Derby Film Festival – Mustang – Review *****

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Experiencing a film like Mustang from a male outlook allows for a lot of dangerous pitfalls. It is a work so entrenched in the feminine, so hungry to tell a coming-of-age tale from an honest, fresh perspective, that it could have so easily alienated an entire audience in its commitment to its characters and the dangers they face whilst navigating the complex and giddy machinations of sexual maturity. It is extraordinary, then, that French-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven crafts a moving, exhilarating and ultimately humanistic piece of work that resonates universally, which is more than can be said of other, less focused, films that have attempted to salvage something meaningful from the burning wreckage left behind upon moving from childhood to adulthood.

The lives of our protagonists, five sisters living in rural Turkey, are not immediately easy to anchor to our own, but Ergüven manages to construct such an aching composite of emotions that you cannot help but be vigorously consumed by their stories, both as individuals and as a family unit. After being spotted frolicking with a group of boys on their way home from school, the girls’ innocence is misconstrued as latent sexuality, culminating in their home slowly being turned into a prison and their simple, happy existence turned upside down. At the head of this mission to keep the girls chaste and available for marriage is their Uncle, a man so consumed by tradition and religion that he has no concept of the needs of young women, slowly turning his house into a prison in which he can control and marry them off at will.

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The major thing to note about Mustang is that, despite its evidently dismaying subject matter, its characters are not flat, dour or broken. The girls in the film display, time and time again, their spirit and verve, not allowing their depression and dejection to get the best of their youthful endeavour. Their brief escape and subsequent adventure to a women’s-only football match is brimming with such excitement and joy, primarily through the use of slow motion and jump cuts between the individuals and the group as a whole, which epitomises Ergüven’s goal throughout the film. Whilst there will be tragedy and danger at every corner for these bright, zealous young women, like the wild horses in the title, they cannot and will not be tamed by the harsh world that surrounds them.

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Ergüven uses the youngest of the girls, boisterous Lale, to keep a tight grip on the audience. Actress Güneş Şensoy takes on this important responsibility with an incredible acting maturity. Her innocence contrasts so extravagantly with her strength that viewers will be unable to do anything but admire her. Whilst you watch her sisters, often half naked and blossoming into women, grow yet get constantly stifled, she continues to exist at the edge of freedom, battling alongside her sisters and fighting to forge her own path. The camera often stays low whenever the girls are on the screen together, be it in a tangle of familial limbs or arm in arm, smiles plastered on their faces. The effect of this is to not diminish these characters but portray them as warriors and their circumstances as a combat zone. Mustang is not, however, a battle of the sexes, but rather a criticism of religious and sexual oppression by an entire community of people.

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It is rare to find a film that has such an exorbitant cast of complex characters who are all propelled by such fruitful performances, achieved, no doubt, through careful casting and gentle direction. Ergüven does not intend the tiny world that the sisters inhabit to be a microcosm of Turkey. Amongst the previously mentioned, the film is also populated by heroic men and bitter, self-serving women, and this careful approach highlights an issue without attacking the country as a whole. The conclusion then, a mini masterpiece of a thriller in itself, sees the prison warden locked out of his own device and contains the kind of poetic justice that most blockbuster superhero films seem to dream of achieving. We can only hope that Mustang is right, that times are changing and women living through these situations, not just in Turkey but around the world, can find a similar strength to obstruct any oppression that comes their way.

Mustang screened at QUAD during Derby Film Festival on the 1st May 2016 ahead of a wider UK release from 13th May 2016. More information on the festival and QUAD can be found here – http://www.derbyfilmfestival.co.uk/ 

Steven Ryder is a Film and TV graduate and a quintessentially British lover of film in that he never really watches British films. Moderator of one of the internet's largest film discussion forums, TrueFilm, Steven is dedicated to lurching between trash and high art, often resulting in a cinematic whiplash of sorts.