I saw Mustang, as I see most foreign language films, surrounded by baby boomers. In Ottawa, the Bytowne is really the only place to go for foreign, documentary, and most independent films. The other thing about the Bytowne: Old people love it, partly because it’s reasonably priced but also because they can ask each other “Who’s she again?” without fear of getting shushed because their neighbours were most likely wondering the same thing. So I wondered at some points whether the hearty laughter coming from the audience during this tale of female oppression was the reaction that the director was hoping for.
To be fair, I’m not at all confident that I know exactly what reaction Deniz Gamze Ergüven was going for with her debut feature. Mustang can shift tones pretty quickly and, for once, I don’t mean that as a criticism. We first meet Lale (Güneş Şensoy, who’s just wonderful) and her four sisters on their way home on the last day of school in their small Turkish village. When they run into a group of boys, it’s off to the beach to sit on their shoulders and splash each other. In a Hollywood movie, this would just be a throw-away scene for a Best Summer Ever montage but, in this time and place, it’s enough to set in motion a chain of events that are just plain infuriating. Word spreads fast about the sisters’ scandalous behavior and their livid uncle immediately pulls them out of school and keeps them home to learn to cook, clean, and be good future wives. Worried that their reputation as corrupted girls would get worse, he rushes to marry them off as soon as possible.
They’re just good kids who like to have good silly fun. To see them oppressed in the name of sexist religious fundamentalism is an outrage. Ergüven’s trick is that she has made a film that effectively captures the cruelty of the situation but is always watchable -sometimes even entertaining- and almost never unpleasant. She is as committed to portraying the girls’ resilience in the face of oppression as to the oppression itself.
There are occasional scenes of very broad comedy in which I’m sure the Bytowne crowd’s laughter was exactly what Ergüven was hoping for. In the ever-escalating battle of wits between Lale and her mean uncle, I can’t be sure. I couldn’t laugh at Lale’s increasingly clever plots to sneak out of the house. The cost to her freedom and, eventually, her safety once she’s inevitably caught made me way too nervous.
It’s a credit to Ergüven that she’s made a film that could affect audience members so differently. Mustang calls attention to gender inequality and injustice that is as hopeful as it is frustrating. Through her faith in one young girl’s fighting spirit. her feature debut is a worthy nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.