A Turkish Delight: Mustang
First published on Reel Steel, Saturday 7 May 2016
“It’s like everything changed in the blink of an eye. One minute we were fine, then everything turned to shit.” A multi-award winning, Oscar nominated tale of five orphaned sisters from a small village in suburban Turkey, Mustang transcends the mainstream, lachrymose coming-of-age drama that’s over-reliant on its Tumblr-worthy aesthetic captioned with musings on the complexities of adolescence. It’s a purposely controversial and revelational message which represents a previously untold story of resistance and resilience, the binary opposition in the traditional roles of men and women, and sexual innocence and freedom, or lack thereof.
From the very first scene, it is a film rooted in the bonds of friendship and sisterhood, as protagonist Lale bids a tearful farewell to her teacher, who is moving to Istanbul. Her four elder sisters tease her for responding so emotionally to the departure, but Lale’s attachment to her teacher becomes more comprehensible once the audience is introduced to her tempestuous relationship with her grandmother, who has raised the sisters alongside their uncle since the death of their parents. When the girls return home from a post-school trip to the beach with male friends, their grandmother immediately brandishes them as “sullied”, scolding and hitting them because gossip of their inappropriate contact with boys has been circulating the village. Thereon, the girls are imprisoned in their house, confined to “shit-coloured” drab clothing, stifled by their grandmother’s monotonous housewife training regime to prepare them for marriage, and banned from using anything likely to pervert them.
To a British audience, the grandmother’s decision to completely withdraw the girls from their usual lives then marry them off one by one is extreme control bordering a dictatorship, but she herself is burdened by the pressures of Turkish gender ideals and is consequently blamed for the girls behaviour “because [she] couldn’t do her job properly”, said job being the exemplar female role model of a passive caregiver and nurturer. It doesn’t demonise the grandmother and uncle, despite their obsession with the girl’s sexual purity, nor does it attack religious motivations, but Mustang does add momentum to the spotlight on several morally questionable scenarios that derive from a very conservative and patriarchal context.
Though certain characteristics are a little too stereotypical of the ‘tomboy’ image, Lale is the budding feminist icon that cinema has been craving for so long; the youngest sister, she’s also the most protective of her clan, wise beyond her years, and a real diamond in the rough. She sees the challenges her grandmother and uncle are hurling at her siblings, but stays consistently true to what she believes and has the initiative to unshackle herself by putting her foot down (literally). Her semi-spontaneous ploy to escape what she describes as the “nut-house” with sister Nur on the latter’s wedding day is surprisingly exhilarating because Lale is such a fiercely sharp character that it is impossible not to invest in her aspirations.
Aside from the faultless casting and laudable acting, what cements Mustang as one of the most impressive cinematic achievements of the year is its capacity to tackle uncomfortable and controversial topics, such as abuse and arranged marriages, in a way that perfectly balances tension and shock with tenderness and compassion, especially the sisters’ defiant gaiety in the face of adversity. It may be a unique example, but it is rare and refreshing for the turbulence of sisterhood to be portrayed so naturally.
Mustang is released in selected UK cinemas on Friday 13 May.