It’s a desperately sad moment in the midst of what should be a blissfully happy event. Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), the second of five sisters living in Northern Turkey, is marrying Osman, a young man she barely knows, in a marriage arranged for her, in the local tradition, by her family. She takes momentary refuge in the bathroom alone, crying, where her youngest sister, nine-year-old Lale (Güneş Nezihe Şensoy) finds her. Lale asks Selma what’s wrong, although she already knows the answer, and suggests, ‘If you don’t want to marry Osman, run away.’ Selma asks where, and Lale suggests, ‘To Istanbul, like everyone.’ When Selma asks how, Lale offers, practically, ‘Just get in a car and go.’ But Istanbul is nearly a thousand kilometres away, and Selma can’t drive – thus feeling resigned to her fate.
Female agency, small acts of resistance, and the importance of movement and space in the formation of identity, all coalesce in this pivotal scene in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature, Mustang. Lale is young and naïve, yet it’s her hopefulness that drives the film forward. Through her eyes, Mustang takes on a fairy-tale, fable-like quality, yet one firmly grounded in modern-day Turkey – a reality the film’s director (now living in France) remembers from her own adolescence, but one which is moving into a new era of gender repression under current President Erdoğan.
Where the world was once open for these orphaned sisters, it closes in rapidly and decisively in the blink of an eye. Mustang begins with Lale’s guiding voiceover telling us, ‘One minute we were fine, the next it all turned to shit.’ Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale (aged roughly between 9 and 17) live with their grandmother and an uncle in a village near the Black Sea. We first meet them as they walk home from school on the last day of term, detouring to splash in the sea with some boys. News of this event reaches home before they do – a neighbour has seen them, and reported back to their grandmother that the older girls were ‘pleasuring themselves’ by sitting on the boys’ shoulders. Labelled as depraved and sullied, their home swiftly becomes a prison, complete with bars on windows and barbed wire fencing. Access to the outside world via phones and computers is removed. Rather than attend school, they receive lessons in sewing and soup making from various aunts, as the house turns into a ‘wife factory’ and the process of marrying them off begins.
It’s a stark contrast to the expansive landscape of the film’s opening scene. Directed in almost panoramic long shots, these scenes take in a view with an almost infinite horizon; a world of endless possibility that the girls see themselves as being very much a part of. Now, trapped inside the house, space contracts. Ergüven uses close up shots to contrast, shaping a distinctly female – and feminist – view of sexual repression. She represents a world she knows well – a deeply patriarchal one, where female sexuality generates disorder and must be contained. But quarantining only creates a false sense of social order, one that limits these young women to a status as sexualised beings, hindered from any meaningful interaction with their society.
Ergüven uses the physical space of the film’s setting – the tension between interiors, exteriors, movement and stillness – to explore the psychological gap between captivity and self-determination. While the world inside the house shrinks to bedrooms and kitchen (where the women eat segregated from the men, who eat in the more convivial outdoor area), the world outside moves forward. Sonay’s boyfriend, Ekin (whom she will later marry), comes to find her, painting elaborate love letters on the road outside. In small ways, the girls defy their confinement, ripping at their ‘shapeless, shit-coloured dresses’, creating their own beach in their bedroom. Ergüven depicts the sisterhood as a real and symbolic space – here, limbs intertwined, they gain their strength from their number.
Soccer permits an act of defiance. Lale loves the game but isn’t allowed to attend matches because, as her uncle says, she can’t be ‘among all those men’. But when a women’s-only match is announced, she takes matters into her own hands and orchestrates a breakout. We sense her excitement (her sisters care less for the game, they just want to get outside), and the fever of liberation. In the bus travelling to the ground, there is an almost ecstatic engagement with the wind and sky. At the match, Ergüven’s camera stays tightly focused on the girls as they cheer and dance and laugh with abandon. Returning home they are buoyed by the taste of temporary freedom, unaware that they had been spotted by their grandmother on television, an aunt causing a blackout in the neighbourhood to stop their uncle finding out.
Swiftly, this flame of freedom is extinguished too, as the house’s borders are fortified once again. Two weddings take place; another betrothal is made. As girls leave the house, the space inside doesn’t relax (as it usually does when siblings leave), but tightens further, like a noose. Lale sneaks out her window and wanders along the road, captured in long shots again; after tasting the fresh air, she tells us, ‘it felt like returning to the nut-house.’ There is still no prospect of school, no friends, and no visits to the sea. And it’s her uncle’s car, sitting in the driveway, that taunts Lale the most. It is her solid hope for freedom. Where Selma shrugs, defeated, at the prospect of escape, the whip-smart and indomitable Lale devises a plan to learn to drive to help secure it.
This is feminist filmmaking, not defined by Bechdel Tests or other quantitative measures.
Mustang sits alongside feminist films like Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962, Agnès Varda), Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman), and Thelma & Louise (1991, Ridley Scott), which all use space, movement and time to explore female identity and how women are seen in the world. In Cléo from 5 to 7, a walk around Paris becomes a journey inward – through her visibility and engagement with the world, Varda’s protagonist comes to know herself better. Conversely, Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman confines the viewer to the protagonist’s small apartment, and we experience the oppressive nature of her life until it suddenly erupts in violence. The outbreak is inevitable. Like Thelma and Louise, Lale connects her personal liberation to movement, to escape in a car, breaking through the borders of a world that has no place for her.
This is feminist filmmaking, not defined by Bechdel Tests or other quantitative measures. It’s ideological – not confined to discussions of what and who, but also how that story is told, what the language of a film (its camera shots and angles, sound and design) tells us about the world it creates. Whether scorching through the desert in a car or just wandering quietly through the streets, to be out and visible in the world as a woman is to claim space and power. You can only understand how vital this movement is when it has been denied; when you’ve been told you’re safer inside, that you should relinquish your place in public for your own good. Lale rejects the culture that seeks to define her; she refuses to be tamed and controlled by a world of restrictions, virginity tests, and fear. When the doors finally open, on her house and her life, there is catharsis, for Lale and for the audience. We don’t know what will happen next, but, like her, we are filled with hope.
Mustang is now showing at selected cinemas nationally.