In my annual rushed attempt to watch all of the Academy Award nominated motion pictures, I have to admit that the category of Foreign Language Feature always seems to pass me by. Luckily for me, these foreign language films tend to trickle through in to public release much later in the year that the rest of the nominated bunch, so now, a good three months later, I am able to go and see one of the pictures that did not win, but received much critical acclaim during awards season.
Mustang is a Turkish film that tells the story of five orphaned sisters who live with their strict grandmother and uncle in an extremely conservative remote village. Ranging in age from around 10 to mid/late teens, the girls’ relatively fun and free spirited lives are changed forever when their family decides it is time for them to become part of mature society, and their once fun household is turned in to part wife factory, part prison, with bars and locks being installed throughout the house to prevent them from returning to their old friends and activities. Any cinema lover who has seen Sofia Coppola’s 1999 adaptation of The Virgin Suicides will be able to make stark comparisons with both the narrative and the overall tone of Mustang. Not only is it a sombre and at times shocking representation of an archaic kind of patriarchal society, but it is also a gripping and endearing exploration of the strong familial bond that is shared between sisters, especially sisters who are going through a shared traumatic experience. Told mainly through the viewpoint of the youngest sister Lale (Güneş Şensoy), the audience watch as she witnesses the forced marriages and other obstacles faced by her older sisters and grows even more determined to free herself from suffering the same fate. What makes the film rather extraordinary is that within the bleak and oppressive situation around which the narrative revolves, lies a thread of vibrancy and humour that adds a really authentic depth to the story. The beauty and intimacy of the relationship between the sisters is the beating heart of the picture, and the more time the audience get to spend with them, they more they become invested in and heartbroken by the way that their lives are being forcibly guided. Though the extremeness of the family situation may seem a little farfetched to viewers not familiar with such a conservative foreign culture, arguments can be made both for the fact that the film can be seen as an allegory for the very worst elements of patriarchal control, and simply that there are situations like this happening every single day, in conservative corners of the world under the archaic guise of ‘tradition’. Ultimately, what we get in Mustang is a gripping and endearing story that not only introduces you to five absorbing young characters, but also has a lot to say about the danger and tragedy of treating young women as objects to be kept unsullied and eventually traded like bags of sugar.
As the five sisters, Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit İşcan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu and İlayda Akdoğan give brilliant performances that leave the audience no choice but to become fully emotionally invested in their change of fortunes. The sisterly bond that the actresses manage to create on screen feels utterly real and authentic, each bringing a different personality to the group but ultimately complimenting one another to build an incredible bubble within their turmoil, a bubble that is broken bit by bit as each sister is betrothed to another. Nihau Koldaş as their grandmother and Ayberk Pecan as uncle Erol are the key adult presences in the girls’ lives, and whilst Koldaş as grandmother represents a traditional but more well meaning figure, Pecan as uncle Erol proves to be a depiction of the sinister, hypocritical side of such a culture, taking the girls for ‘virginity checks’ yet appearing to have alarming designs of his own on more than one occasion.
Overall, Mustang is a poignant and affecting drama that, though centred in melancholy and the loss of childhood, is also peppered with lighter moments about the beauty of sisterhood and coming of age that prove to make it an endearing and captivating watch. As far as missing out on the Best Foreign Language Oscar, the picture that beat it must have been a hell of a film because this has flown straight in to my top ten of the year so far.