Ah, a chance to cross off another nationality, as this blog finally turns its attention to the cinema of Turkey. Unless I am much mistaken the only Turkish film I’ve actually seen is the astonishing, almost indescribable Superman Returns from 1979, not to be confused with a rather dull Bryan Singer film from ten years back. (For fairly obvious legal reasons this film is not in wide circulation, but well worth checking out.) Our movie today is of a different ilk, being an Oscar-nominated drama: Deniz Damze Erguven’s Mustang.
Lest you be wondering, this is not a film about horses or American muscle cars: rather it is an acclaimed drama about the female experience in rural Turkey – or, to quote the reviewer of the Washington Post, a film which ‘brilliantly evokes the sensual world of burgeoning womanhood.’ Blimey. Well, as someone only really on nodding terms with the world of womanhood, whether burgeoning or not, I’m not really sure what to make of that. The camerawork is certainly much better than in Superman Donuyor, though.
The film deals with the travails of five orphaned sisters who, as things open, have spent the last ten years living with their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) and Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). All seems well as the story starts, the teenage girls being like any group of teenage girls in Europe. But a spot of innocent mucking about on the beach with some local boys has a devastating impact, as someone tells their relatives, who are appalled by what they see as licentious and immoral behaviour.
Uncle Erol takes the girls out of school and confiscates everything which he sees as possibly having a corrupting effect on them: phones, computers, chewing gum, and so on. At the same time their grandmother embarks on an intensive education in soup-making, baking, laundry, and the other essential skills for their future lives as housewives – which is, naturally, the limit of the family’s ambition for the girls. Will tradition triumph? Or will the spirits of the girls remain unbroken?
So, you are probably thinking, not a lot of laughs in this one. Actually, there is more humour than you might expect, especially near the start – a farcical sequence where the girls’ aunt sabotages the neighbourhood electricity supply to stop Erol seeing the girls on TV after they take an unauthorised trip to a football match is genuinely very funny. On the whole though, Mustang is, well, a fairly bleak piece of work about the plight of women being treated like property by their male relatives. I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘bloody miserable’, but it’s not that far off it, either.
The various indignities visited on the girls are, of course, grotesque: virginity checks, virtual imprisonment in the family home (which grows increasingly prison-like as the story proceeds), and eventually being forced into arranged marriages. As things go on Erol takes an interest in the girls which is hardly avuncular, too. The film works hard to be naturalistic and understated, and for the most part succeeds, which at least manages to offset some of the potential for it seeming manipulative and melodramatic.
That said… now, I’m fully aware that forced marriages and grim ill-treatment of women are still serious issues in many parts of the world, and – to my sorrow – I have more experience of the damage that can result from a clash of sensibilities in this area than I would ever wish to. But I’m not sure that Mustang is subtle enough in its scripting to come across as anything more than a piece of superior agitprop. The inciting incident (if we’re going to go all Robert McKee) feels a bit arbitrary, and the girls’ repressive relatives are just a bit too one-dimensional and stereotypical to convince. Does it matter that this film, which is essentially a harsh criticism of Turkish culture and society, is actually a French-German co-production? The film’s liberal-progressive credentials are impeccable even if its actual plot becomes somewhat overwrought.
I don’t know though. I don’t know enough about Turkish society to give an informed opinion as to how representative of the country this story is – all my Turkish friends have come from the big urban centres of the country, where more western attitudes prevail. I think perhaps the problem with Mustang is that it doesn’t work hard enough at not resembling a stereotypical piece of feminist film-making.
And the fact remains that this is a powerful, affecting piece of film-making, for all that the plotting at either end of the narrative feels somewhat contrived. There’s a lovely ensemble performance from the five girls at the centre of the piece (although as the story goes on it focuses much more on the youngest, played by Gunes Sensoy), the direction and cinematography are understated and effective, and there’s a very good minimalist score from Warren Ellis (Nick Cave’s mate, not the comic book writer). It’s not the exercise in miserabilism it might sound like, although it’s obviously not exactly mainstream entertainment either. In the end I wouldn’t call this a great film by any means, but it’s still engaging and well-made on its own terms.