Five orphaned sisters, Lale (Günes Sensoy), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Ece (Elit Iscan), and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) race down to the beach to frolic in the water with their male classmates now that school is out for the summer. What is an innocent game is perceived as sexual by a scandalized older neighbor who reports the girls’ behavior to their grandmother (Nihal Koldas), describing the girls as pleasuring themselves on the boys’ necks. As a result, the perplexed girls are beaten by their Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) for acting like “whores” and forced to endure virginity tests. They are locked in the house and forced to dress conservatively and learn how to be good wives. These sisters exist in a culture of obstinate male dominance within which their marriages will be arranged and their lives will be sold away before they graduate school.
“The house became a wife factory that we never came out of.”
The summer air drips with melancholy as the girls are locked within the house walls nearly all day with all of their possessions—cell phones, makeup, computers—confiscated and locked away. It is not long before they begin to rebel: Sonay sneaks out of their bedroom window to meet her boyfriend; Lale encourages her sisters to escape the house to go to a soccer game; they run around the house wearing only bras or swimming tops and shorts while the men are away. Regardless of how prison-like the house becomes, the girls find solace and joy within each other; their spirits seem to remain untouchable, fueled by the strength of their bond with each other. They share a freeing kind of innocence that is demonized by the men and older women of the village who have a warped understanding of young girls and natural development.
The eldest sisters are quickly married off, following the strict traditions of the village. They are schooled by their grandmother’s heavy had on the unspoken rules of marriage. “At a wedding,” she says, “the girl’s family plays hard to get.” Selma sits unhappily beside her arranged husband at their wedding celebration, while the rest of the girls dance among the other guests. Lale finds her crying inside and asks why she doesn’t just run away if she does not want to be married. Selma simply asks, “How?” Selma doesn’t see any way to change her destiny, Lale fights loudly and daringly, and Ece shoots herself rather than be married away to the man her horrible relatives have chosen. They are five, now four, sisters who only have each other, broken by the system which traps and oppresses them.
Lale is the true center of the film. While a great deal of focus is on the sisters and the traditions of the village around them, the story is told through the eyes of the youngest. She understands everything she sees but she cannot accept it. She is determined to be free. Her determination and her will to fight to change her life and the lives of her sisters, particularly Nur, is what fills the audience with hope, regardless of where the story goes.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature film as a director—co-written with Alice Winocour—is a powerful, chilling study of young women in a misogynistic society. Mustang is ingeniously crafted, well-written, visually stunning, engaging and creative; it is a celebration of girlhood and womanhood and a timely coming-of-age narrative.
Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.