'Mustang' Takes On Women's Rights In Fairy Tale Form
It sounds like a fairy tale: Five beautiful sisters with long flowing hair are locked up together and forced, one by one, into marriage. But it's not a fairy tale — it's the story of a new movie called Mustangset in a contemporary, rural Turkish village.
It's summertime when the film begins. The sisters are about 12 to 16 or so — all adolescent energy and coltish limbs. Vacation's just started and they run to the beach, where they splash and play with some boys. It's completely innocent, but it gets them in serious trouble. "Everyone is talking about your obscene behavior," their grandmother screams at them when they get home. One by one, she beats them, and then shuts them up in their room.
The film's title, Mustang,describes the girls' spirit. They can't go to the beach, so they pretend to swim in their beds. "That scene is full of happiness and sadness at the same time," says actress Güneş Şensoy, who plays the youngest sister, the film's narrator. "They can't go to the sea, they can't go outside, but they're still trying to have fun."
First-time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven made Mustang partly as a response to rising religious conservatism in Turkey — a country with a proudly secular past. At one point the family is eating dinner while listening to a real broadcast of a government official telling women to be chaste and know their limits: Women shouldn't smile, shouldn't laugh, should look down ... rules that are "supposedly conservative" Ergüven says, but are actually "obsessive about sexuality."
Mustang's take on sexual politics seems to have helped it get attention. The movie won a prize at the Cannes film festival and has gotten rave reviews all over the world.
"Women's rights and the fate of women in Muslim countries is something that's on people's minds," says Elif Batuman, a Turkish-American staff writer for The New Yorker. She thinks the film has "tapped right into a sweet spot."
If that sounds qualified, it's because Batuman isn't wild about Mustang.
"Something in me resisted it," she says. "There was something that felt a little bit simplistic, I guess. The fairy tale-ness of it maybe was not for me."
Batuman thought a lot of the movie's details felt off — like a rigid, moralizing Muslim character drinking alcohol. She thought the portrayal of patriarchy lacked nuance. And the girls' sensational punishment seemed inconsistent with their previous freedom and education. "Anything likely to pervert us was banned," narrates the youngest sister, as her grandmother confiscates the girls' cellphones, computers, chewing gum and makeup. Two other sisters are subjected to virginity tests.
Ergüven did not grow up in Turkey. She's a diplomat's daughter who's lived in France since she was a baby. France mostly financed the film and that's how Mustangended up as that country's entry for best foreign language film at this year's Academy Awards.
"France has this way of — in a very modern ... radical way — embracing the diversity of who we are," Ergüven says. She says the country embraced her and her film.
She struggles to talk about the recent terror attacks in Paris, which she says are "a turning point." Attacks also struck close to home in October, in Ankara — the city where she was born — when two bombs exploded during a peace rally. "Kids who'd drawn peace and love signs on cardboard ... those cardboard [signs] were used as stretchers," Ergüven says.
She plans to make her next film in Turkey as well — the next one, she says, will be about democracy.
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