How the inspiring sisters of 'Mustang' champion female expression

19 Apr 2016 BY Elinor Walpole

7 mins

Mustang is the debut feature by Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, and tells a story that unravels in a remote Turkish village where five orphaned teenage sisters have provoked the judgement of their fellow villagers with their youthful exuberance. As a result, the girls find themselves placed under tight restrictions, forced to undergo training as their home is turned into a 'wife factory' - a percieved solution to the problem of their seemingly volatile morality.

Director Ergüven used her own teenage experience of being censured as immoral when staying in her Turkish family's village as the initial spring-board from which the girls' story unfolds. Recalling that her own response was to feel deep shame, even though nothing improper had actually occurred, in her film the girls embody the rebellious reaction Ergüven wished she'd had. Her dual cultural identity - Turkish, but having spent the majority of her life in France - also allowed her to step back and analyse the attitudes that could lead to an innocent occurrence becoming a controversial incident, and contrast it with her own experiences of growing up in a more progressive society. 

With such a personal anecdote creating the springboard for the events in the story, casting was incredibly important to Ergüven, who selected predominantly non-professional actors that she felt could form a convincing and organic bond as sisters. Ergüven sees the siblings as like the mythical hydra: many heads, but all part of just one entity. Ergüven shared this vision with the actors by curating a film programme including titles such as Fish Tank (whose lead actor was also a non-professional, cast after a chance encounter), and Germany Year Zero, both of which are films about young people who find themselves in challenging situations. The programme also included Escape from Alcatraz as an aid to evoking the prison movie feel of the girls' situation. This was followed by bespoke viewing tailored for each actor to communicate the vision and influences for her character. Despite the idea of forming part of a whole, the sisters also have their own unique identities to express and their own ways of rebelling against the suppression they find themselves under. 

As well as the mythical and cinematic influences, the setting for Mustang also conjures up fairytale-inspired imagery, with the girls' idyllic and isolated village situated high above a winding path, beyond which a forest slopes down to the Black Sea. From the reinforced windows of the family house, the girls look out Rapunzel-like for any opportunity to escape. Many potential lovers do in fact flock beneath their windowsill: some to offer the hope of rescue, and others to consolidate the imprisoned state of the girls, as they're offered up for arranged marriages against their will. Similar in tone - and also dealing with a group of sisters being kept in a repressive household - is Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, with the trapped girls here representing idealised femininity for the boys of the neighbourhood that idolise them from afar. 

There is no clear time period for the film, evoking how time seems to have stood still in the girls' village. In this society there are very traditional values, particularly in regard to male and female roles, with each member of their sex responsible for upholding the village values and the chastity of the others. The girls are victims of an overly watchful society, where sensual motives can be read into anything they do, and the entire village is complicit in their confinement. Lale - the youngest sister, that guides the viewer through the situation - is quick to challenge the insinuations of immorality and to send up the farcicality of how their actions are perceived. Similarly, Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour's debut feature Wadjda also deals with a young girl butting up against her restrictive society and refusing to accept that she cannot enjoy the same freedoms as her male peers. 

Despite the difficulties they face, the girls' wild mustang spirit - embodied in their mane-like hair - means they are not to be downtrodden easily, and there are many moments of defiance and humour in the film. One such example is a successful break-out to join a female-only crowd at a football match where the men have been excluded for behaving rowdily at a previous game - a rare occasion when the sisters benefit from being female. Any small act of rebellion from the sisters is met with increasing limitations on their freedom (a device seen in prison dramas such as Cool Hand Luke and The Shawshank Redemption), but rather than be cowed the girls instead view every raising of the fence as a fresh challenge to be overcome.

Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language film, Mustang speaks to many audiences with its appealing filmmaking yet disconcerting subject matter. The excitement of being young and on the cusp of adulthood - as well as the frustration of having a destiny chosen for you - is a theme that many can relate to, even if specific circumstances may differ. Mustang also forms part of a growing trend of films redressing the balance of female-led stories on screen, particularly those of contemporary young women, such as the conflicted Marieme/ Vic in Girlhood (which also featured a cast of predominantly non-professional actors); the boundary-exploring Billie in 52 Tuesdays; and 80s teens Bobo, Klara and Hedwig experimenting with the Swedish punk scene in We Are The Best!Mustang not only offers an insight into what goes unchallenged within closed communities, it also throws down the gauntlet to disrupt this.

Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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