Following the death of their parents, Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu) and Lale (Gunes Sensoy) are raised by their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) – who are alerted to what they perceive to be unforgivable behaviour, when a neighbour spots the girls playing in the sea after school, with a collective of boys. Ashamed and perturbed by these actions, new repressive rules are put into place to ensure the sisters are not exposed to sex, effectively imprisoned in their own home, as the family’s reputation and honour is preserved, so that each young girl can find a respectable suitor when the time comes for them to be married.
Erguven presents an intriguing study of culture and tradition in a contemporary society, and how mainstream, Western culture is infiltrating every corner of the planet and the internet is making the world a much smaller place – evident in when Lale – the youngest of the sisters – prances around her kitchen like a pop star, wearing her sister’s bra with added padding. But that’s fine, it’s part of growing up, discovering who she is and navigating her way around the modern world. But then we look at the contradiction to that, as similarly to the likes of East is East, we see how a tyrannical patriarchal presence disrupts matters, as we studiously explore the ramifications of arranged marriages, and the notion of the stricter and more repressive you are, the more likely you are to trigger a reaction, and a subsequent rebellion.
Though against the objectification and sexualisation of his nieces, Erol and his mother are quick to marry them off to complete strangers, and then suddenly the young girls are actively encouraged to have sex, and to ‘play hard to get’. At one point they’re taken to the doctor to ensure they are virgins, and then not too long after they’re taken back again to ensure they aren’t. But Erguven does not judge, merely casting an eye over the situation and letting the viewer make their own mind up. When dealing with culture and tradition it’s vital to be agenda-free and respectful, irrespective of your own beliefs.
Meanwhile, as the film progresses, the story very much belongs to Lale. She’s the most impressionable, the most curious and certainly the most fearless. She’s supposed to be the most naïve and susceptible, but she’s got her head screwed on, and is most intent in letting her disgruntled feelings known – she’s just too young to quite know how to channel her emotions and express herself sufficiently.
Mustang is a compelling drama that is deserving of the acclaim so far received (Golden Globe and Academy Award nominated) – and marks a striking debut for Erguven. The way he shoots the girls too, intimately and candidly, when they’re in their pyjamas just playing around, or when getting changed – these are the moments the uncle is most adverse to us witnessing, but we do so anyway, which is vital – because it’s in these brief moments of freedom the girls seem happy. The only time the girls seem happy.