A scene roughly midway through director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film “Mustang” (2015) depicts the oldest pair of five orphaned sisters (from youngest to oldest: Lale, Nur, Ece, Selma and Sonay) getting married. Sonay marries her boyfriend, who has been secretly courting her throughout the film. Throughout the joint wedding, she happily dances, sings and imagines her future. Selma, who is marrying a man in an arranged match, retreats to her bedroom feeling frightened and lonely. Her four sisters come up to comfort her, and Lale’s narration reveals that it is the last time that all five sisters will be together.
Set in a remote village in northeastern Turkey, “Mustang” presents the lives of these five sisters and the events that ensue after their grandmother and uncle hear that they took a trip to the beach with a group of boys. At the beach, the girls play a game in which they sit on the boys’ shoulders and try to knock each other off. This leads their grandmother to believe the girls were trying to “pleasure themselves.” As punishment, the sisters are forbidden to leave the house unsupervised, and when they are permitted to leave, they are forced to wear conservative dresses. As the film continues, Ergüven depicts the various ways in which the sisters resist the punishment they have been administered.
Since “Mustang” debuted at Cannes in May 2015, the film has attracted controversy in Turkey. Many prominent voices in the Turkish film industry have accused the film of pandering to negative Western attitudes about Turkish culture. Some have argued that Ergüven, who was born in Istanbul and grew up between Turkey and France, does not have any real understanding of rural life in Turkey. In response, Ergüven has said in interviews that life for women in Turkey today is “like the Middle Ages.”
Despite its heavy subject matter, what makes “Mustang” subversive is its joy. The sisters, particularly Lale, command the film with their unique personalities and powerful bond. The feminist aspects of the film, as well as the female solidarity amongst the main characters, seamlessly outshines all the criticism from conservatives. Additionally, Ergüven does not shy away from the grim consequences these efforts of resistance can receive. Nonetheless, the sisters’ joyful defiance and individuality remain at the core of the film.
One early notable scene features the sisters sneaking out of the house to attend a soccer match for the local team, Trabzonspor. The game is exclusively admitting female attendees because the male spectators had been too violent during past matches. The all-female crowd presents a clear message about female solidarity. However, the actions of the girls’ aunt are more intriguing. Upon seeing the girls on TV, she cuts off power in the village, so their uncle will not be able to see them and punish them.
It soon becomes clear that to continue living with any semblance of freedom, the girls must run away from their current lives. Therein lies the source of the controversy surrounding “Mustang” and its subversive message: Ergüven essentially argues that free-thinking women have no place in this type of rural society.