“Everything changed in the blink of an eye.” A child warns us early in Mustang, but the subsequent whiplash is inevitable. Mustang unfolds in a small Turkish village by the Black Sea, opening with an idyllic, sun-dappled sequence of five sisters–from youngest to oldest: Lale, Nur, Ece, Selma, and Sonay–innocently celebrating the onset of summer with some male classmates. There’s abandon in these early scenes, an unbridled portrait of youth. And it all comes crashing down so quickly.
When the sisters arrive home, they discover that a neighbor has (wrongly) interpreted their games as sexual in nature. They are promptly whipped by their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas), but the real punishment comes from Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), who became their guardian after the death of their parents. Erol chases off their friends and strips them of their computers, phones, and any clothing that could be considered suggestive. School is replaced with cooking lessons, shapeless brown dresses fill their wardrobe, and social outings take the form of awkward meet-and-greets with potential suitors. Virginity is obsessed over, with Erol routinely taking the girls to the clinic to ensure their purity. Doors are locked. Windows are barred. The house is no longer a home, but a prison.
That this lifestyle shift is so severe–and rooted in such an innocent misunderstanding–is integral to establishing Mustang’s milieu: Turkey, at this time, in this place, is not a safe space for women, especially those on the cusp of sexual discovery. It’s a familiar story, but director Deniz Gamze Ergüven and her co-writer Alice Winocour fortify the film’s feminist backbone by building Mustang atop such a sturdy foundation of character. Early in the film, Ergüven permeates the film with wistful tableaux that unite the sisters as a single entity, but it’s not long before the camera narrows its gaze to highlight the tics and peculiarities of each girl. This is a film about sisters, yes, but also the identity we all must forge independent of our families, and the pain that comes with outgrowing the innocence that once defined our sibling bonds.
Ergüven’s eye is an essential part of this depth of character. In scene after scene, she trains her lens on the girls, half-dressed in pajamas, lounging about or roughhousing; the goal isn’t to sexualize, but rather to depict the relationship each is forming with their own bodies. Ergüven, in interviews, has often condemned Turkey’s rampant sexualization of women, so to show the girls learning to live within their developing figures is her way of subverting the gaze. These are not objects, nor are they simply characters. These are women.
And it’s not just the sisters who are lovingly rendered. One of Mustang’s greatest strengths is the way it humanizes the sisters’ myriad elders, all of whom must reconcile their empathy for the young–they’ve been there, after all–with the strictures of their society. One sequence, when the girls sneak away to attend a soccer game, provides such a satisfying catharsis because of the weird, complicated bond that exists between Turkish women of different generations. Even Erol, the girls’ oppressive uncle, is depicted as someone who’s a victim of his own privilege, rather than any kind of pure monster.
There’s nuance in the story as well. We spend much of our time with Lale, the youngest, and through her eyes we watch each of her sisters twist and bend within the system, each desiring escape but none achieving it quite like the last. Some succumb to their lack of agency, while others manipulate the system to satisfy their own desires. Women are not powerless in the world of Mustang, they just live in a world that wants them to be. But what the movie makes clear through Lale is that younger generations do learn from what’s come before. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its scope–the film runs just 90 minutes, but in that time we watch the waves as they ripple from Sonay to Selma to Ece to Nur and, finally, to Lale, whose confusion and longing is brought so vividly to life by newcomer Günes Sensoy.
Womanhood and sexuality are central to Mustang, but so is youth. Fundamentalists, in whatever sense, so often resort to shaming children for simple pleasures, whether that’s swimming with boys or reading a Harry Potter book. Youth, in this culture and in others across the globe, is so often sacrificed in the pursuit of some kind of warped purity. Mustang is an impassioned reaction to such dogma, a gorgeous, heartfelt assertion that it’s your right to live however the fuck you want.