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MUSTANG Marks the Changes in Five Sisters

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By Brennan Brown (Ebert Young Writers Participant)

Five sisters move around their second-story bedroom, two of them looking out the window. “They’ll kill us if they find out,” one says, poking her head outside to see beyond the dirt road. Her older sister looks out farther. “At least something will happen.” Lela (Günes Sensoy), the youngest of the five, wants to go to a soccer game. It’s the last game of the season which she tells her uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) she’s been following in the papers. Tired of his imprisonment, the girls decide to sneak out of the house to see the game, fashioning life-sized dolls to put in their beds with sewing supplies brought to them by the countless aunties and grandmas who show up each day to help their uncle’s mother (Nihal Koldas) who finds a balance between being a grandmother to the five girls and staying in line with the rest of what Lela calls “the wife factory”, a renovation to what used to be a house of children.

Written and directed by Turkey’s Deniz Gamze Ergüven in her first feature-length film, MUSTANG follows these five sisters like a quiet spectator, never really telling the kind of a story you can summarize after the credits have finished rolling and never trying to send a message which you yourself can’t claim to have written a part of. The benefit of a story told like this is usually that it becomes character-driven and thematic. While this film has interesting characters and at least one well-implemented motif, the characters seem to be the lightest pieces of a machine with plenty of room inside it to carry more weight.

The girls clearly are changing. Lela sees her sisters sneak off with boys in the middle of the night, watching them from the window, thinking of what they could be doing. During the day, all the girls play together, and the older sisters tease Lela for her “pancake chest”, even the sister who chases Lela to take off the stuffed bra Lela stole from her drawer. “You think this is funny?” she asks, pinning Lela down, trying not to let herself laugh after catching Lela dancing around the house wearing her bra.

The difference between a sibling and a parent lies mostly in the consistency in which they treat a child’s insecurities, although it seems in this film it’s up to the fathers and uncles to decide for the girls what those are. It’s “out of the question” for Lela to see the game with her uncle and his friends “with all those men there”, never mind the fact she could barely be considered a teenager yet. Still, Erol’s idea of how men see his nieces’ isn’t wrong. Unfortunately for the girls, they don’t get to pick and choose the parts of his understanding that benefit them. Only “whores” would let boys treat them like they did when the sisters rode on the shoulders of their classmates in the ocean. Clearly, these once innocent girls are changing. So to Erol, they must be treated that way, and in his world, that means he’s in charge until he chooses another man to do that for him.

There’s a montage toward the beginning of the film showing these young girls, wishing they could be anywhere else but their house, learning all the skills of a wife– baking, cleaning, even making chewing gum. Pretty soon, some of them get married off. They may be changing from girls, but they haven’t changed to women.

Maybe the beauty in this screenplay comes from how Ergüven doesn’t spend time telling us how it’s unfair for women to be treated this way, but instead she asks us a question: If it’s upsetting seeing a girl made to be a “woman” like this, shouldn’t seeing any woman made to be something like this upset us just as much? The smartest thing she wrote into the characters of the five girls, then, would be their age.

Eventually, the girls do make it to the soccer game, and when the camera pans to the TV screen in the dining room as the wives are setting up the table for the men, the broadcast on the TV inevitably cuts between close-ups of the game’s crowd. A few people in the movie theater were chuckling at this point, knowing whose faces we would see next, and sure enough, when we did see them, so did the wives on screen, one of them almost falling to the ground as she fainted.

There were a few times the audience laughed when I didn’t, especially during scenes I suppose older viewers felt they could relate with. It’s one thing to go to a movie and laugh when a mother yells at her son for getting bad grades, and it’s another to laugh if she takes out a belt and beats him. I didn’t find this film funny and I don’t really think it was meant to make me laugh either. It may have had more than a few melodramatic plot points, some confusing and others just annoyingly formulaic, but the characters still seemed real at the end, and so did their struggles.

The very first feature-length film by Deniz Gamze Ergüven may have wrapped itself up a little too cleanly for whatever it was really trying to do and at times it may have been too cautious about what it didn’t need to do for the audience. That being said, Mustang is a beautiful debut film with a memorable cast, stunning visuals, and a thought-provoking story.

As a part of our Ebert Young Writers Program for the Arts, we will be publishing the participants reviews and interviews they produce for the workshop on the official HIFF blog. 

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