Most of us face these uncertain times, during which we have a particularly unusual amount of time on our hands, taking up hobbies I’m sure we will soon forget, from baking bread to knitting to watercolours. Alternatively, if you’re like me, life currently involves working my way through an assortment of streaming services (there’s more than just Netflix out there, folks!) instead of writing my undergraduate dissertation… MUBI is one such platform offering its users opportunities to watch hidden gems of cinema in theatres or online for a limited time, ranging from rentals to inbuilt ready-to-watch films – I swear this review isn’t going to be an advert for MUBI. But I am going to urge you to move beyond mere Netflix or at least to view other films you otherwise would overlook, particularly acclaimed foreign films such as Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s sensational debut Mustang (2015). In the words of the great Bong Joon Ho, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”.
Turkish-French film director Ergüven’s feature debut is set in a far-off Turkish village, following the lives of five orphaned sisters on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood. The film opens with the youngest crying into the arms of her departing teacher as her sister’s look on. As an audience, we are already assuming a similar protective, caring position over all of the girls as they continue to face the hardships of living in their overtly conservative society. The film’s cinematography provides beautiful shots of the coastal village throughout, but the opening scenes of the girls playing with their male friends in the brilliant blue sea under the bold sun is especially sublime, also acting as the catalyst for the punitive events of the film to follow, an experience taken directly from Ergüven’s own life.
These stunning scenes of epic landscape are quickly juxtaposed by the stifling familial home that becomes the effective prison for the girls in which they later become literally entrapped behind bars. Their initial costumes of baggy school uniforms are also replaced with dull and drab brown garbs as they forego attending school for lessons on cooking, cleaning and sewing in order to achieve the ultimate status of wife. What follows is a film that increasingly becomes harder and thus all the more important to watch as each child, because that is what these girls still are, is to be married off by their guardians. Each girl is presented to their potential suitor in the exact same way, with the use of camera angles equally repetitive, reinforcing the impersonal nature of their matches, despite their grandmother’s repeated insistence on each girls’ uniqueness. Whilst such sentiments coming from this figure are perhaps just words, the film does present each girl distinctively, following their individual yet ultimately united stories. This both heightens the already affective quality of the film whilst confirming its wider resonance for girls in all manner of conservative societies across the world. Such blatant feminism can be misconstrued problematically, but the film’s handling of such subject matter is almost apolitical, simply allowing different audience members to be impacted in their own unique way.
A particularly touching scene involves the girls sneaking off to an all-female crowd at a soccer match after all men were banned from sitting in the stands due to their hooliganism, hinting at wider political issues. Upon their return, they are caught by the band of women that have been schooling them in the ways of matrimony, yet their punishment is not immediate as instead they protect the girls’ indiscretion from their male relatives. This ultimately begins to complicate the generational divide between the young girls and their older counterparts, a relationship that is never truly resolved.
The film continues, revolving around the marriages of each sister one by one, raising wider issues from virginity to love to abuse. Whilst Mustang is visually pleasing, it is not an easy watch thematically. This makes it all the more compelling and all the more significant. This was recognised at the time with its overwhelming critical acclaim. Having premiered at Cannes Film Festival, a truly prestigious inauguration, it went on to win the event’s Europa Cinemas Label Award, going on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, picking up many other nominations and awards along the way. For those of you who are regulars at Leeds’ very own Hyde Park Picture House, I’m sure you will recognise the Europa Cinemas network that aids the distribution of such wonderful European cinema which our local venue continuously supports. Once all of this is over, take yourself down to the independent cinema and enjoy some social distancing-free film viewings. In the meantime, check out the cinema’s socials for more top picks of films like Mustang to catch up on online whilst you have the chance, making the most of this isolation period. Whilst no longer available on MUBI itself, Mustang can currently be found elsewhere on YouTube for a nominal fee, and there’s still a whole host of fantastic films to delve into on this site and beyond.