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November 18, 2015

Set in a small village on the Black Sea coast, accentuating the sense of isolation, Mustang is the feature debut of Turkish filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Its title conjures images of wild and untamable horses, symbolizing the five young, coltish and spirited teenage heroines, with their beautiful manes flying and their irrepressible energies galloping, and whose lives are irrevocably changed when their family decides to tame them into becoming traditional housewives.

The movie opens with the sisters having innocent fun, splashing about on the beach with their male classmates. When this gets reported to the girls’ family, they overreact by pulling them out of school, putting them through virginity tests, confiscating their cell phones and computers, and subjugating them to endless lessons in housework and cooking, in preparation for marriage. The girls are orphans, raised by their strict grandmother and uncle whose major preoccupation is with traditional decorum, fearing that the sisters’ “tarnished” virtues will bring disgrace to the family. As the movie progresses, one by one, their freedoms are stripped away up to the point that there are bars put on windows and walls raised in order to prevent them from leaving the house. Suitors are invited and one after another, husbands are found for them. At first, they react in outspoken rebellion, but gradually they are driven either to resignation or desperate measures. As the elder sisters are married off, we witness the pain of separation between them. Ergüven draws on Greek mythology, citing the multi-headed Hydra, with the girls symbolizing the five heads on one body (their unity), from which they draw their force. Their collective power is weakened as each “head” is separated. With each departure from home, the younger ones left behind, bond more intensely together to avoid the same fate. The movie progresses into nail-biting suspense as they attempt their escape.

Extremely well-cast (the actors although unrelated, could easily be sisters) and well-acted (only Elit Işcan who plays Ece had acting experience), the movie is especially transfixing as it shows genuine chemistry between the girls and draws us into their intimate universe. Even while being sequestered, they still manage to have fun together and their bright spirits shine … at least for a while. There is even one brief interlude of freedom where the younger sister Lale orchestrates a clandestine outing to a soccer match attended by an all-female audience. She is the indomitable mustang who will not be broken and who vehemently refuses the fate dictated to her.

Ergüven wanted to talk about what it is like to be a female in modern-day Turkey “where the condition of women is more than ever a major public issue.” “Everything that has anything to do with femininity is constantly reduced to sexuality,” she says, “and a conception of society emerges that reduces women to baby-making machines who are only good for housework.”

The moody score by Warren Ellis (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) creates the perfect atmosphere for the film. Mustang speaks of robbed childhood and crushed freedom, but also paints a riveting portrait of female empowerment.

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