Five Sisters, Not Easily Broken
Film #9: Mustang (2015)
Director: Deniz Gamze Urgüven
I write this review on International Women’s Day, and I couldn’t have chosen a better film to mark this day. Mustang is a fable about the ongoing struggle for gender equality, told through the story of one family – five teenage sisters – living in Turkey. It was written and directed by Deniz Gamze Urgüven, based loosely on her upbringing in Turkey (she now lives in France). It’s a gorgeous film to look at with a sumptuous score and powerful performances.
Turkey is a predominately Muslim country with a secular government (“active neutrality” is the official terms for the state’s position on religion). Because Mustang reflects the influence of Fundamentalist Islam on these young women, the movie has been controversial in Turkey, seen by some as an unfair depiction of Turkish society. But the movie doesn’t show this family as necessarily typical, and a secular state is not a guarantee against patriarchy and oppression on the micro level. I could provide plenty of examples from Fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, so I don’t read Mustang as a critique of a particular place or a particular religion so much as a reflection of the battle women have been fighting globally throughout all of history.
The sisters – Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale – are radiant in their girlhood. They’ve been raised by their grandmother since their parents death ten years before, and are clearly used to freedom. That all changes after they are witnessed swimming with boys from their school, and their innocent actions (playing chicken in the water) are sexualized by a neighbor. Their grandmother and uncle begin the process of locking the girls away, literally. Walls around the garden get higher, doors are locked, windows barred. With their flowing hair it’s easy to see the sisters as Rapunzel figures, but no one is coming to rescue them. With their burgeoning sexuality and high spirits seen as a threat to the family’s honor, their grandmother begins the process of arranging marriages for them as quickly as possible.
I don’t want to give away too much about Mustang.
It’s a movie that deals with such painful subjects – virginity tests, child marriage, molestation, loss of education – and yet there’s something glorious in the way that these girls fight for their freedom with every weapon they have.
That battle leads to results both tragic and hopeful. Lale (Günes Sensoy) is the youngest sister and narrator. She has a clear eyed view of what’s ahead if she doesn’t act, and her furious commitment to controlling her own destiny is a beautiful thing to behold. All over the world women and girls are fighting that same battle, and Mustang humanizes why it matters and why we should all be fighting for and with them.
Bonus Pick: Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Roger Ebert famously said that movies are machines that generate empathy. That’s the reason I love them so much, I think – they allow me to feel for other people, to enter experiences I will never directly live. Kelly Reichardt directed this quiet, simple, but moving story about a young woman (Michelle Williams) who has little, and faces losing it all – including her beloved dog, Lucy. For people on the edges of society there is no cushion, no margin for error. Every set back has the potential to be a disaster. Wendy and Lucy is a heartbreaker of a movie, but so compassionate…and God knows we could use more compassion these days.