Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s first feature length film, Mustang (2015), documents the lives of five sisters in a small village on the Black Sea. Reactions to the film were polarised, reflecting greater social schisms in Turkey through a lens that challenges both the male gaze and the search for easy black-and-white solutions. Watching Mustang now, a year after its release, the tenderness and compassion in which it holds the sisters reminds us how important it is that we bear witness to both the social struggles we are all part of, and the bursts of pain we cannot share.
“Why won’t you all leave me alone?”
In an interview with an American radio station, Ergüven is asked: Is the kind of oppression she shows in the film a particularly Muslim or Turkish experience? She sounds bemused as she says that “girls get it.”
They do – girls from Asia to Africa, quite outside of the Turkish experience, have let her know that in Mustang, they feel seen, they feel heard. The particularities of patriarchy and oppression are of course locally and culturally bound; the oppression is not. The sisters, “one little body with five heads,” are all our sisters.
Mustang follows the lives of five young sisters, each more beautiful than the last, their hair to their waists, their existence caught in the grip of their family’s beliefs about how their lives should unfold. Orphans, they live under the tight fists of their uncle and grandmother on a remote stretch of the Black Sea coast. From oldest to youngest, there is Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur, and Lale. The film has a potent feminist message of solidarity, resilience, and rebellion which has rightly been lauded.
The depth and tenderness of its portrayal gently probes the ways in which girls and women try to negotiate the cruel and contradictory expectations of a patriarchal society. Activists argue that Turkish politics is increasingly eroding even the most primary feminist battles, like access to contraceptives and safe, legal abortion, eating further into the space women can inhabit and cloistering them in the home. With so little room to manoeuvre, women’s struggle against society too often becomes directed inwards, as with three of the five sisters.
After school ends for the summer holidays, the girls are seen playing in the sea with some male friends. A heavy backlash follows as they are accused of pleasuring themselves on the boys’ necks. Thus begins a sort of marriage drive to ‘save’ the family honour before the girls get out of hand.
The sisters lose Sonay first, immersed in her marriage with the boy she loves. Depression and the threat of alcoholism absorb Selma, unwillingly married on the same day as Sonay. Like Selma, Ece internalises her rebellion, numbing herself as we see her compulsively eating, eyes staring. During lunch one day, she shoots herself with their uncle’s gun. After that, there is only Nur and Lale.
As the busy house is slowly pared down, a brutal core slowly becomes clearer as we witness, alongside Lale, the film’s narrator, how late at night their uncle leaves the room where Nur now sleeps alone. One night, Lale leaves her bed, follows voices to her grandmother and uncle arguing in the kitchen. “It has to stop”, grandmother tells uncle. Arrangements to marry Nur off begin soon after. She is barely a teenager.
In each of their responses, we see in the sisters’ the intimate, intricate battles women must fight to defend themselves in patriarchal societies. There is the social absolution girls are encouraged to find when they are able to lose themselves in love and marriage to a man. There is the self-erasure of suicide and the cruel and subtle tones of compulsive eating and eating disorders. There is the choice to retreat from constant assault into depression and alcoholism. “Why won’t you all leave me alone?” Selma asks, at the hospital to have her virginity tested, for the second time. And then there is the rebellion inherent in Lale, and the fight awakened in Nur. They find relief in physical escape to Istanbul, safety in a separation of thousands of miles.
No fear, Lolita
Throughout the film, music pulses in the background, a gentle lament that carries the sister’s story into the realm of parable, of lessons learned and passed on. The shots are wide, crowding the sisters and then suddenly spreading them thinly across the screen, broken from the group that they are part of, fractured, dislocated from the thick and celebratory bonds of sisterhood.
And then there is the feminist miracle of the cinematography. The camera holds the girls without pinning them in place, follows them and focuses on them with a gentle intensity that is wonderfully, radiantly free of the entitled consumption of the male gaze. They are focused on and centred without being exposed, without being exploited. It was incredible to see an ethical stance executed technically and so successfully. No fear, Lolita, not when Ergüven is in charge.
The film’s meticulous technical execution makes it a subtle, resonant eulogy to the ways in which women warp as they try to adjust to the shrunken worlds they must inhabit as they grow out of their girlhood. It also makes the film an ode to the strength and creativity of young girls and women in their resistance against oppression, with each sister learning the lessons her elder couldn’t. By the time it is just Nur and Lale left, you see what Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahawy means when she said, “I had to become a feminist or I had to lose my mind.”
More so than their older sisters, it is Nur and Lale who fight directly against their oppressive circumstances, who resist the people who are trying to constrain them. It is Nur and Lale who refuse to lose their minds. Their escape is the culmination of the struggles their elder sisters each fought in turn.
‘Polarised response’ from Turkey
When asked about the film, Elit Işçan, who plays Ece, responded that, “Even if it seems like it’s telling a story from a little village in Turkey, it’s actually a universal issue.” There are others who would disagree. There have been accusations that the fairy tale feel of Mustang smacks of Orientalism, and criticism that the portrayal of the girl’s lives fuels negative stereotypes of Islam and Turkish culture. Then there were those whose feathers were ruffled at Ergüven’s uninhibited portrayal of these five young girls. Whichever way you look at it, Mustang has been making waves through Turkish audiences.
Though while elements of the story are universal, there are the particulars of what many women experience in Turkey that are integral to the film. As in the film, and in Turkey’s increasingly regressive rhetoric and policies designed to erode decades of work to further gender equality, the value of girls and women seems to increasingly lie in their narrowly-defined role as a part of their families, as mothers and housewives providing the unpaid social labour of child bearing and raising, caring for the home and cooking, and tending to their husbands and the elderly.
In their small Black Sea village, Istanbul is the glittering light at the end of the tunnel for Lale and Nur, who eventually make their escape to stay with a teacher who had moved there for work.
Istanbul becomes a sign of political freedom beyond conservative confines. One moment that comes to mind is when the cupboard where all their confiscated goods are kept – jewellery, make up, books, the computer – is opened; a bright blue t-shirt with ‘#Gezi’ emblazoned in white flashes briefly across the screen. It is a reference to the protests that started in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013 and quickly spread across the country, uniting diverse social movements from feminists activists to the Anti-Capitalist Muslims. Symbolically, what is locked up in the isolated house is a whole spectrum of political dissent – feminism, socialism, social and political inclusivity – which the powers that be are fighting so bitterly to repress.
The subtlety and delicate layers of Mustang make the film a Litmus test of Turkish society as it is in this moment, the responses reflecting how far apart those polarities are. The story of these sisters, grand and tender and universal, occurs within a country being fractured by destructive rhetoric and divisive politics. But instead of judgement, what it offers is a space for empathy.
By creating that empathetic space, Mustang offers insight into the lives of others – and our own lives – that resists black-and-white definitions of what we are or what we should be. What Mustang teaches us, by bringing these girls’ stories and Turkey’s current story together, is that when we have nothing left and when we have everything – the time and space to sit for the length of a movie and be immersed in these characters’ lives – what we always have and what we always need to do is bear witness. Through that, we nurture empathy and solidarity. Before anything else, and after there is nothing left, we bear witness.