Overview: Five sisters are placed under house arrest after their scandalous behaviour shocks their conservative guardians. CG Cinema; 2015; Rated PG-13; 97 minutes.
History: First, a history lesson: Regular readers of these pages (and my devoted fan base) will know that I am an Englishman living in Australia. Prior to this, though, my wife and I lived in Istanbul for three years working as English teachers. We lived there during the Gezi Park uprising and had the experience of being tear-gassed by the police (spoilers: it is rubbish) and also seeing the people of Istanbul react to the corruption and dispassion of their government. There were some incredible moments of utter poetry in the streets of the city during that time, and also some insanity coming from their leaders.
In July 2014, the deputy prime minister of Turkey, Bülent Arınç, gave a speech in which he voiced his displeasure of the lack of chastity in Turkey’s women and criticised Turkish women for laughing in public. He also wondered, “Where are our girls, who slightly blush, lower their heads and turn their eyes away when we look at their face, becoming the symbol of chastity?” This speech plays in the background of a scene in Mustang and I can’t help but feel that this very movie is reaction to that speech and that feeling that has begun to pervade Turkey that the country must move back into a good old days mentality.
Story: Mustang takes place in a village 1000kms from Istanbul. To the girls in this village, Istanbul represents freedom and change. It is a way out of arranged marriages, virginity reports, and post-wedding night trips to the hospital for hymen exams when the bride and groom can’t produce blood stained sheets from their consummation. The story follows five sisters who, on the first day of summer holidays, play in the sea with some local boys on their way home from school. A neighbour reports this scandalous act and the girls find themselves under house arrest. All items that could cause them to think impure thoughts are removed – phones, computers, make up, books, and clothes with slogans on them – and they are made to learn to cook and clean and wear formless neck to toe clothes. As the movie progresses they find their little rebellions earn harsh punishments as the walls around their home grow and, at first, doors and then windows are closed with bars.
The five girls in the lead roles are each revelatory. They have incredible chemistry and come across as a real family of devoted siblings. The lead, Lale, is an amazing talent and bears the weight of a lot of the movie’s emotional heft as she, being the youngest sister, has to watch the others be married off and leave her behind. Played by Günes Sonsoy (one of my wife’s former students), she is a talent to watch who on the basis of this performance has a long movie career ahead of her.
Anger: The good old days never existed. The people who want their return: Brexiters, Trump, Erdogan, are people scared that their time at the top is being challenged. It’s not being challenged in a way that would topple them, but challenged by people who aren’t straight men who simply want equality. Men and women who have been underrepresented and want their seat at the table. The power has been by the same people for so long that they’re worried that sharing the pie means they won’t get to eat. Mustang is an angry movie. It is a protest movie. It shows the way these poor women are treated now, not a hundred years ago, and how for lots there is no escape while others can only find their way out in extreme ways. It is no accident that Arınç’s speech features in the scene it features in, and it’s definitely no mistake that there is a scene with Gezi Park in the background.
Overall: For three years, Turkey was my whole life. I proposed to my girlfriend there and a year later I married her there too. I have friends there who are close enough to be family and have made connections with people all over the world that have their basis in Istanbul. Hell, it was in Istanbul that I first sent a DM to David Shreve asking him if he needed anymore writers for his movie website. Watching this amazing, heart-breaking movie made me ill with emotion. I finished the movie exhausted sat next to my wife who spent the final twenty minutes a blubbering mess. It is a beautiful movie full of darkness and anger, but also hope and fun. First-time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven creates a dystopia for these poor girls and doesn’t flinch away from letting us see it all. It is as confident and assured a debut as I’ve seen in a while, and truly a movie that everyone should see, just as Istanbul is a place that everyone should visit.