ByNadia Robertson, writer at
Co-founder of 1931 Productions: a film production company with the mindset of making interesting, stylish and original films regardless of
Nadia Robertson

Both optimistic & bleak, Deniz Gamze Ergüven's MUSTANG offers a fiercely empowering perspective to the dangerously conservative philosophies of a small seaside Turkish town. Five orphaned sisters, each distinctive in personality but soulfully unified, spend a summer afternoon of merriment swimming with their young male classmates. It's pure, joyous fun, the kind that recalls wistful memories of carefree adolescence. They wash ashore, their school uniforms drenched in sea water, and stumble upon an orchard, their own metaphoric garden of Eden. As the girls eat of the fruit of the tree of the garden, the orchard's owner storms out with his gun blazing, a personification of forceful male dominance. Giggling and prancing, the sisters make their way back home only to find that a gossiping neighbor has spread word of their afternoon with the boys, mistaking their games as flaunting sexual indecency; their very traditional grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) awaits them, ready to dole out punishment. When their other guardian, Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) hears of this embarrassment, he spirals into a fit of rage, tries to physically discipline the girls and then proceeds to cleanse the house of any thing that could evoke temptation or facilitate access to the outside world. Fearing the corruption of their purity, Erol requires the three eldest girls to have humiliating virginity tests against their will.

Despite vigorous oppression to their forbidden, emerging sexuality, the sisters stand together as a strong entity of resistance against the demonization of their otherwise normal & healthy sense of self. The story is told through the eyes of the youngest girl, Lale (Günes Sensoy), a beyond her years narrator whose stubborn perseverance is a true treasure in their remote Turkish town. She and her older sisters, Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan), and Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), are a powerhouse of rebellion as they band together against a restrictive society that forbids feminine freedoms. However, their persistent crusade against the controlling patriarchal system results in a total lock down: bars and fences are erected, windows can no longer be climbed out of, and their grandmother's once cozy home now more closely resembles a prison.

Confined to the repressive fortress and kept from returning to school, the girls now begin their matronly training as various elderly women come over to teach them the ways of proper housekeeping. Lale describes their dictated domestic education as "a wife factory" as they are stripped of their colorful clothes and given dull, drab gowns. Listlessness leads to creative ways of passing the time, and the girls manage to make their imprisonment entertaining through imaginative games. As their limbs intertwine in an almost indiscernible pile while they laugh and play on the floor, all the bare skin and touching would seem voyeuristic if it weren't so obviously innocent, even if along the way they are also discovering their sensuality as maturing women. Yet despite their efforts to cope with the situation, the beautiful landscapes of the rural countryside beyond their hillside compound remains a continual reminder as to all they are missing out there in the vast world.

Each sister has her own individual battle with the bastardization of morality forced upon their lives. The stifling boredom soon becomes overbearing and they have an unquenchable thirst for life outside the walls of trapped constraint. The girls' scheming is answered by Uncle Erol and Grandmother systematically marrying them off to eligible suitors of nearby respectable families, as if the shame they bring to their own household must be passed off to become someone else's problem. Young Lale struggles as one by one, each of her sisters are groomed (& doomed) to become budding brides in arranged marriages. It becomes more apparent than ever that she must fight for her freedom if she is to live a life that is her own. This builds to a tense and climatic third act in which Lale devises a plan to escape the shackles of expectation and choosing to seize her destiny as a free-thinking woman in a more accepting, better educated land of possibility.

At its core, MUSTANG is a well-crafted celebration of identity and the resilient strength of womanhood. It is a powerful response to a strictly enforced male dominated culture where natural growth is deemed shameful and knowledge of a ubiquitous pop culture is damning. Although Uncle Erol is morally reprehensible, the grandmother is more understandable in that she not only has suffered through the same fetters of archaic, deep rooted tradition, but also clearly feels immense pressure from her son and the community not to fail as a mentor to her granddaughters lest the entire family's reputation be sullied. MUSTANG is not without its gentle humor and charmed moments, sparing itself from being too dark or unrelenting in its heavy message. Although there is much tragedy, the film is fundamentally a beautiful tale of endurance and empowerment told with emphasized urgency.

Ergüven utilizes the camera as though it's another character in the story, functioning like the sixth sister as it allows an intimate glimpse into a portrait of adolescence and unyielding sisterhood. The young actresses dynamic radiance & natural chemistry make their collective relationship and thusly the film as a whole feel organic and very real, as the light camerawork, sun kissed lighting, and etherial, tranquil score from acclaimed composer, Warren Ellis, adds to the dreamy serenity of the film's tone. MUSTANG has been aptly compared to Sofia Coppola's breakout film THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, but ultimately it's like comparing Chipotle to Subway; they both utilize similar themes and concepts, but at the end of the day they are serving two different kinds of cuisines.

The film's title embodies the essence of the story's meaning; 'Mustang" being a reflection of the wild, untamable spirit of the strong & stunning women, with their wispy, long manes of uncontrollable wavy hair (all other older women have their hair up and pulled back), and the prohibitory systems that attempts to squelch that vitality. Lale and her sisters, in the face of these challenges, are vibrant and so full of life; unwilling to be broken, they actively seek liberation and encourage us all to forge our own independent paths in life. MUSTANG is an emotionally stirring, must see coming of age story that is universally relevant not only to all girls & women, but to everyone, everywhere.

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