"Mustang" is a Turkish film about five sisters whose family keeps them trapped in their house in order to keep them "pure" until marriage.
One day after school, five teenage sisters go to the beach with their friends. They’re so excited to go in the water, they don’t even take their uniforms off. They just play and have fun, splashing each other with water, and sitting on each other’s shoulders. The only problem is that some of their friends are boys, so when the neighbors see them playing together, they go to their grandmother and accuse them of doing inappropriate (aka, sexual) things with the boys. For the grandmother, the incident is clear evidence that it’s time to take a stricter approach to the girls’ upbringing. The way she sees it, if she doesn’t take action, they’ll grow too wild, do whatever they want, and become exactly the kind of women their community frowns upon.
These are the opening sequences of Mustang, an Oscar-nominated Turkish film that came out in 2015, directed by first-time filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Many people have compared it to The Virgin Suicides (2001), Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece about five teenage sisters who live under the watchful eye of their Catholic parents. That film also explored what happens when young girls start discovering their sexuality, but their family is too conservative and traditional to let that happen.
Both films have a soft and dreamy quality to them, but what makes them truly outstanding is that they’re not afraid to tackle the very serious issues behind their plots: sexism, gender violence, abuse, and rape, among others. Ergüven, for instance, explains in an interview with The Guardian that her goal with Mustang was to make a film about what it means to be a woman in Turkey. And because Turkey is to this day an extremely conservative country regarding women’s rights and gender equality, making a film about five young girls meant confronting these issues head on.
In the movie, Turkish society’s values are represented by the girls’ grandmother and their uncle, who raise them after their parents' death. The fact that there’s five of them is a constant burden on the adults because their number one priority is to marry all of them off, and arranging five marriages is no easy feat by any means. But what really scares them is that they are all so beautiful and free-spirited in a town where a girl is only considered to be “wife material,” not because of her looks but rather because of her behavior.
Source: Nossa Film Society
This is why, after the incident at the beach, the grandmother and the uncle quickly decide to take the girls out of school and imprison them in their home. This in order to keep the girls “pure” and safe from the town’s men until the day one of them asked for their hand in marriage. The girls are forced to wear drab, brown dresses that hide their bodies, and they have to take “classes” with the women of the family to learn how to cook, clean, and do everything that is expected from a wife. When they’re not in class, they’re not allowed to go outside, so they have to entertain themselves by playing with each other, fighting, and talking for hours on end, having conversations that revolve mostly about boys, love, their futures, and how badly they want to get out of the house.
Everything changes, though, when the marriage offers start coming in, and the futures they’d both dreamed about and dreaded arrive much sooner than they were expecting. The girls’ despair and their desire for freedom clash with their family’s hurry to get them all married off, no matter how young the girls are or how little they know about their future husbands. This clash ends in violence and death, showing us the terrible consequences these traditions can have for young women.
Now, don’t let the promise of death and tragedy keep you from watching the movie. Mustang is a beautifully made film that broaches these themes with the seriousness they require, while never forgetting how magical this time in the life of teenage girls is. The many ways in which they resist and stand up for themselves in an environment where all the odds are stacked against them are inspiring and teach all of us a lesson about how strong women can be when it seems like they can’t win.
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