director/co-writer DENIZ GAMZE ERGÜVEN
Coachella Magazine Editor’s Pick — Palm Springs International Film Festival
text KRISTIN WINTERS
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at both the 88th Academy Awards and Golden Globes Awards, Mustang is an internationally acclaimed film that examines the role of women in the Middle East. Inspired by Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s own life experiences living in Turkey, Mustang weaves a story of five sisters fighting for their independence and identity within a world that values the desires of men over women’s rights and freedom.
Mustang opens with a poignant statement from Lale (actress Günes Sensoy), the youngest of the sisters and narrative protagonist, “It’s like everything changed within a blink of an eye. One moment we were fine, then everything turned to shit.” The scene shows the five sisters saying a tearful good-bye to their teacher as they leave for summer holiday. Along their walk home, they meet up with their male schoolmates and play at the beach. Still adorning school uniforms, the young women jump into the ocean laughing and cheering, while sitting on the boy’s shoulders; they burst with youthful joy and blissful naivety that will soon be taken away forever.
Mustang dramatically shifts tone the instant the sisters step inside their house. The girls laughter becomes silent and their expressions stone-faced as they meet the stern gaze of their grandmother standing in the darkened hallway. To the fierce protest of the sisters, their grandmother proceeds to beat them one by one, as it is revealed that a lady neighbor has accused them of sexual misconduct with boys. Their fate is sealed when their strict, conservative uncle Erol hears about the scandal. Fuming with rage, Erol declares the sisters are no longer children and must now be suited for marriage. Within this moment the sisters lives are transformed from young educated modern women to powerless orphans at the mercy of their uncle’s rule.
Lale laments, “After that the doors were always locked…the house became a wife-factory, that we never came out of.” Shortly after, the sisters are forced into traditional female roles, where they are solely valued for their obedience to men. “Anything likely to pervert us was banned.” Their fashionable clothes are taken away, their phones, computers, and anything that would give them access to the outside world is denied. Scenes continue to unfold through Lale’s eyes as she witnesses demoralizing and horrifying acts imposed on her sisters: underage arranged marriage, medical virginity tests, and sexual abuse. The middle sister, Ece, suffers the worst — she commits suicide, choosing death over arranged marriage and living within the cruel societal-role that has imprisoned her.
Lale’s character comes to represent hope for the sisters and embodies their fight against oppression, she never gives up or gives in under pressure from her grandmother or uncle Erol. She breaks through female stereotypes with her rebellious spirit and passion for football. Despite being the youngest, Lale champions her sisters to attend the final football match, and leads the charge to overthrow Nur’s wedding. Lale tenaciously learns how to drive in secret and meticulously plots a final escape from the “wife-factory.” She fights for her freedom and in the end is reunited with their school teacher in modern Istanbul, where women have more rights and opportunities.
At the Palm Springs International Film Festival 2016, Mustang audiences were invited to join director Deniz Gamze Ergüven in a Q&A. Ergüven described her inspiration and arching theme, “I wanted a film where the characters win in the most glorious way possible. It is a film that says courage pays.” Mustang takes a powerful stand, that access to education is key to fighting oppression and is essential to women’s independence. Mustang reminds us that although Western countries enjoy many freedoms, there are still girls and women today who are denied basic humans rights. Their fight is our fight and through courage and perseverance, women everywhere can triumph to win equality.