May 16, 2016 § 2 Comments
” You have to be a mother and at home, and that’s all. When you see a man, you should blush and look down.”
In Mustang, these words are spoken on television by Turkey’s current and very dangerous president, Erdogan, as the family eat together. We don’t see the screen, only the faces of those around the table. Nor do we know who is speaking, but Deniz Ergüven, the director of Mustang, has quoted Erdogan’s pronouncement in an interview about her film. What such statements mean for Turkish women’s everyday lives and autonomy is the subject of the film, but this is handled without over-emphasis, with such elliptical subtlety and even humour that one can understand its ready description by some reviewers as a fairytale. We have to bear in mind that fairytales are often cruel.
Mustang’s luminous summer landscape on the Black Sea coast of Anatolia is certainly enchanting and our first sight of it could hardly be sunnier. Once upon a time there were five beautiful sisters and on the euphoric last day of school they plunged into the sea, laughing, splashing and riding on the shoulders of boys, their school uniforms getting thoroughly wet. All except the youngest, Lale, in tears as she says goodbye to her teacher, Delit, a young woman leaving to live in Istanbul, 1000 kilometres away, Lale clearly a cherished pupil.
Orphans, the sisters live with their grandmother and a bullying, predatory uncle in a large house nestling in greenery on the edge of a tiny village. “One moment we were fine, then everything turned to shit,” says Lale in voice-over, as the sisters make their way home. News of their transgressive behaviour has widely preceded them. Beating each in turn, the grandmother rages that what they’ve done – rubbing their genitals against the necks of boys – will make it hard to find them husbands. This sexualising of female actions, however innocent, is not unique to conservative Islam; it reminds me of my Catholic girlhood.
What truly shocks is the remedy: a sundering of modern freedoms, mobile phones and computers banished, jeans and T-shirts exchanged for loose “shit-coloured” clothes, enforced virginity tests; education reduced to lessons in stuffing vine leaves and home-made quilts, with no return to school, the house turned into a “wife factory” which they can never leave unless accompanied.
At first, the girls put up a spirited fight, remodelling the hated dresses, making gestures of defiance; they climb out of windows, break out to see a football match, forbidden despite all-female spectators. Each act of resistance brings even stricter confinement until bars and grilles imprison them completely and hurried arrangements for marriages numb them into powerlessness. One has the luck of a proposal from the parents of her secret boyfriend; for the rest there’s no mercy.
Together, in their shared cage, they display the boisterousness and sensuality of young animals, rolling about or curled up in a single affectionate tangle. Then their number is brutally, horrifically diminished by marriage and suicide. It’s up to Lale to deploy her courage and resourcefulness. She’s the film’s heroine and at only 11 or 12 she embodies a character who is both extraordinary and believable, devoid of any child cutesiness. Her escape plan has been long in the making, its boldness impelled by desperation, its hope founded on the one adult who encouraged her education.
Ergüven allows the grandmother and the neighbours to be more than punitive wardresses. But their moments of kindness and sympathy will in the end spare no one. They are like the eunuchs guarding the seraglio. The young have to fend for themselves.
This is the first Turkish film I’ve seen directed by a woman. It’s also influenced by Iranian cinema, as well as being a French film, with a majority of French funding in its low budget. So low that financial crisis hit late in the day and the Turkish producer bailed out. The film was saved by the intervention of Charles Gillibert, Olivier Asssayas’ producer. It won the foreign-language Oscar for France this year.
When the new regime is laid down for the sisters we see everything being swept away that might connect them with the world outside. In her room Lale hastily clears a shelf of a keyboard and other objects. Among them we glimpse a postcard. It’s Delacroix’ Liberty Guiding the People, almost subliminal.