Asian cinema – Coming of age in Turkish ‘wife-factory’

Mustang – Deniz Gamze Ergüven (2015)

Ok I had already downloaded, watched and set my heart on using this film for the Asian cinema series before realising this was the entry for Best Foreign Language Film last year… for France??? Turns out director, Deniz Gamze Erguven was born in Ankara but has lived most of her life in France and the majority of funding for this film (her debut feature) was in fact French. So, yes I am acknowledging that this is technically a French film, but since its set in a small Turkish village, with a Turkish cast speaking Turkish, representing Turkish issues, I am willing to argue that it is representing Turkey more than France. This is for my benefit of course because I loved this film so much and I want to blog about it ok?

As I established when I was blogging about Volver, I kind of live for films about women and/or girls. I saw  an interview with Deniz where she described the lack of female lead narratives explored by cinema and recounts how she’d only seen one film featuring a woman breastfeeding, which explained pretty much why it’s so refreshing for us still to see females in depth on screen (we’re getting there) and especially females directed by females. Deniz reminds me a lot of Sofia Coppola, of whom I am quite a fan and the similarities between their films, specifically The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Mustang in both a narrative sense (sisters trapped by conservative parents/guardians) and stylistically (see uncanny similarities between featured pic & screencap below).

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The main difference being perspective, as we see Coppola’s female characters through the eyes of their infatuated neighbours, whereas we see the sisters in Mustang mainly through youngest daughter Lale (played marvellously by first time actress Günes Sensoy). I read one review of the film stating that Mustang was “A better The Virgin Suicides than The Virgin Suicides” which I would say summarises my feelings on the matter perfectly.

The film takes place in a small Turkish village, the orphaned girls brought up by their conservative grandma who is controlled by their even more conservative and misogynistic  uncle. (Since I’ve read a portion of reviews that condemn the film for its representation of Turkey in this way, perhaps it’s important to note that this film does not represent the attitudes of every man in the country.) It opens at the end of the school day, Lale cries as she says goodbye to her teacher who is leaving for Istanbul (something I missed because I was getting settled but turned out to be of relevance to the ending) and her four elder sisters wait impatiently. On the basis that “the suns out” (me ignorantly thinking; it’s Turkey, isn’t it always out?) they decide to walk home rather than take the school bus. They walk along the beach with their friends, some of whom are male, before running gleefully into the sea. What follows in the next few scenes is purely innocent youthful joy, as the sisters and their friends splash water at and battle with each other atop the boys shoulders, squealing and laughing as they attempt to knock one another down. Both the audience and characters are oblivious to their neighbour Mrs Petek who watches them, this off screen as we learn this when they later arrive home and their Grandma scolds them for “rubbing their parts on boys necks” and wrestles with them as she attempts to hit them as punishment.

Though a recurring theme in the film, the freedom of the young girls begins and ends with the opening scenes (except for their numerous escape attempts), as from this point forward the girls are confined to the household. Lale’s voiceover tells us that the doors were locked and anything “likely to pervert” the sisters was banned, which is coupled with shots of their Grandma rummaging through their draws and taking their makeup (reminiscent of Mrs Lisbon having Lux burn her rock records). Although the at this point the film becomes a tale of repression set in the “wife factory” that was the confinement of their home, it does not become any less charming. Scenes of drab-looking cooking and sewing classes that might send any person insane are juxtaposed by ones of the girls play fighting and playing out fictional scenarios in which one is giving birth to the other, showing the freedom in the imagination of the young girls. As time goes on however, one by one the girls come of age and start getting married off, exposing the issue of forced marriages, one that, as Deniz recalled, resonated with audiences all over the globe. At her wedding, Selma is told by Lale “If you don’t want to marry him, run away. To Istanbul like everyone else” hinting that the lives lead in Istanbul are more liberal than in their seaside town (perhaps this is the Turkey seen by those criticising the films conservative representation of it).  The film also highlights the stigma around female sexuality in Turkey, the Uncle and Grandma worrying that they will be unable to marry if they have lost their virginity, the scene at the beach prompting the two eldest sisters to be taken to have a “virginity test” at the doctors.

Thematically, visually and in its direction the film is stunning throughout, and brilliantly done in a way that I find it hard to believe that this is her first feature film and I am incredibly excited to see what she does next.

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