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REVIEW – Mustang

Directed by: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Produced by: Charles Gillibert
Written by: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Alice Winocour
Edited by: Mathilde Van de Moortel
Cinematography by: David Chizallet, Ersin Gok
Music by: Warren Ellis
Starring: Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Bahar Kerimoglu, Burak Yigit
Year: 2015


What does it mean to be a young woman in a Muslim community? I obviously cannot answer this myself, being a Christian male who grew up in a predominately Christian culture in America, but it’s nonetheless something that has actually crossed my mind a few times. Needless to say, there are certain stereotypes that exist, particularly (and often ironically) in the minds of non-Muslims, regarding Muslim women. This doesn’t hold up for me, though, as there are always exceptions, and, more importantly, there are also women who should be allowed to tell their own stories about growing up in their own culture without our presuppositions clouding our judgment. You’d think that such a thing wouldn’t be a rarity, given the widespread attention of, for example, Malala Yousafzai, who you may recall was nearly assassinated for her outspoken views on educational rights for women, but the rarity is still sadly the truth. Before I saw the film at the center of this review, the only other one that really came to mind is Haifaa al-Mansour’s 2012 film Wadjda, hailing from Saudi Arabia – a truly great story about a young girl who dreams of owning a bicycle, which is frowned upon for women in their society. Of course, now we have French-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, which may not be as overt as Wadjda but is no less eye-opening in terms of the varieties of perspectives so often ignored in order to confirm certain biases.

Told from the perspective of Lale, the youngest of five orphaned sisters, Mustang begins on the last day of school. The girls celebrate by joining a group of classmates down at the beach, splashing in the water and having a good time. However, word spreads about their antics as an elder perceives their (no less than fully clothed) game of chicken as the girls ‘pleasuring themselves on the necks of the boys.” In response, their hyper-conservative caretakers, their grandmother and uncle, lock the girls up within their home and take away any means of communication with the outside world, going so far as to remove phones and bar up the windows, in order to keep them from further corruption. Used to running wild and free (hence the title), the girls find various ways of coping with their situation, but with their home now being transformed into a full time wife factory, desperation begins to set in with each passing day.

Mustang eliminates the male perspective of similar films, such as The Virgin Suicides (a film Ergüven has cited as an influence), and sticks pretty much to the experiences of the five sisters. There are slight nods to the experiences of the elderly women, including their own empathy for the girls’ rebelliousness and their acquiescence to the way they, too, were brought up, such as the grandmother’s candid but somehow troubled candor regarding her own arranged marriage. The film points out the hypocrisies of their attitudes regarding a man’s sexual drive vs. a woman’s, the ignorance of how a woman’s body works, and how even a virgin can be so easily dismissed as being a whore as a result of their attitudes. That the film never calls out its religion as a source for this is interesting, however, even though most of the adults in the film are oppressing them for religious purposes. Instead, these issues are portrayed as antiquated societal problems that don’t actually have to remain in place. Those mild empathies shown by the adult women towards the girls is a sign that they know there’s a problem, but they’re too set in those antiquated ways than to make progress. There are even empathetic men along the way, particularly a truck driver and an off-screen doctor who plays a small but notable role.

While the film is ultimately about the challenges these girls face, Mustang is also quite beautifully filmed and is often joyous in the face of adversity. That most of the actresses playing these girls are non-professional actors is also astounding – they’re natural talents, and Ergüven expertly captures their bond, making the sisters feel authentic. They are a source of a great amount of the film’s humor hope, which keeps it from becoming nothing but misery. That Ergüven wrote (alongside Alice Winocour) from her personal experiences growing up in such an environment certainly also helps the film.

I’ve been meaning to see Mustang since it debuted to rave reviews, and while I’m sorry it took me so long to finally remember to put it in my DVD queue, as they say, it’s better late than never. This film is fantastic – pretty much perfect, in my opinion. That it also holds up as a rare view into the world of women in this part of the world is also a great asset, adding to the diversity of voices in not just the world of film, but in the world in general. Too often people who feel as though they are standing up for the rights of women ultimately marginalize them by screaming so loudly that voices like this one cannot be heard. Mustang is a sensitive, even-handed, and wonderfully made film that will hopefully pave the way for more filmmakers, more voices, and more perspectives like it.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 5 / 5

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