Mustang (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O’Donoghue

Produced by Charles Gillibert; directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven; screenplay by Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Alice Winocour; cinematography by David Chizallet and Ersin Gök; edited by Mathilde Van de Moortel; music by Warren Ellis; starring Günes Nezihe Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal Koldas, and Ayberk Pekcan. Blu-ray & DVD, color, 94 min., 2015. A Cohen Media Group release.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven is a Turkish filmmaker living in France. A Drop of Water (2006), her striking graduation film for the French state film school (La Fémis), is an extra on this Blu-ray/DVD set. In it, a child called Lale is shown in home-movie footage running down a Turkish country road. The main story concerns Lale as an adult in Paris; played by the director, she is a vibrant, “modern” woman whose sexual exhibitionism, provocative speech, and perceived lack of respect causes consternation in her patriarchal ex-pat community, leading to violence, a night in the jail cells, and deportation for Lale.

Ergüven reworks some of the situations, motifs, and ideas of A Drop of Water in her belated debut feature Mustang. The main character is also called Lale (the extraordinary Günes Nezihe Sensoy); she too chafes against an oppressive male-dominated community and culture. She too is often seen running down a country road as she attempts to escape the prison-cum-“wife factory” her grandmother (Nihal Koldas) and pedophile uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) have made of her home. She too ends her film expelled from her family and community.

The main differences between short and feature is that in Mustang, it is Lale who does the expelling, and she who is the narrator, the central consciousness of the fiction, whereas in A Drop of Water, Lale is the one narrated, talked about, watched, and judged by others. 

Mustang’s Lale is one of five sisters who celebrate the summer break by splashing about with some boys at the beach. The complexity of the film crystallizes in this scene and only becomes apparent on a second viewing. Ergüven is determined to position her protagonists (not unproblematically) as “natural”—hence the film’s title, named for the free-roaming American horse—their emotional and physical growth given force by being set in the intense blues of sea and sky. The boys are a faceless means to the end, which is the girls’ expression of joy in life. It only later we realize that this sequence has not been a neutral, naive paean to exultant puberty. 

Ilayda Akdogan and Tugba Sunguroglu with Elit Iscan facing away from camera, Gunes Sensoy laying across, Doga Zeynep Doguslu shoulder in lower left corner.

On their way home, the girls stop in a garden to eat apples and joke around. This seems to be a continuation of the “nature” theme until “culture” or “society” intrudes and a landowner threatens them with a gun. The garden has very specific (and possibly antithetical) connotations of Paradise and cultivated wildness in Islamic culture as in most cultures. From this point on, life gets rapidly worse for the sisters. Without warning or explanation, their grandmother—who with their uncle Erol looks after the children in the unexplained absence of their parents—abruptly punishes them. It turns out that a female neighbor informed on the girls’ “immoral” behavior at the beach, “rubbing” themselves against boys in full view of the community. What had seemed to be an expression of the girls’ feelings from their own point of view was also a scene of unseen surveillance. Throughout the film, people constantly watch their neighbors, making sure they do not transgress the hypocritical and repressive social norms that bind them.

Erol and grandmother confine the sisters to the house, install iron bars and grilles in the windows, and literally ground them—they are not even allowed to go to school, never mind play with friends. Access to all modern accoutrements—including telephones and computers—are withdrawn, the girls must replace their “Western” clothes with baggy, uncomfortable tunics, and are taught how to cook and keep house for their future husbands in anticipation of marriages that are speedily arranged. Initially, the sisters try to counter this internment with play, irreverence, sibling infighting, fantasy, and role-play. The elder sister Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) sneaks off to meet her boyfriend with whom she has anal sex in order to pass the virginity tests that are forced on the girls. She is right to be cautious; when Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) fails to bleed on her wedding night, she is forced to the hospital by her gun-wielding father-in-law to corroborate her claims of “purity.”

Clockwise starting with actress in red sash: Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, and Gunes Sensoy.

Eventually their resistance slides into inertia, conformity or despair. With one exception—Lale. The film has been criticized for not distinguishing Lale’s sisters sufficiently from each other, and it is true that the film is at its most poignant when the girls are entangled in an undifferentiated coil of love, comfort, or support—especially when the four survivors meet for the last time at the funeral of Ece (Elit Iscan) who committed suicide. Lale is the only one who tries to keep the dream of escape alive and take steps to realize it. Images that in another child-centred film would seem to evoke the usual behavior of a growing and curious youth—exploring the house and garden, riffling through the elders’ wardrobes, trying to drive a car—become charged in this context, where Lale is plotting escape routes, securing funds for survival, and sourcing transport.

Ergüven’s camera privileges Lale’s consciousness, giving the film its dynamism and emotional heft. This is where comparisons with another feature debut are misleading. Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides focuses on five sisters similarly confined to home, but the film’s pace and mise en scène is freighted with the young women’s manifest ennui. Ergüven’s mobile camera is much closer to her acknowledged source, the prison movie Escape from Alcatraz (1979). There are direct references to Don Siegel’s film—the construction of dummy heads to dupe their jailers, and the escape through a rectangular hole in the wall. But the influence is deeper than mere allusion. Mustang emulates Siegel’s miraculous style in Alcatraz, a style that overlays a kind of subjective, free indirect discourse cleaving to the main character, onto the “objective” system of rigid surveillance and physical confinement that blocks every move. In other words, Ergüven’s approach embodies in the film the dialectic between Lale’s free spirit and her restricted body.


In the opening half hour of Mustang, it seems that the elder women are complicit in their gender’s oppression, overseeing the sisters’ confinement and prescribing their future roles. The central soccer-match sequence brings this ostensible complicity into focus and criticizes the brutal contradictions of modern-day Turkey. The girls’ first escape is to attend a soccer match—a traditionally male pastime (Erol organizes his social life with cronies around matches on television). Because of an increase in hooliganism, the Turkish Football Federation has banned men from attending this match. The sisters see this as creating a liberating and attractive female space in the context of their closed, male-dominant lives. 

When their elderly relatives catch sight of the sisters on TV, they mobilize to protect them from Erol’s inevitable wrath by sabotaging the entire village’s electricity supply. When the grandmother later discovers that her son is nightly raping Nur (Doga Neyzep Doguslu), she speedily organizes her marriage. Naturally Nur sees injustice and cruelty in this seemingly high-handed decision, but the grandmother is actually protecting her from their predatory gaoler. In a similar way, all the grandmother’s seemingly overbearing actions, rightly or wrongly, are oriented towards protecting her granddaughters from the worst rigors of a tyrannical patriarch and the community that sustains him.

Erol’s actions are only an extreme version of a growing conservatism in Turkey in the last two decades, a retrenchment of the modernisation enacted by Kemal Ataturk and his successors since the 1920s, and an embrace of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist demagoguery. An already celebrated scene in Mustang shows the remaining three sisters, reduced to communicating through gestures and sounds, making a mockery of a speech on TV by Erdogan’s deputy prime minister Bülent Arinç, bleating about female chastity, modesty, limitations, and need to behave in the public sphere. Erol, furious at the disrespect shown this speech—which gives sociopolitical sanction to his misogynistic persecution—sends Ece out of the room, with tragic results.

Tugba Sunguroglu, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan, and Gunes Sensoy.

Erol’s oppression—systematically shown in its incremental stages—is ultimately worked by the girls against him as Lale and Nur hijack the latter’s wedding and lock themselves in, turning their prison into a temporary refuge. Crazed Erol, trying to gain entry into the house like a murderous gang in a Western (there is a 1959 B-Western called Mustang!) or Jack Torrance in The Shining, is linked to the horny boys who prowl beneath the sisters’ bedroom with gang rape on their minds. Reviews of the film and its trailer position Mustang as a kind of euphoric “Girl Power” escape movie. What is striking about the denouement is how muted it is, keyed to Warren Ellis’s mournful violin (his soundtrack is available to download as part of this set; the other extras on the disc are a perfunctory interview with the young actresses and a sixteen-page booklet); the open ending, as Lale’s former teacher embraces the girl in wide-eyed bewilderment, offers at best qualified comfort. 

What the ending emphasizes is not the girls’ physical escape, but the extent to which their yearning for freedom is linked to the power of sight. The recurring image of Mustang is that of Lale trying to look beyond the confines of her house-prison; after the first “virginity test,” Erol’s car enters a dark tunnel but doesn’t emerge. When the bus taking the two girls to Istanbul enters a tunnel, it re-emerges into the bright light. Ergüven gives her heroines time to simply look out the bus window at the views before them. The Istanbul they see is not a famed tourist destination; it is a site of hope for freedom and spiritual renewal, but also a memorial for the past and what has been lost—Lale, who has been dreaming about her absent sisters, remembers those left behind, in living or actual death. The first step in such renewal is when Lale shares her dominant viewpoint with her sister; they both simply look out. There is something precarious but blessed about the sequence, it implies that no matter what happens next—and recent events in Turkey suggest that it might only get worse—they will have this moment of true communion.

Darragh O’Donoghue works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 4