issues with the strength of its storytelling. Erguven is surely a writer/director to keep an eye on and the female protagonists she has put on screen here are among the strongest I have seen in recent years. Those who accused the film of drawing on simplistic stereotypes were perhaps too keen to impose an expected framework of country-specific social commentary onto what is essentially a small, human story with great nuance and a wide range of viewpoints. The mistake seems to stem from an oversimplification in itself; assuming Western audiences will pick up a Turkish film and say “OK, let’s see what’s going on in Turkey then.”
Mustang is released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Curzon Artifical Eye on 11th July 2016. Extras are as follows:
– Director’s Fortnight Interview with Deniz Gamze Erguven – an eight minute interview with Mustang’s writer director which gives extra insight into the film’s origins.
– Short film Bir Damla Su (A Drop of Water) – An interesting, if slightly grainy, early short film by Erguven, A Drop of Water touches on several themes which were built upon in Mustang, as a family is torn apart by the fallout from one man’s perception of a romantic gesture as inappropriate public behaviour. The film feels more strained than Mustang, reaching for an emotional response through a fairly hackneyed voice-over device, although it is easy to glimpse the potential and dedication to important themes that would lead to Erguven’s brilliant feature film.