By DIANA CHENG
Asian American Press
CALGARY (Jan. 7, 2016) — “Mustang” (Cohen Media, Turkish language, English subtitles, 97 Min.), the debut feature film from Turkish/French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, is a title that not only metaphorically describes the energy of the five sisters in the story, but the director’s own audacious spirit of female empowerment in a patriarchal society.
Born in Ankara, Turkey, in 1978, Ergüven’s upbringing was a multi-national experience navigating between France, Turkey and the United States. She studied directing at La Fémis in Paris, with Olivier Assayas a major influence.
Mustang premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015 and took the Europa Cinemas Prize. It has since been nominated for or won numerous awards at film festivals the world over. It is now a Golden Globe nominee and an Oscar shortlisted contender for Best Foreign Language Film representing France.
The story begins with the last day of school in a remote village in Northern Turkey. Lela (Günes Sensoy), the youngest of five sisters, says goodbye sadly to a beloved, favorite teacher who will be moving to Istanbul. She leaves Lela her address for future contact.
Lela walks home with her four older, teenaged sisters and a few boys from their school. Soon, her sad mood is lifted. Walking by the shore of The Black Sea, the youngsters go into the water in their school uniform and engage in some innocent roughhousing fun to beat the summer heat.
Once back home, the sisters are met with a severe scolding from their Grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas). The innocent play with their male schoolmates at the beach is seen and misinterpreted by a neighbor. In the ultra-conservative, patriarchal community, girls don’t get physical with boys even in play. As guardians of these five orphaned siblings, their Grandmother and Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) sternly uphold the traditional values.
In response to what they interpret as flirtatious acts the guardians keep the sisters locked in their house all summer. Iron bars are installed to prevent them from escaping. All modern evils are taken away, including telephones, computers, TV, music. They are literally imprisoned in their home. As the summer passes and a new term begins they are not allowed to go to school anymore.
Director Ergüven leads us to see the predicaments of the sisters through some intimate camera works. The sisters are closely bonded to uplift and support each other. A handheld camera follows them as they brood over their situation. We are privy to their close bonding and sisterhood like watching a family video. With such glimpses into their imprisoned lives, Ergüven grabs our empathy and carries our emotion with aesthetically riveting shots.
How do four adolescent girls spend the whole summer under house arrest? Director Ergüven captivates us with their longings. But how can mustangs be kept in a cage? The home is soon turned into a wife-making factory. The sisters are tamed to make traditional meals, sew modest clothing and follow the conventional path to be married off.
From the stale heat of imprisonment, Ergüven injects a dash of humor like a breath of cool, fresh air in one particular episode, a much-needed comic relief. She leads us to cheer for the sisters as they escape out of the house to watch a soccer game and keeps us on the edge of our seat to see that they will not be caught and punished.
While the sisters are at the soccer game, ecstatic that their team is winning, their Grandmother, Uncle and aunts are watching the broadcast live on TV at home. As the camera points to the spectators stand, the sisters are shown on the TV screen, immersed in euphoria. Shocked, but afraid that the girls will be seen by their Uncle, one of the aunts breaks the electrical box with a broomstick to block the broadcast, a spontaneous and heartwarming act. We are much relieved to see that after the game, the girls successfully sneak back into their home avoiding detection.
Such small victories are pathetically inadequate as the sisters learn of their fate of arranged marriage, starting with the eldest. Lela sees the dead-end of such a path for herself and resourcefully prepares for a way out. Her unyielding spirit begins to brew a plan of escape from imprisonment and the prescribed trajectory of her life. Ergüven’s storytelling skill is adroit here in turning a family drama into a suspense thriller. The latter part of the film is even more riveting as we, as helpless onlookers, anxiously await the outcome of her escape.
Who can Lela turn to as she bravely defies her uncle’s authority? Here we see the continuity from the beginning scene comes back to make sense of it all. Silently we wish her well as she plots a track for her own future.
Warren Ellis’s soundtrack is haunting like a low cry yearning for freedom. His violin is that soulful voice stirring to break out of bondage, leading us to empathize and let out a sigh of relief as the film reaches its triumphal end.
The Golden Globes awards ceremony will be held this Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, broadcast live by NBC, 5 pm PST / 8 pm EST.