Turkish feminist fairy tale “Mustang” bursts with vitality amid oppression

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s coming-of-age drama screens at UW Cinematheque on July 20.
The five siblings of "Mustang" wear white frocks, slightly bowing their heads towards a camera below at a medium shot. Their heads form the general shape of a star.
The five sisters—Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Nur (Doğa Zeynep Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), Lale (Günes Sensoy), and Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu)—put their heads together to form a star shape.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s coming-of-age drama screens at UW Cinematheque on July 20.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature Mustang (2015) depicts the lives of five orphaned sisters coming of age in a conservative religious household in a remote Turkish coastal village. Inspired by the director’s personal experience, her film begins with a deceptively idyllic sequence of the young women playing a carefree game of “shoulder wars” with some local schoolboys amid the waves of the Black Sea. This seemingly innocuous event provokes a swift backlash from the girls’ guardians after an elderly neighbor reports their so-called indecent behavior. The sisters suddenly find their daily existence upended as their overprotective grandmother and tyrannical uncle confine them to the family home, which gradually becomes transformed into a literal barred prison. 

Although the story inevitably invites comparisons to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), Ergüven thinks her film more closely resembles Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz (1979), but “with frocks.” In a 2015 interview for Cineuropa, Ergüven explains her choice of the film’s title—”the mustang being a metaphor for beauty, freedom, energy and the untameable.” Told from the perspective of youngest and most rebellious sister, Lale (Günes Sensoy), Mustang unfolds like a modern feminist fairy tale that feels out of time. With its propulsive, rhythmic screenplay (co-written by Ergüven and French filmmaker Alice Winocour), dreamlike imagery, and vividly three-dimensional characters, the film paints a stunning, intimate portrait of resistance to patriarchal violence and oppression. 

Mustang captures fleeting impressions of reality and mood in an evocative setting that functions as a microcosm of Turkish society. The sisters are strictly prohibited from leaving their imposing house at will and deprived of anything that could corrupt them (such as computers, phones, and makeup). Instead of attending school, they receive instruction in homemaking, while being subjected to virginity tests and groomed for potential suitors. One by one, the sisters are forced into arranged marriages. Faced with this impending fate, Lale devises a daring escape plan.

Despite their bleak circumstances, the young women find creative ways to subvert the authority of their family and keep their spirits alive. Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), the eldest sister, occasionally sneaks out to be with her lover. The girls frequently indulge in frivolous play that strengthens their special bond, like pretending to swim in their beds and spitting imaginary water at one another. 

Ergüven punctuates this dismal subject matter and stifling atmosphere with bursts of youthful exuberance and glimmers of hope. As Mustang follows the sisters’ increasingly desperate attempts to assert their freedom and enjoy the simple pleasures of adolescence, it never succumbs to melodrama or contrived sentimentality. Rather than portraying her protagonists as helpless victims, Ergüven endows them with courage and resilience.

Overall, Mustang strikes a delicate balance between optimism and despair, beauty and terror, realism and fantasy. Ergüven interweaves the rich tapestry of rural Turkish life and the verdant, mountainous landscape of her country with the harsh reality of rigid cultural norms and women’s status in a patriarchal society. On Thursday, July 20, at 7 p.m., UW Cinematheque, in partnership with UW-MEDLI and IRIS NRC, will present the film in 4070 Vilas Hall.

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