Deniz Gamze Ergüven creates a “joyful” feministic fairytale that explores if teen rebelliousness and sexual awareness can survive in conservative Anatolia. Heart of Sarajevo for Best Feature Film at the 21st Sarajevo Film Festival.

Mustang Poster

Mustang is a brave debut feature film, Turkish-French actress and director Deniz Gamze Ergüven succeeds to stir up a different form of feminist cinema which expands beyond the theoretical limits that are usually implied and like the homonymous free-range horses it escapes from the standards. Mustang premiered in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section at the 68th Cannes Film Festival and won the Hearts of Sarajevo Awards for Best Feature Film and for Best Actress(es) at the 21st Sarajevo Film Festival.


The story is actually a fairytale – or maybe not? In a small town of Northern Turkey close to the Black Sea and a thousand kilometers away from Istanbul, five orphaned young sisters live. Lale (Güneş Sensoy), who is the youngest one, narrates their story. Their only relatives are their austere grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) and their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). One day at the beginning of their summer break, the girls are playing with some boys from school and this was their biggest mistake. Their grandmother considers their attitude as indecent, unacceptable and it should be changed, otherwise “no one will ever want to marry them.” This event will trigger a chain reaction and as a result the girls will end up under house arrest by their uncle. Their lives would become harder and inexpediently conservative. Instead of living a summer of sexual awareness and freedom they will be forced to be members of a “wife factory” as this is women’s destiny. Some of them will surrender and accept it while others will try to escape from their fates.

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Deniz Gamze Ergüven follows a recognized path as she brings to the table the never-ending fight of progression versus tradition which is set in today’s society. As it is expected, the girls are representing their rebellious nature since they want to live their lives according to their own emotions and needs of their age. On the other hand, there’s family who is the representative of conservatism and of the proper social attitude, the people that always consider religion and society as the ultimate judges. Certainly, the five-sister pattern that is juxtaposed with these subjects – tradition, society, marriage – has already been explored in many artistic forms. Jane Austen’s book Pride and Prejudice (1813), musical Fiddler on the Roof (1964) based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories and of course the aesthetically similar filmic adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ book The Virgin Suicides (1999) by Sofia Coppolla are some striking examples. So what differentiates Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s story – that was co-written by her and Alice Winocour – from the others? Luckily and despite all that extreme referential background, she manages to create her own version that tries to stray away from the tradition and to act freely, like her heroines.

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Starting from the film’s subject, Mustang doesn’t appear as another “third-world” film that tries to impress and maybe patronize the western audience. It focuses on the social aspect and the impact that tradition has in modern Turkish society and not exclusively through religion. For that reason, the director is forced to use all the elements that haunt the lives of her heroines and probably many other girls of the same age. Arranged marriages, cooking lessons, obedience to the elders, banned sports, forbidden discussions, virginity’s sacred importance, fear of the male figure, sex discrimination, religious rules and suppressed sexuality are some of them, and if any of these elements is missing then a girl’s life will be ruined forever. Despite of the bleakness of this subject Deniz Gamze Ergüven decides to follow a seemingly playful approach to her story. She chooses to blend humorous scenes with drama, she prefers to hide from the viewer some poignant details that could make the film unbearable and she actually watches everything through the innocent eyes of Lale. She achieves to act and observe like a little girl and not like an adult and this brings to the film a characteristic liveness. This bitter-sweetness is what drives the film away from the known clichés and offers moments where the viewer can actually feel somehow relieved and less stressed than a bleak and austere drama.

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On a second level, Mustang is also a hidden sociopolitical film, that probably will rise controversies in Turkey. The fight between modernization and tradition is not just fictional but also real today. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party has gained extreme power by exposing the importance of preserving the religion and the tradition. For that reason, the profile of its electoral base is quite close to the heroines’ family. In a characteristic moment, an actual member of the government, during his speech, praises the girls who don’t go astray and loose the values that formed the Turkish society as they are faithful by following the Muslim rituals. This key moment is when it is made understandable that the clash between younger generation of Turks and their parents is almost inevitable and has already started. The gap is not just between generations since at a similar moment, the women feel mesmerized by one of the numerous soap operas that deluge Turkish TV while the men are allowed to discuss about politics. It could seem as a stereotypical depiction but doesn’t feel that far away from reality.

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Apart from the different style in storytelling, what really shines in Mustang are the performances by the lead actresses. Güneş Sensoy, Doğba Doğuslu, Tuğba Sunguroğlu, Elit Işcan and Ilayda Akdoğan achieve to depict the personalities of their heroines in a unique way that can both embrace the sparkle and the rebelliousness that is needed by each one of them and at the same way they can follow the rules of a well-orchestrated ensemble. Considering that only Işcan had a previous on screen experience, the fact that everyone else can be expressed in such an exemplarily natural way seems at least amazing and quite promising for the future. These physical performances – that quite reasonably were awarded at Sarajevo – go perfectly along with the transparently naturalistic style that David Chizalett’s and Ersin Gök’s camera follow. The image is transcending a poetic depiction as it reaches an almost documentaristic feeling, something that allows the viewer to actually live through and inside this story.

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Could Mustang be a fairytale or actual a “based on true events” story? There’s no answer to that and it is not needed. What Deniz Gamze Ergüven succeeded is quite extraordinary. She captures each moment’s vivacity and power and she transfers all the emotions to us, while at the same time poses actual questions about women’s position in Turkish society, without forgetting to balance and filtrate everything through an ostensible dreamy joyfulness in an ideal place from where everyone needs to escape.

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