In an interview last May, Denize Gamze Ergüven, the director of Mustang, described women’s place in Turkey’s current political climate: “The way [Erdogan] speaks: he makes [women] fragile with his messages, whether subliminal or explicit … the subtext is that women are only seen as sexual.”
Speaking just seven months before President Trump was elected, her words relating to one leader now closely reflect on another. Trump’s election, in spite of the many accusations of sexual harassment and his infamous brag that he feels able to “grab [women] by the pussy”, reveals how easy it can be to undo years of the progression of equality.
A day after Trump’s inauguration came the marches of thousands of women around the world. People were marching in defiance of a presidency that heralded a backward step for women’s rights and the rights of all minorities under threat. Ergüven’s debut feature Mustang stood in similar defiance of Erdogan’s government in 2015, a recent past where Trump’s presidency was just a vague and impossible alternate universe.
The film follows five sisters, ranging in age from pre-teen to almost adult, as they navigate a world not made for them. Its honesty and authenticity is its main strength, as Ergüven shows the girls exploring their adolescent sexuality, buffeting at the limits of their world, and navigating their family’s expectations with individual spirits. It only takes one pivotal moment for Lale, the youngest sister and the film’s narrator, to tell us their world had “changed in a blink of an eye”. The girls play in the sea with friends from school and, while the scene feels bright with nostalgia for hot summer days and childhood innocence, prying eyes interpret it very differently.
Their playing has been seen as an act of indecency, and their grandmother admonishes them for “rubbing their parts on boys’ necks”. From this point onward, it is clear that the girls are viewed as sinful parts rather than whole women. For this reason, their bodies are constantly invaded for inspection and judgement, becoming property of their families and prospective husbands. After their beatings, their home becomes both a prison and a ‘wife factory’, and the freedom of summer is no longer allowed to them.
It does not take long before their grandmother begins to arrange marriages for the oldest girls, ironically looking at the first enforced pairing of Selma and Osman and remarking: “The children seem to like each other”. What is frightening about their lives is how little protection they have from enforced marriage, an abusive uncle, and the force of a society that thinks they should only be wives. TV and radio playing in the background of scenes constantly asks questions like: ‘where are the girls that blush when you look at them?” The girls even chastise each other in the gaze of a patriarchal society, remarking on one another’s “fat bum” or “pancake chest”.
Yet as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that the older women are trying to protect the sisters as best they can while they too are trapped within the same system. For example, when Lale and her sisters sneak out of the house to watch a football game, one woman breaks the village’s electricity so that the men cannot watch and see them in the crowd.
Their uncle demonises the girls for their burgeoning sexuality, but toward the end of the film we see that his anger contains something more predatory. Once his potential sexual abuse of the girls is revealed, the grandmother’s motive to arrange their marriages at young ages seems clear. She is trying to protect them.
While this protection might not seem obvious until the later stages of the film, at all times Ergüven’s camerawork is a place within which Lale and her sisters are represented as whole, valuable human beings. The camera becomes a kind of safe haven, as at no point does the film feel voyeuristic. We are not shown the imaginable worst of their treatment from others, merely hints. The camera becomes one of the only gazes that seeks to see them as what they are – children and young adults having their lives snatched away.
In Lale, there is always a ray of hope – adventurous, obstinate and passionate, the audience wills for her fate to be different from those of her sisters. Ergüven grants us that much, not allowing the film to become solely one of oppression, a concept we’re beginning to see enacted more and more by Trump and Erdogan in their own ways.
The Women’s Marches set out to “send a bold message to [the] new administration… that women’s rights are human rights”. Upon Mustang’s release in Turkey, the film received violent criticism, no doubt because it too was sending out a bold message. Like the Women’s Marches, Ergüven creates a spectacle that goes against everything a woman supposedly should be. It incites rebellion. When Lale barricades the house from Nur’s wedding party to prepare for their escape, we are there with her, slamming the door to those that wish to tie women down.
Lale and Nur’s escape is an incitement that perhaps the youngest generation in Turkey or in similar states of oppression could do the same. It is admirable of Ergüven to leave us on this note, and while it may not feel totally realistic, it is an ending that needs to be viewed in our current climate – a chance that perhaps there is a way to get out alive.