Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, the film features five free-spirited, wild-haired girls who are locked up inside a two-story house in the Black Sea town of İnebolu. Surrounded by metal doors and barbed wire, they are micromanaged by a bullish, child-molesting uncle with a Norman Bates–like relationship to his psychologically bruised mother. She seeks to inflict similar bruises on the group of orphaned sisters. And the crime of the Mustang quintet to warrant such a fate? On the first day of summer holiday, they go to the beach with boys from their school and perform what we call in Turkey deve güreşi (camel wrestling) — also known as “chicken fighting” in the US — which involves boys carrying girls on their shoulders as the latter struggle to throw each other into the water. A local gossip witnesses this dastardly episode and immediately informs their grandmother about it. “Were you trying to rub your vaginas against the boys’ heads?” the grandmother asks seriously, while beating the girls in the manner of a Victorian schoolmaster. The verdict of the family court: the girls must spend the summer inside the house, where they are subjected to endless lessons concerning the preparation of delicious local dishes, including the irresistible dolma — a favorite of tourists who come to Turkey.
As the 97-minute film progresses, the girls’ fate increasingly resembles that of a Grimms’ fairy tale. All of the windows in their house are locked, despite rising temperatures. A drainpipe attached to the building allows the girls to sneak out and make out with local boys, but their efforts to leave the house with permission continue to fail. The uncle, for example, refuses to let the youngest girl, Lale, a soccer fan, go to the stadium, arguing that male fans may sexually abuse her (which is cruel and unusual given that the uncle himself abuses girls after hours). Thanks to a driver that the girls meet on the road, they successfully execute a plan to see a soccer game, which men have been banned from due to drunken conduct. Following this episode, the girls’ lives get darker: more control, more forced education, more stifling of souls. Not being able to take this regime of discipline and sexual abuse any longer, one of the girls shoots herself. The grandmother, scared of what may be in store for the rest of the household, starts marrying the remaining girls to unattractive boys in the village. Her approach is cold and systematic: she effectively turns the house into a marriage factory, and two girls are sent off. The remaining two (one of whom is Lale) decide to escape from this madhouse and head to Istanbul with some help from the aforementioned driver.
As the last girls leave for Turkey’s most populous city, it becomes clear that Mustang is a nightmare presentation of provincialism. The uncle is a secular guy who enjoys his rakı in the company of fellow local patriarchs. His actions are possibly dictated by his fear of what Turks call konu komşu ne der (“what will neighbors say”). Nowhere in the film does he make any reference to Allah or Islam: it is the fear of others, not religion, that leads him to lock the girls up. But of course, the underlying raison d’être beneath his actions must be the desire to lock up his own secret, his own shame.
A rapidly growing club of famous Mustang fans (members include Lena Dunham, Darren Aronofsky, and M. Night Shyamalan) has sided with the brave girls who struggle to escape their sentence and reach freedom. Who wouldn’t? But many in Turkey, both from the left and the right, have complained about the film’s perceived orientalism. A new wave of criticism came after Mustang was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category. “I have huge, huge problems with that film,” Turkish film critic Ali Arikan, who is one of Roger Ebert’s “far-flung correspondents,” told me. “You know me, I don’t subscribe to any of this ‘ooh, it’s orientalist’ business, but that film is orientalist as fuck. How can you set a film in cunting İnebolu and make the girls sound like the equivalent of SNL’s Californians? The film is terribly unreal.”
Arikan has a point: the different accents of the girls and their captors are lost on most non-Turkish viewers. Unlike their uncle and grandmother, who sound effortlessly authentic, the girls’ accents sound too urban for İnebolu, which gives the impression that, rather than having been born and raised in the countryside, they were transported there by the filmmakers. Their inaccurate accents introduce a linguistic element to the power dynamic between the girls and their captors — it is as if there is a war between oppressive figures who speak perfect Turkish and Westernized rebels who defy their rules.
The representation of the girls’ confinement inside the house has been seen as equally problematic: they wander in their rooms like figures from Eugène Delacroix’s 1834 painting Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement), a work both admired and critiqued for its powerful, bold, and orientalist representation of Algerian women. They are like harem women, awaiting their liberator.
But to dismiss the film as an orientalist fantasy or as otherwise “unreal” would be to ignore Ergüven’s firm decision against making a realistic film in the first place. She wrote the first treatment of Mustang in 2011 when her intention was to make a realistic film. “It looked too much like real-life events and real-life characters, so I put it in a drawer,” Ergüven recently told Pacific Standard’s Katie Kilkenny. “A year later I took the project out again, and with the layers and layers of everything that cinema can offer you, I tried to distance myself from the real-life events, and also from naturalism.” Instead of a naturalistic take, Ergüven chose to focus on the fairy-tale elements of her story: “From the moment [I] realized it was a fairy tale, that style spread to every aesthetic choice in the film, from the locations, which visually look like drawings, to costumes and choice of music. We were building a universe of our own.”
But then again, one woman’s fairy tale is another’s national allegory. In his 1986 article “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Fredric Jameson suggested that novels and films, which conventionally center on an individual’s private destiny (in this case Lale’s), are necessarily read by Western readers as allegories of the public destiny of a third-world society. Perhaps paradoxically, though, it is not “Western” viewers who have insisted on reading Lale’s fate in provincial Turkey as an allegory for the nation itself. Turkish critics have. In the eyes of Mustang’s Turkish critics, who here resemble Jameson’s Western reader (perhaps a symptom of global Westernization itself), the film is an unflattering national allegory.
But as the plot summary of the film shows, the Grimms’ fairy tale quality of the story challenges that view. Events are rendered in the film through the perspective of its child protagonist — it is Lale’s vision of events that we see. Mustang opens with Lale’s partition from her favorite teacher at school and ends with their reunion in Istanbul. It would be shameful if we were condemned to understand Lale solely through the perspective of what she may or may not represent in the political sphere of Turkey. The telescopic view offered by the allegorical reading, in this case, harms our understanding of a narrative, which actually requires our microscopic care.
What makes Mustang special, I think, is the undeniable chemistry it manages to forge between the girls at its center. In the words of Joyce Carol Oates, whose tweets never fail to surprise fans like me, “Suffused with an almost demonic energy & radiance, Turkish film ‘Mustang’ is a unique experience.” Its demonic energy and radiance: This is what Mustang will be remembered for in the future. All of the big political generalizations people tend to make in relation to this film are clouded by the way Ergüven locks up her wild characters inside the film frame. As the level of their confinement increases, the girls’ struggles for liberation seem all the more touching.
Kaya Genç is LARB’s Istanbul correspondent.