Hey, Barbecutie

#52filmsbywomen 12 – Mustang

Posted on: June 5, 2016


No. 12 –Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

You wait all year for one female-directed-film-in-the-cinema-experience, then they all come at one go. Or, well, I got to enjoy my second in two weeks with the added pleasure of the woman behind me chatting with her friend and kicking my head throughout. Two female-directed films at the cinema in two weeks might not sound impressive, but think back to 2014, where analysis of UK and US releases showed that female directors worked on less than 14% of films released (even including co-directing with a male collaborator). Maybe things are looking up. Still, by my count, this is only the 6th film this year to receive a UK release. Good thing it’s a wonder.

Lale lives with her four older sisters and their grandmother, who is horrified to hear about their school-end celebrations with local boys. Concerned for their reputations, she beats them then drag them to the doctor for an emergency hymen check. Despite proof of the girls’ “honour”, they forbid the girls from leaving their house, and seek to educate them in the ways of good Muslim womanhood – cooking, cleaning, modest clothing and eventually, marriage – the house becoming a “wife factory” according to Lale. So far, so Virgin Suicides (as many reviews have pointed out). But Mustang is more heavily weighted than its American counterpart – perhaps because of Ergüven’s more realist approach, her skill at burying into the girls’ point of view rather than people watching them, or maybe our sickly awareness that situations like this are really happening to girls who act like girls rather than statues or property.

At first, the girls find ways to survive their summer indoors, adapting their shapeless dresses and sneaking out to attend a woman-only football match. But as the summer ends, the girls realise they’re not returning to school, and their uncle’s terms become ever more extreme. The house is not just locked, but bars soldered on the windows to prevent the girls leaving. Soon, their grandmother is arranging marriages for the older girls, with Sonay demanding to be matched with her existing boyfriend, leaving Selma to take her place with a more conservative family. The double wedding marks a turning point in the film, where the sisters’ joyful collaboration ends and the three remaining daughters are at the mercy of their uncle. The action moves almost entirely indoors as he discovers more little acts of rebellion and takes measures to prevent the girls’ independence, sealing off all remaining escape routes and closing them off from the outside world. As the house empties, Lale starts dreaming of escaping to Istanbul, knowing her favourite teacher has moved there, and finding her uncle’s keys, she tries to work out how to operate his car with little success.

One of the strengths of the film is the universality of the story. Despite being based in a Muslim community in the outskirts of Turkey, the story is sadly familiar. The standards to which girls are held across the world, in secular and non-secular communities, lead to situations of imprisonment (literal, as in this film, as psychological and emotional elsewhere). There are numerous scenes of the house becoming a prison – keys turning in locks, hammers, drilling and workmen, the high walls surrounding the patio, the gaps in windows getting smaller, getting broken up by bars going up, and the girls looking out of closed windows into the world they can’t reach. The audience feels their world closing in. The girls are punished for something they hardly seem aware of – we see them play, we see them in their underwear, they wear makeup and their white school shirts turn see-through in the sea, revealing the modest vest tops worn underneath. These are not provocative girls (not that they’d deserve the punishment if they were) – they are provocative simply because they are girls. The girls’ sex education is a dog-eared book discreetly slipped to the engaged sisters as their grandmother prepares their marital chest. Selma and her husband panic over the lack of blood on their sheets on their wedding night as his parents knock expectantly on the bedroom door waiting to see confirmation of her former virginity, eventually taking her to A&E thinking there is something wrong with her. Selma tells the doctor she has had sex lots of times, but he confirms that her hymen is still intact, and asks why she lied. Selma, who has been quietly desolate since her engagement was announced, and sneaks the dregs of the men’s drinks at her reception, knows that the truth is irrelevant, and all that matters is how other people view her, regardless of how she behaves. Virgin or whore, she remains imprisoned by perceptions.

The film takes another sickly turn as Uncle Erol is revealed to have been raping first Ece, then the painfully young looking Nur. It’s unclear whether this is Erol’s opportunism in an emptier house, or whether Lale, who has been narrating throughout and as the youngest is naturally the most naïve, sexually and otherwise, and has only realised what the night time bed creaking means, after having sneakily read the sex book. While it’s a sad reality for many girls and boys, in Mustang it reads a bit melodramatic, coming seemingly out of the blue. We’re already aware that Erol’s bad news, it just seems like a cheap attempt to ensure no one in the audience has any sympathy for him, and it’s a big subject to just throw in. But it’s a minor complaint, given the ending of the film is so strong, turning into a high-tension breakout. Turning Erol’s scheme against him, Lale helps Nur to lock out her wedding party, turning their prison into their own fortress. While Erol attempts to remove the window bars he spent so long erecting, Lale and Nur race around the house, packing a getaway kit, making a forbidden phone call, and escaping the arms reaching through every window like a nightmarish home invasion. Their escape, as Lale finally manages to drive them away, is proof that the girls’ irrepressibility was never able to be stifled by social expectations, and that even under such extreme duress, they need nothing more to escape to their uncertain future than belief in themselves.


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