What indignities can one endure to survive? What is the true strength of young girls and women? Is it their resilience in the face of a world trying to break them, or something else entirely?
What are you willing to sacrifice for freedom?
There is no style of storytelling more engaging than a coming of age story; a character faced with the reality of a world both indifferent and actively hostile towards their realization of selfhood, encountering the honest few willing to aid in that struggle. Gaining the strength to be self-possessed, while not allowing others to destroy that sense of self, creates a unique opportunity for an audience to learn not just about a character, but to learn something about themselves. Even more so, if it’s the story of a young girl. Add complex relationships between women and you have the trappings of a feminist’s dream film.
“Spirited Away,” directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and “The Diary of A Teenage Girl,” directed by Marielle Heller, demonstrate the resonance and necessity of young girls’ stories. In “Spirited Away” Chihiro’s mission to rescue her parents from the spirit world she finds herself trapped in transforms her from a typical ten year old into her own savior. Similarly in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Minnie is the master of discovering herself and her relationship to sexuality while overcoming the judgments of those who would shame her for it.
“Mustang,” directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, delivers on all these aspects and more. Told from the view of Lale – played wondrously by Günes Sensoy – the youngest of five orphaned sisters; the experiences of joy and love she shares with her sisters comprise the heart of the film. Skipping off after school to play games at the beach comes into stark contrast with facing down an armed farmer in an apple grove. This ability to shift moods in a moment, to go from warmth and light to cold isolation, to create life & death tension and fear in these girls, keeps the audience on edge early on in the film.
“Mustang” portrays coming of age in its characters’ confrontation of harsh realities. When the girls’ uncle, Erol, takes them to have their chastity validated by male doctors their discomfort and tension in the waiting room is palpable. Sonay, Selma, and Ece, as the eldest sisters, are subjected to a physical examination while Lale and Nur are spared as they have not yet reached sexual maturity. While they are out, their grandmother confiscates their “corruptive” belongings and cuts off their communication with the outside world in an effort to stymy their free-spirited exploration of self. Trapped in a house with not even school as an escape, the girls revel and sneak out to a soccer match all the village girls are attending. As they sneak past their guardians, fear of punishment is mentioned and dismissed: “At least something will happen.” When they return home, their grandmother’s punishment is to arrange marriage for Sonay and Selma. On the night of their wedding, Lale comforts a depressed Selma and encourages her to run away if she does not want to go through with the marriage. Selma understands it is not so simple, “Istanbul is 1,000 kilometers away. And I can’t drive.”
Warren Ellis’ score is by turns beautiful and haunting. It falls away imperceptibly and reemerges without fanfare, serving and elevating a scene all at once. There are echoes of scenes throughout the film, shots framed in the same way that serve in sharp relief to the joy experienced early on. Early on in their captivity the girls “swim” in their bed sheets in bathing suits; they find joy and comfort in each other’s company. As the elder girls are ritually married off, Lale is left alone with Nur. Though they play the same game, their distress is palpable. As Lale’s experiences of loss pile up, so too does the visual isolation.
The first time we meet the girls’ grandmother she berates them for playing with boys. It is not until later when their uncle Erol arrives home that it becomes clear her wrongdoing towards the girls is her way of trying to protect them from his violent temper. Erol locks the girls away and keeps them from attending school. His disdain for their “disrespectful” existence under his roof and the expense he has incurred by taking them in, is the catalyst for their grandmother’s wife training and matchmaking. If she gets them out of the house in an honorable way, they have some hope of escaping his abuse. What is clear is that she does not realize how much harm she is causing the girls in turn by attempting to marry them off to strangers.
The girls sneak out to attend a soccer match that only women are permitted to attend – the men have rioted so much they’ve been banned. They miss the group van to the match and stop the next vehicle headed in the same direction; a transport truck driven by a young man named Yazin. Yazin refuses to help them at first, fearful of losing his job if they are discovered. The eldest sister, Sonay, wears him down and Lale uses her argument against him later in the film – they are both taking an equal risk in spending time together. It is this friendship forged in mutual risk and trust from which Lale gains the skills and assistance she needs to escape her confinement.
The girls’ aunt Emine is in charge of their cooking lessons. She appears docile and meek, but she is the one who teaches Lale how to make homemade gum; something that her uncle would surely disapprove of given his reaction to his niece Ece chewing gum early in the film. It is she who protects the girls from certain corporal punishment when they sneak out to the soccer match and she spots them on television. Emine cuts power to the entire village so the girls’ secret is not exposed. In her own way, she is rebelling too, showing adaptability and strength in quiet insubordination.
At the beginning of the film Lale bids a tearful goodbye to her teacher, Dilek, who is moving to Istanbul. The role of a teacher in a student’s life is one that borders on and crosses into the territory of a parent-child relationship. The closeness and nurturing nature of their relationship is evident when Dilek gives Lale her personal address. Lale guards this information in what seems at first to be a typical child-like forgetfulness, but is truly her desire to put off acknowledging the reality of her absence. When things become dire for her and Nur she digs it out again; it is her one hope for escape and survival.
Lale’s indomitable spirit, toughness and smarts, make you root for her. As the stakes get higher, she works even harder and formulates a truly daring, dangerous, and brave plan to change her and Nur’s circumstances. Not until she has soundly defended her values does she allow a moment’s weakness.
As a friend skillfully put it: “If you don’t cry while watching this film, you just might not have a soul.”
Liz has a background in film & television production and has worked with NBC, Comedy Central, VH1, and Spotify. Her interests include diversity/representation in media, gender & sexuality politics, social justice and the impact of pop culture in shaping popular opinion. She also slays at drunken karaoke. You can follow her on Twitter @telitlikeitliz