Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
A coming of age drama set in Turkey, Mustang examines five sisters living under the strict, oppressive tyranny of their Uncle, an archetype of the Turkish militant state as a whole. It charts the dualities of chastity and repression, liberty and modesty, and promotes modern feminist ideals of equality, self-expression, and equal rights. Mustang brings to light much of the seemingly obvious evils and hypocrisies of corrupt laws and traditions in the Middle East which are still today being performed.
The film opens with a beautiful and heartfelt scene of the five girls leaving school. The youngest, Lale, hugs her teacher goodbye before she leaves to join her sisters at the beach, where they hang out with boys. It is a typical scene found in western culture: teen girls experiencing the joys of youth. Their joy, however, is cut short, as they are found guilty of promiscuity and immodesty for allowing their clothed bodies to touch the necks of men. Their grandmother, keeper since the loss of their parents, has finally had enough, and calls upon their uncle to reprimand them. Presumably, the uncle has not been too much a part of their lives, which explains how the girls have gotten to become so modern in spite of their upbringing. At this point, though, they have gone too far; thus begins a series of disciplinary action. They are forcibly formed into wives; taught how to cook, dress, clean, and be totally and completely absent of personality or intelligence, they become trained in the traditional ways, and begin to get married off.
The girls are terribly suffocated by their uncle’s repressive habits. Their grandmother wishes to help them, but her naiveté and acceptance of evil traditions blind her from the girls’ real pains. All they truly have are each other, and when they are together they are happy. In fact, when they are together, they can do all the self-expressive things they wish to do in general: dress as they like, laugh as they like, talk as they like, etc. There is a very distinct formal difference between the girls alone and the girls in public. Alone, their beautiful bodies are seen as a mass ornament of sexuality and impulse, while in public their shapeless dress expresses only restraint. They are expected to be chaste, modest women, and this expectation is what drives them to act otherwise.
As a form of rebellion, the eldest marries a man she loves. The second miserably accepts an arranged marriage. The third becomes excessively depressed and desperate, leading to promiscuity with a stranger, shame, and death. Watching her older sisters in pain, Lale takes it upon herself to rebel against her oppressive family. She stages a coup with her last remaining sister, who is about to be wed, and they find a way to escape and join their teacher in Istanbul. What is exceptionally powerful and perfectly ironic is that a strange man becomes their savior, a man whom the girls would have been warned to worry against. But, in spite of their dress and behavior, he does not rape, he does not kidnap, he simply wishes to help. This is, ironically, exemplary of the values held by today’s more secular and modern structure. One need not wear a hijab, full dress, and avoid the streets at night; one may be seen without judgment. Coming full circle, Mustang offers hope and inspiration in its heartwarming conclusion while being sure not to override its underlying sense of tragedy.
Mustang offers hope and inspiration in its heartwarming conclusion while being sure not to override its underlying sense of tragedy.