The most disturbing part of Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang isn’t necessarily the set-up. Five orphaned Turkish sisters are barricaded into their uncle’s home after “shaming themselves” by swimming with a group of boys. Such medieval practices may be shocking, but they’re not unheard of. What really sets Mustang apart from other films about young women cloistered and oppressed by paternalistic societies like Afia Nathaniel’s Dukhtar (2014) or Laura Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin (2015) is how it argues that women may be just as, if not even more, complicit in the subjugation of their little ones. It is their aunt who first chastises and beats them after their indiscretion; it is the women who dress them up and parade them before the town as advertisements for suitors under the pretext of buying them “lemonade”; it is the women who have iron bars installed on their windows after catching them sneaking out; and, horrifically, it is their aunt who knows about and does nothing to stop their uncle from repeatedly sexually abusing them. Based on her own experiences as a child, Ergüven makes no attempt to portray Turkish society as two-dimensional with women as the victims and men as the monsters. The resulting film feels imbued with an undeniable authenticity and potent immediacy.
Though bookended by scenes of bombastic emotions, Mustang surprised me by being relatively quiet and soft-spoken. Many are the intimate moments of the sisters straining to entertain themselves within their prison: enjoying home-made bubblegum fresh from the freezer; “swimming” on their bed sheets in their bathing suits; trying to not make a sound as their uncle creeps into their room late at night. Far from feeling cathartic, visits to the outside world seem artificial and hollow, whether they’re going for “lemonade” or visiting a doctor for intrusive virginity examinations—the one exception being the time the sisters escape and attend a soccer game (an act which leads to disastrous consequences once they are caught).
Horribly, some of the sisters tacitly accept their fates. One gets happily married off to her lover, the other silently to a man she barely knows. It is left to the other three sisters to make their own fates. The youngest, Lale (Güneş Şensoy), seems the closest to an audience surrogate, admonishing her sisters for submitting to potential husbands, covertly reading instructional manuals about sex, actively sabotaging her sisters’ betrothal ceremonies. And though the last act largely revolves around her, it’s a mistake to think that the entire film does. Mustang isn’t just about five sisters; it’s about a self-perpetuating society of misogyny. Praise be to Ergüven for refusing to simplify it for the sake of cheap and easy drama.