Just like the wild horse of the mustang, the five sisters at the centre of Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s poignant 2015 debut Mustang strive to escape a restrictive, domesticated existence. The narrative follows the lives of five orphaned sisters who resist a fundamentalist culture in Turkey, one which condemns and punishes their pursuit of sexual independence. This film captivatingly offers a current, naturalistic depiction of the interrelationship between cultural and feminine identity.
Scandal permeates a repressive community as sisters Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), and Lale (Günes Sensoy) are caught playing on the beach with a group of boys. Out of fear that the family will be put to dishonour by a rumour of sexual indiscretion, the girls are placed in confinement. Their livelihoods are reduced to domesticity with the impending threat of being forcibly married off. Each of the sisters struggles against the restrictions placed upon them, especially those imposed by their malevolent uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan).
Much of the film is shown through the youngest sister Lale’s eyes, who, as potentially the most determined to rebel, provides the most socially critical perspective. Lale’s youth may be the very thing that enables her to subvert what surrounds her so successfully – in viewing the mistreatments of each beloved sister, she is made aware and resentful of a culture which continuously exploits the women in her life. As Lale observes her sisters and their subjection to the process of arranged marriage, her will to escape grows.
Mustang is potentially grittier and less aesthetically comfortable than Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, its closest point of comparison, as it shares some visual parallels and similarities in its portrayal of sisterly relationships. However, Ergüven’s piece cannot be denied of its striking cinematography, or be too closely assimilated to a Western film, as it is integrally characterised by Turkish culture and tradition.
The captivating images of Mustang are found in quiet, intimate spaces, where the sisters can embrace their freedom and independent spirits. These are the scenes which I find most moving. Mustang is driven by emotional realism, as these visually heart-warming expressions are contrasted by disturbing scenes of male-inflicted violence. In spite of this discomfort, the viewer hopes that the sisters will eventually be released to freedom and escape their continued gendered oppression.
The film blends scenes of intimacy and love with those of tragedy, symbolising remarkable beauty, as well as the struggles of female identity. While the sisters reach a variety of positions in life by the end of the film, their profoundly strong bond is at the centre of the piece. The final images of liberation leave the viewer with a prevailing sense of female empowerment that can be shared across cultures. Whether you can relate to the lives of the women in the film, the eventual escape and the sense of freedom reached in the last moments is cathartic for any viewer.
The University of Manchester’s Students’ Union’s Reclaim the Night campaign stands against discrimination and sexual violence, seeking to give voice to women and those who are marginalised for their gender. Mustang is a striking story of empowerment in the face of these very struggles, as it explores the exploitative nature of arranged child marriage, as well as gendered domestic abuse. Through beautifully emotive scenes depicting tender moments shared between the sisters, Mustang invokes the bonds of a collective sisterhood. As the film stunningly captures a notion of female unity, it is distinctive in its relevancy to contemporary feminist movements.