Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan

Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

November 22, 2016
5 min read

mustang-06Image: Mustang

With an arresting narrative that scrutinises the polemical politics of contemporary Turkey, Mustang highlights the devastating effects that creeping conservatism has on the everyday lives of women. The film has an unashamedly feminist tone that resonates with the ongoing battles for women’s rights throughout the country, frequently led by socio-politically engaged secularists – often fearlessly determined women influenced by the republican values of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his vision for Turkish independence.

The film premiered at Cannes 2015, where it won the Europa Cinemas Label Award and later the Lux Prize in acknowledgement of its cross-cultural, European sensibility and maturity as a Franco-Turkish co-production. It was also a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards ceremony, from France, earlier this year. Given the stifling, sexist climate of the film industry – where just 7 per cent of directorial roles are offered to women – this is some achievement. The critical and commercial success of Mustang, which grossed £3 million from its modest £1 million budget, speaks to the demand across borders for equal representation of women on screen.

Erguven wields an explorative lens on the tumultuous journey of five young sisters who are forced to navigate themselves through the painfully unpracticed and unpredictable routes of human growth. They have the added pressure of ‘performing’ womanhood (a confused conflation between patriarchally preconditioned, traditionalist ideas of women as maternal, inferior figures and the desire to experience sexually liberating ideals of female emancipation) against the backdrop of a small conservative village.

Perverse immorality

The film begins as the sisters are finishing a school term. Rather than enduring the dense humidity of a bus ride back home in the sweltering heat, they take a detour along the beach, diving into the open waters of the sea. Upon arriving home, their büyükanne (grandmother) accuses them of ‘rubbing up against boys’ necks’ – a villager had witnessed them play a game in which they wrestled one another into the sea while sitting on the shoulders of their male friends, and subsequently informed the family of the girls’ perverse immorality.

This is one of a few semi-autobiographical moments within the film that Erguven uses cathartically, as if to alter the realities of her own experiences. Indeed, the filmmaker recalls being chastised for playing the same game as a young girl, and stoically surrendering to the reprimand that followed. However, through the creation of her characters, she rebels against the voices that had sought to suppress her. This is made clear when one of the sisters, Nur – in a fantastic, feminist rage – begins smashing chairs against a wall while shouting: ‘These chairs touched our arseholes! That’s disgusting!’ It is an invigorating scene that serves to expose the absurdity of patriarchal rule and the containment, control and surveying of women’s bodies for the (masturbatory) pleasure and power of men.

In another scene that calls attention to the growing dominance of conservatism throughout Turkey, the remaining three sisters – after Sonay and Selma have been dutifully married off – are at the dinner table with their büyükanne and uncle. In the background we hear the chauvinist bark of President Erdoan on the television: ‘Women should be chaste and pure, know their limits, and mustn’t laugh openly in public. Women must guard their chastity! Where are the girls who blush when you look at them?’

The inclusion of this disturbing speech from Erdoan maps out the toxic spread of conservative ideology since the rise of his party, the AKP, and their subsequent established influence, which is in stark contrast to secular visions of the country. It also reminds us of the role of the state in reinforcing patriarchy in the home, both through discourse and legislation.

While in the early 20th century, Ataturk extricated Turkey from religious law, in favour of a secular code to encourage equality between men and women (albeit not without its legislative problems and limitations), Erdoan now preaches nonsensical, biologically determinist notions. Women are, of course, inferior to men, he insists, because of our inherent duty to let them impregnate us, reproduce and serve under the male-dominated household.

Read between the lines

Erdguven is steadfast in her condemnation of such backward and devastatingly dangerous logic in one scene especially. Ece, suffering sexual abuse at the self-righteous whim of her uncle, begins to crack silent jokes to her remaining, beloved sisters. Holding three fingers up, she whispers across the table to them, ‘Can you read between the lines?’

As the sisters’ laughter gets louder, their uncle – anxious to retain power – orders Ece to leave the table. It is a subtle, yet intensely provocative scene that, while highlighting the grotesque subjugation of women and the continuing effects of governmental oppression on the rights of women especially, conveys the strength of women and girls to defy, outsmart and undermine such pernicious authority: to tear it down together. The scene ends with a resounding act of defiance and protest against the treatment of her body by her uncle (a figure of patriarchal rule), as Ece harnesses control – however harrowingly – over her own fate.

Erguven describes the close relationship between Mustang’s protagonists as an ‘organic’ and perfect distribution of one self – ‘one body moving together and breathing together’ and a ‘little monster of femininity, who loses one piece after another . . . assesses wounds, recomposes and strikes back’. It is a succinct metaphor for an intersectional feminist ideology that transcends imposing borders. Mustang reminds us that in a world that seems increasingly withered and torn, sisterly solidarity constitutes the route to a revolutionary movement, founded on the rights of women.