To have the words “The Academy Award nominated…” before the start of a film title will prick up the ears of many a cinephile, and allow lesser-known endeavours to receive the attention and publicity they so deserve. Turkish filmmaker Deniz Gamze Erguven’s debut production Mustang is one of those very films – and though losing out to Son of Saul at the Oscars, this pertinent, indelible drama remains a must-see for film fans, in what is a pointed study of culture and religion, and how preserving traditionalism can be at odds with a progressive contemporary society.
We delve into the life of five sisters who are raised by their grandmother and uncle following the untimely death of their parents. When innocuously fooling around after school with a few boys down on the beach, a neighbour’s decision to tell the guardians of the free-spirited teenagers what they had witnessed leads to a series of new, repressive rules of which the collective must abide by. Effectively imprisoned in their own home, the freedom is stripped away, and as the girls describe their situation to be that of a ‘wife factory’, they are married off to upstanding suitors, one by one.
It’s intriguing to study these five young girls, all so creatively inclined and independent, now without any sense of identity, suffocated by their lack of freedom. The film casts an eye over several themes of this nature, such as the elder family members struggling to adjust (or having an aversion to doing so) as mainstream, Western culture is having an impact on the youth around the world. We examine the patriarchal presence and religious guilt, as well as the notion that the stricter the rules, the more likely a rebellion. All of this has been covered substantially and significantly within this title – a seamlessly linear narrative; though Erguven is sure to never judge, and while barbed in parts, he remains impartial, casting an eye over this situation while remaining respectful. Similarly, in that case, to East is East.
The director lets the viewer into this tale in an intimate fashion too, as we witness the innocent moments like the girls getting changed and ready for bed, playing around in their pyjamas. These are the exact moments that their uncle would be most averse to us seeing, for he cares fervently for the objectification and sexualisation of his nieces – but it’s vital that we do, for it’s during these moments the girls seem themselves, and happy. Proving that this freedom is the very last thing we should be taking away from them, when really it should be encouraged.