The debut film of Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang, has received wide acclaim worldwide. It was awarded the Europa Cinemas Label at the Cannes Film Festival Director’s Fortnight and was submitted for the Academy Awards Foreign Film section by France.
The film will be viewed differently when shown in different parts of the world, yet its screening here in Egypt at the 8th Panorama of the European Film definitely had resonance as its story is familiar to many Egyptian women. At its screening, the audience was very engaged, voicing their concerns in some scenes, and clapping in others.
Set in a Turkish village, the film revolves around five orphaned sisters who are raised by their grandmother and put under the restrictions and gaze of traditional Turkish society.
The film starts on the last day of school for the girls. Exhilarated with the freedom of the summer holiday, they go to the beach with two boys, sit on their shoulders and play a game of chicken fight, where the people on top have to shove one another until one falls down. They are laughing without care and everything seems simple and light, until they get home and are faced with the anger of their grandmother. Someone had told her what they were doing and now they are the talk of the village.
In a Vogue magazine interview with the director, she says: “There was something that was very specific to Turkey, a filter of sexualisation through which women were perceived. It starts at a very early age.”
This was made apparent in the film from the beginning as the girls become more aware of their sexuality and how much their society fears it and wants to suppress it. Every little act, even a game on the beach, has sexual connotations in mind of society.
Although the girls are mostly one entity, always together and representing one thing, each of them deals with the situation differently. However, some characters are overshadowed by others, and in some instances one cannot tell them apart.
In interview with the Cineuropa website, the director says that she wanted to depict them as Hydra, the multi-headed creature of Greek mythology. Visually, she has captured it well. In one beautiful but clearly engineered shot, they are huddled together in their room, their bodies entangling, legs on top of one another, and heads resting on each other’s shoulders and stomachs.
The character that stands out the most is the youngest among them, Lale. Although there is not one clear protagonist, she is the closest to that role in the story. Not only does the film gravitate towards her, but she is also the film’s narrator.
From the very first scene she emits the most emotion, as she is crying while saying goodbye to what seems to be her favourite teacher.
Throughout the film she watches her older sisters intently as they talk about sexual matters, get dragged into marriages and jump from the window to meet boys. She is still young to be subjected to their plight, but she is slowly trying to understand what awaits her. She is also the one with the most agency over her fate; the one that tries to take matters into her own hands.
She is maturing fast, but one can also see that underneath she is still a child. She states that the house has become a “wife factory” when women come to the house to teach the girls how to cook, knit and do home chores. She asks the woman how to make homemade bubblegum, something so simple reflecting her childishness and her yearning for anything remotely fun.
What is also interesting in the film is the dynamic between the girls, their grandmother and their uncle. In the absence of the uncle, the grandmother acts as an authority figure and scolds the girls. But in his presence she acts as their protector.
The girls protest and resist from the beginning and defend one another. When the grandmother scolds them for rubbing their private parts against boy’s necks while playing the beach game, one of the girls takes a chair, smashes it and starts burning it. “So these chairs are also disgusting because we sat with our asses on them?” she screams.
The director has later confessed in several interviews that she was subject to the same pressures as a young woman, but instead of talking back, she was mortified. These were the voices inside her head screaming in protest, but she couldn’t say anything.
In writing the film, the director was able to do what she wishes she had done, which the beauty of art. It recreates life and enriches it with possibilities.
Quebec scriptwriter Marcel Beaulieu spoke to this issue during a screenwriting masterclass held as part of the 8th Panorama of the European Film: “You are not the character. Do not think, 'This is something I wouldn’t have done,' so you don’t let the character do it.”
Mustang will be screened two more times:
Thursday, 3 December at 9.45pm at Cinema Karim, 15 Emad El-Din Street, Downtown Cairo
Friday, 4 December at 6.45 at Cinema Plaza, Americana Plaza Mall, 26 July Axis, El-Sheikh Zayed, 6th of October City
Check Panorama's programme here and Ahram Online recommendations here.
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