Mustang is the third breathtakingly confident directorial debut I’ve seen this week. Is there something in the water? First there was Christmas, Again. Then there was Night Owls, and now Mustang, from first-time Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. The three movies have nothing in common, stylistically, plot-wise, thematically. But they are all sharp specific stories, told personally, with almost none of the stumbling blocks that you often feel in debut features. (Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, from a couple years back, has the same virtuosity. You’d never guess it was a first feature. Gimme the Loot, which you should see if you haven’t already, (one of my favorite films that year) was another great debut. Una Noche, another extraordinary first feature. Examples abound of first features, shot with almost no budget, that completely show up the studio-subsidized Big Message movie starring A-Listers.)
Mustang, directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who also wrote the script, is the story of 5 sisters, who live in a small town in Turkey perched on the Black Sea. Their parents have been dead for 10 years and they are being raised by their grandmother. The girls’ ages range from 17 to around 11/12. They all have long brown hair flowing down their backs so when they walk together, as they often do, and they’re shot from the back, as they often are, they do look like a herd of wild mustangs. Lale, the youngest, is feisty, outspoken, and smart as hell when it comes to problem-solving. She is played by Günes Sensoy. Her older sisters are Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan) and Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu). Sonay is secretly dating a boy from town, and sneaks off at night through her bedroom window to meet up with him. She’s the one who has the most “personality” at first, outside of Lale, although that changes as the film progresses, and each sister emerges with more clarity.
Far from the modern bustle of Istanbul, the girls live in a pretty idyllic setting in a big rambling house on the seashore. The film opens with the girls coming home from school in their identical uniforms and running into the ocean, fully clothed. Maybe it’s the last day of school before summer break. They are all exhilarated. Some of their friends (boys) join them, and they splash each other, and roll around, and it’s all innocent and fun because they are all children, adolescence or no. When the girls arrive home, though, their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) has already gotten wind of it, and starts flipping out on them, one by one. It’s total chaos. Dragging each girl into a room, slamming the door, as the others bang on the door, wondering what the hell is going on. These girls are tough, loud, and fearless. (None of them are professional actors. Each of them are absolutely extraordinary. And they feel like sisters: individuals, but also one unit.)
The grandmother is not played as an evil woman, just a woman concerned about the gossip of neighbors and frankly overwhelmed by the burgeoning adolescence exploding throughout her household. To her eyes, the situation is close to careening totally out of control. Little girls are fine. Nobody cares about them. But the second boobs show up, the world is dangerous, and girls are not to be trusted. Meanwhile, amongst each other, the sisters all talk about their boobs, and Lale tries on one of her sister’s bras, stuffing it full of Kleenex, and they fight, and suntan and laugh hysterically in the face of disapproval. But soon, very soon, the situation becomes far too serious for that.
Lale, who narrates, says: “The house became a wife factory.” As a result of swimming with boys on the beach, the girls are all pulled out of school, and confined to the house. Various traditional ladies come over and give them cooking lessons. Long, boring cooking lessons. The grandmother makes them identical dumpy dresses which they are forced to wear. Overseeing all of this is a monstrous uncle (Ayberk Pekcan), who blames the grandmother for letting the girls get so wild in the first place.
They all buck against the imprisonment in their own ways. Sonya still sneaks out to meet her boyfriend. They engineer ways to shimmy down one of the drain pipes into the yard. They put pillows under their covers so their absence won’t be detected at night. Lale accidentally befriends a young handyman named Yasin (Burak Yigit), who works in the area and encounters her on the road one day when she has busted loose. He has no idea of her situation but she is a little girl walking along an empty road. He pulls over and asks if she needs a lift. She tells him she’s going to Istanbul. On foot. “It’s 1000 miles away,” he says. She keeps walking. Yasin shows up a couple more times and he is the character I can’t stop thinking about. But you’ll have to see the movie to understand why.
The girls don’t quite realize the seriousness and finality of what is happening. Surely this will blow over. Surely they’ll be able to go back to school. But then, with no warning, families start to visit, and one after the other, one of the daughters is chosen to serve tea to the visitors. Serving tea means that you are on the auction block for marriage. The adults talk. “Well, they seem to like each other …” as the “bride” and “groom” who have literally just met and have not said one word to one another sit awkwardly next to each other.
The uncle becomes more and more paranoid. He has good reason. All 5 sisters break out to attend a “ladies only” soccer match in a nearby city. (Women aren’t allowed to attend games with men.) They have the best time of their lives, jumping and screaming, with team colors smeared over their faces. It was interesting: as they were cavorting in the stadium, I found myself thinking, “Oh God, you guys, you need to go back, they’re going to kill you!”
And then I caught myself in the next second. Sheila, what are you SAYING? Why are you conceding power to that barbaric situation back there? Why are you somehow ACCEPTING those horrifying and reductive rules that completely de-value and silence women? I was horrified at myself and for the rest of the film I kept a watch on my own reactions. Do not concede ground to a situation that is psychotic. Pathological. Other cultures, multicultural, respect other cultures, fuck THAT. I don’t respect that which does not deserve respect. But the whole film had that kind of tension, the breathless breakouts at night, sometimes they get caught, sometimes they get away with it, but the adults start to seem so capricious, so ANGRY, that their behavior seems both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. You wouldn’t put anything past them.
Their goal is the marry off each one of these girls, one by one. The girls are 11 years old, 13 years old, 15 years old, etc.
Mustang is depressing, often extremely funny (Lale screaming at a gossipy judgmental neighbor in her traditional head-scarf: “Hey you, with the shit-brown clothes, who do you think you are? You are SHIT!”) with moments of sheer triumph (the soccer game breakout) and moments of complete despair.
No way out. The walls closing in, walls around their garden, walls around them as girls. The whole culture invested in getting rid of them, silencing them. They did not see it coming. None of them did. They are innocent. They are children. They did nothing wrong.
Mustang vibrates with anger.
An incredible debut. I was a wreck when I left the theatre.