Young, wild and free-spirited teen girls just want to enjoy life playing on the beach, going out with boys, cheering at soccer games and dancing to music. It all seems so natural and innocent, unless you happen to live in a small town in Turkey dominated by religious and cultural oppression, where girls are seen only through a veil of sexuality and as domestic slaves to a male-dominated society.
Mustang is a powerful and imperative film about the injustices of strict tribal and religious societies and their treatment of women in particular. The message is loud and clear, giving voice to issues of female oppression increasingly being echoed in powerful personal films like Dukhtar (2014), Wadjda (2012), Circumstance (2011), Offside (2007), Head-On (2004) and a recent new film from Tunisia, As I Open My Eyes (2015).
Five young orphaned sisters living with their grandmother in a small coastal village in Turkey have just finished the school year. It’s a bittersweet moment as they say goodbye to their favorite teacher but also look forward to an exciting and playful summer.
But what the sisters of differing ages thought would be a fun-filled summer suddenly turns into a nightmare when the small town community they live in turns on them, deciding that they can no longer tolerate their freewheeling irreverent behavior, which is getting the local boys all excited.
Too much for the grandmother to handle, she is forced by the community to marry off the girls as soon as possible in the traditional ways of the Turkish culture. As their home turns into a school for domesticity, they are told that girls must be pure, soft-spoken, and well mannered. They’re forced to spend their time learning how to cook and clean. Soon bars, gates and fences are erected all over the house to stop them from sneaking out to parties and having fun. Their home suddenly turns into a fortress of chastity to protect their virginity.
But the girls will not be broken so easily. They are young and will not be bartered off to complete strangers who come around with their sons. The situation however becomes increasingly dire for the girls as one by one they are forced to accept marriage proposals and leave the house with their new husbands.
Lale, the youngest of the sisters, is particularly disturbed by the sudden violent turn of events as she witnesses her older sister’s suffering. This scathing film is not without humor and irony and the genuine camaraderie between the girls who play the sisters translates beautifully and naturally on screen, giving a sense of the tight sisterhood bond they share as they support each other when faced with this crisis for which they are unprepared.
The vibrant spontaneous performances by the children make this film a joy to watch even as they fight for their freedom. We feel for them as their initial shock turns to desperation or resignation. We want them to somehow escape the horrors of their plight, so when Lale makes a sudden bold decision and takes matters into her own hands, we are fully on her side as she battles age-old traditions and the wrath of not only family but also the entire community.
A moving, heartfelt gem of a film, Mustang has been chosen as France’s official Oscar entry for the 88th Academy Awards. They certainly have my vote.
by John Schwab