Last fall, France selected the Turkish film Mustang as the official submission to the Academy Awards. Directed by Turkish born, French-raised film director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, the film has created nothing but deafening buzz since it premiered in Cannes last May. Five orphaned sisters are imprisoned in their homes after a neighbour reports “scandalous behaviour”, or rather, simple water play with school chums as classes finish for the year and summer holidays begin. In this remote Turkish rural community, conservative values threaten the sister’s budding sexuality.
I saw the film a few weeks ago and it has taken me this long to absorb it fully. Maybe it was the gorgeous sisters and their long-haired, long-limbed intimacy. Immediately it brought to mind this lovely quote about siblings from a favourite book on my shelf, On Beauty by Zadie Smith.
“People talk about the happy quiet that can exist between two loves, but this, too, was great; sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating. Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel — before all of these things there had been only one person, Zora, and only one place: a tent in the living room made from chairs and bed-sheets. After a few years, Levi arrived; space was made for him; it was as if he had always been. Looking at them both now, Jerome found himself in their finger joints and neat conch ears, in their long legs and wild curls. He heard himself in their partial lisps caused by puffy tongues vibrating against slightly noticeable buckteeth. He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.”
Erguven based some of the film on her own experiences growing up in Turkey.
“What seemed striking to me is that there’s this filter of sexualization through which women are perceived in Turkey, and it shapes their place in society,” she said. “It’s something that starts at a very early age — as early as the characters in the film. I wanted to question that deeply.”
Deniz Gamze Ergüven, director, Mustang
What is startling about Mustang is the confidence of this first-time director. This is not fussy filmmaking with precious mise-en-scène, but tightly-wrought narrative, timed with heartracing beats, astonishing honesty. I loved the direct gaze into sisterhood and that universal longing for freedom. Repression, and its twin- rebellion, are the focus of this agile gem, one of only two Oscar nominated films directed by women. The script was co-written by fellow filmmaker Alice Winocour. The two women met at Cannes and the result is the wondrous Mustang. If it scoops the hotly contested Best Foreign Film Oscar on Sunday, the win for a film shot in Turkey, and featuring Turkish stars, will go to France.
“When I finished this film, it was completely embraced by France. In some way it’s a very radical and modern choice. It’s a way of saying: We are this diverse. It’s a way of embracing me as French with different origins, accepting the complexity of my culture and my identity. It’s a statement that says: We have absorbed many different cultures in France today. It’s a huge responsibility. France has given me this immense honor. Being the adopted child who gets the honor makes me want to do my best very strongly.
If that isn’t a reason to get behind the film, go to see a cast(mostly newcomers) deliver a contemporary portrait of life in a part of the world still governed by extreme conservatism, even if the talents at the helm refuse to paint the usual brushes: there is nothing simplistic about this tale.
Mustang is currently playing in theatres.
For more on nominated films, check back Sunday for my Oscar stand-outs.
More on my favourite films from 2015