Mustang was directed and co-written by Turkish born Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who actually grew up in France. The official film organization in Turkey refused to submit Mustang for Oscar consideration so France ended up submitting it to the Academy and it’s now been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. A multitude of film pundits have praised the film no end but have any of them asked how true is Ergüven’s story? A casual perusal of the majority of posts on IMDb by Turkish natives maintain that Ergüven’s view of the way things are in Turkey as depicted in the film, is inaccurate and superficial.
Mustang is set in İnebolu, in northern Turkey, near the Black Sea. The story concern five sisters who live with their uncle and grandmother in a provincial, conservative town. When we first meet them, the youngest sister, Lale, says goodbye to her teacher who is moving to Istanbul. Propped up on the shoulders of some of their fellow male students, they attempt to knock one another into the water, as they frolic in the ocean. Later word gets back to neighbors that they’ve been acting ‘inappropriately with boys’ and they’re first castigated by their grandmother and later physically abused by their uncle. Ultimately they’re forbidden to leave the house and no longer allowed to attend school.
So at this juncture, what’s wrong with this picture? As those posters from Turkey point out, the girls don’t act like girls who are from the provincial Black Sea area—they’re more like girls from an urban environment. Their accents (according to these posters) don’t sound right either. Others on the internet liken the girls to the characters in Sophia Coppola’s ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and their behavior seemed to me more akin to frat girls in the cheap American exploitation flick, ‘Girls Gone Wild.’ Ergüven is clearly the outsider looking in and can only imagine what provincial girls in that part of the world are really like. Most teenage girls have a rebellious streak but would they act out in the manner depicted here—especially when they are growing up in an abusive home? I think not.
What also doesn’t ring true is that girls were never reigned in by the grandmother and the abusive uncle when they were very young. They show no fear of retaliation as everything is one big joke—but in a conservative, patriarchal society, one is taught to fear retribution. Therefore, their rebellion would probably take a much more subtle form and they would not be allowed to act out in the way that is depicted here.
As the plot progresses, we realize that Ergüven’s approach to character is didactic. The grandmother is also a victim of male perfidy as the uncle holds her responsible for the girls being spoiled. The grandmother’s affinity for the arranged marriages is clearly a response to her perception that the uncle is sexually abusing his nieces—marrying them off is her way of protecting them. At the same time, she’s intimidated by the uncle, who is basically a cardboard villain in the storyline.
I have no doubt bad things happen to women all over the world and especially in places where sexuality is viewed as something dirty. Ergüven knows about arranged marriages and wisely shows the conflicting attitudes of the first two sisters who are married off (one is ecstatic since she’s matched up with her current lover; the other is sullen as she has nothing in common with a husband to be who is a virtual stranger). Still, I would have liked to have known a little bit more about the grooms and the family members. We see them at a distance and one gets the feeling that Ms. Ergüven doesn’t know these people hardly at all. She’s been quoted as saying that Mustang is a “fairy tale”—but it’s clear her story is one of ‘us vs. them’—agitprop for those who simply want to be on the winning side of a very complex cultural problem.
As for the rest of Mustang—I say spare me the feel good histrionics. It all comes down to a most improbable escape on the part of the two younger sisters after another one of them commits suicide. Yes maybe something like that happened on one or two occasions in real life, but I would still say, ‘not likely’. Next time ditch the super villain of an uncle, scratch the suicide and show us the sisters as normal teenagers living in a culture which they feel part of but also yearn to have more opportunities in a society filled with less oppression.