Mustang

May 16, 2016 § 2 Comments

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” 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.
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§ 2 Responses to Mustang

  • Mandy Merck says:

    I’m less enthusiastic about Mustang, for the same reasons that I was not keen about Timbuktu. Both feature physically attractive, emotionally expressive central characters who are suddenly subordinated by fundamentalist Islam. Their pleasures are forbidden and their freedoms curtailed. In Mustang the five sisters live as young women of a similar age would in France — skinny jeans, flowing hair, playful encounters with their male peers. In Timbuktu a larger cast pursue the urban pleasures of musical parties and pastoral life in the countryside. How are such societies suddenly overtaken by a brutally patriarchal puritanism? Timbuktu attributes this to armed invasion, Mustang to the scandal of the sisters’ end-of-term frolic with a group of boys at the seaside. Inexplicably a group of vivacious teenagers who have been permitted western freedoms of movement, dress and education are suddenly clad in the shapeless dresses of their silent aunts and confined to the family home, escaping only by death or arranged marriage. Mustang’s implausibility seems to demand an allegorical reading — with the departure of enlightenment in the person of the beloved teacher to Istanbul comes the repression of the Erdogan regime. But how did that regime ever come to be elected? Just as Timbuktu fails to explain the flow of armed men southwards into Mali after the uprising in Libya, or the education of promising Malian students in Salafist madrassas in Saudi, Mustang elides the very history it purports to narrate. Even more dubiously, it repeatedly groups its confined cast in the style of the seraglio paintings of the nineteenth century — lightly clad, voluptuous and ripe for erotic deliverance. It’s a style designed to gratify the western spectator, and so I think are both these western-funded films.

    • Liz Heron says:

      Yes, Mustang has allegorical aspects, as well as having fairytale resonances, both Brothers Grimm and Arabian Nights. But it’s quite clear in its recognition that there are real tensions between the modernity that has reached rural Anatolia from Istanbul and the deep-rooted Islamic conservatism that has long prevailed there, and which has also played a part in Erdogan’s rise to power. With regained ground that conservatism asserts itself by making a sudden brutal change in the girls’ lives. I don’t find it inexplicable.
      The film is just as much French as it is Turkish, in fact probably more so. The sisters’ luxuriant flowing hair is a taunt to advocates of the headscarf. There are certainly hints of French Orientalism in the representation of the first phase of the girls’ imprisonment, yet as the mood darkened it was the anti-Orientalism of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters that came to my mind. Deniz Ergüven’s lightness of touch makes it hard to pin down such analogies. This isn’t a major film, but an accomplished debut feature by a director not long out of film school. Within its own framework I think it’s well judged. Is anyone in Turkey making films with a broader political canvas? There are a lot of Turkish films I haven’t seen, but those I have seen share certain features with Mustang. I’m thinking not just of Nuri Bilge Ceylan but Reha Erdem, whose memorable Time and Winds is the most powerful example of Turkish cinema I’ve come across. In all of these politics is located in the personal, with injustice as something intimate that can breed all kinds of hatred and rebellion. A film doesn’t necessarily have to make explicit its social/political context. I’m sure you’re well aware of that, Mandy.
      As for Timbuktu, it’s about the experience of living under jihadist occupation, rather than an analysis of how this came about through regional and global geopolitics; in its own terms it’s an ambitious film. Sissako’s previous Bamako took on the World Bank and the IMF through a Brechtian mock trial alongside the more realist narrative of a musician and his family. Music is such a significant part of Malian culture that I don’t think it can be dismissed as an urban pleasure.

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