Arriving amid the December awards season and year-end lists, this fine Turkish drama strikes a resonant chord with some other standouts from 2015. In outline, it’s like a grim old pre-Grimm fairy tale: five orphan sisters, locked in their home by a cruel uncle and grandmother, to be parceled out as unwilling brides. They’re taken out of school and denied cell phones and computers, and free will is crushed beneath the patriarchy’s boot heel. The sisters are aged about 11 to 17, and for all these reasons I recalled the documentary He Named Me Malala, about the teen Pakistani activist and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai who so bravely crusades for the very same rights being denied in Mustang.
In her powerful debut feature, Deniz Gamze Erguven makes clear how this sex-based repression, in Turkey’s rural north, isn’t just the work of men. First the sisters are denounced by a conservative village woman for roughhousing with some boys—all fully clothed—at the beach. Their grandmother is scandalized: Suddenly shame is cast upon the family, so she beats them and begins their home confinement. (When she meets the pious informant in the street, she nervously places a scarf atop her usually uncovered hair.) Social codes may be dictated by men, but they’re enforced and promulgated by women. Soon the grandmother begins training the girls to dress demurely and cook; she alternates slaps and hugs to keep them in line. And, horrible to say, she made me think of the kapos in the Hungarian concentration-camp movie Son of Saul—Jews being used to brutalize and control other Jews. (Saul arrives here in January; both films are on the foreign-language Oscar shortlist.)
Youngest daughter Lale (Gunes Sensoy) is our fierce little narrator, who decries this “wife factory.” When one sister says there’s no way to reach Istanbul (600 miles south) because she can’t drive, Lale decides to teach herself. The older sisters meet their fate—marriages with strangers, arranged by their families, complete with dowry—with varying degrees of resistance. Since humiliating “virginity tests” are required before these nuptials (and bloodied sheets after), the girls’ feelings about boys and sex are conflicted. Erguven doesn’t let her camera shy away from their healthy pubescent bodies, but she’s frank about the cost of such constant self- and social monitoring. (Lale overhears the eldest sister explaining that she’s still technically a virgin, since she and her boyfriend do it “in back.”)
The modern world seems very distant here, but Mustang is also an escape movie, no parable. In many regions of the globe, Erguven reminds us, this is how young women are still being treated as chattel.