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The five orphaned sisters in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang

Why Mustang deserves to win an Oscar

The Turkish coming-of-ager about five sisters deserves to win the foreign film category on account of its boldness and fearless capturing of teenhood

For many of us, it’s difficult to imagine your parents telling you who you’re going to spend the rest of your life with. Difficult to imagine them being there, just outside your bedroom door, the first time you have sex with that person and demanding to see the bloodied sheets for proof that the woman was “pure”. 

Mustang, the debut feature from Turkey’s Deniz Gamze Ergüven, lays bare the deep-rooted traditions many of us would find intolerable, not least arranged marriages, which still take place in conservative parts of Turkey. The film is a coming-of-age tale about the day-to-day trenches of female adolescence in a remote region of the country and the fiercely loyal bond between five orphaned sisters who’ve essentially been imprisoned in their family home. It’s up for best foreign film at this year’s Oscars and it should definitely elbow its way to the top of the pile that includes Theeb, Son of Saul, A War, Embrace the Servant.) Here’s why.


Mustang’s similarities to The Virgin Suicides, although unintended, are pretty striking. And that’s no bad thing. The Turkish coming-of-ager follows five sisters (like Suicides) who are locked up against their will in their family home (like Suicides), forced to wear unflattering dresses (like Suicides); they dream of the outside world, of boys, of dancing, of having fun (like Suicides) and they suffer because of their punishing domestic environment (kind of like Suicides). Visually, too, Mustang is dreamy and redolent of Coppola’s pastel-hued debut. Yet it is a different film. Growing up as a girl in rural Turkey – a country whose president uttered the actual words "You cannot put women and men on an equal footing” – is nothing like growing up as a girl in middle-class suburbia, no matter how fucked up your parents are.


Sure, it centres on the disturbing struggles of five young girls confined to their grandmother’s house, where they’re subjected to “virginity tests” and married off one by one. But Mustang is no downer. It’s peppered with joyous moments: brazen attempts by the girls to escape their domestic cage, a sneaky trip to a football match, small acts of rebellion and individual expression – all of this deftly balanced with the ominous backdrop of old-fashioned values gone too far. In other words, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry, and you’ll experience the after effects of a mighty gut-punch as you shuffle out of the cinema.


Mustang doesn’t take aim at Turkish society in a moralistic finger-wagging kind of way. Ergüven was born in Turkey but emigrated to France as a child – her film does not force any Western liberal values in your face. It shows the wider picture. The sisters are raised in a household where their basic freedoms – like being able to leave the house – are denied, where they’re punished simply for being girls. But the film doesn’t simply say: every man in Turkey thinks women should be treated this way; it doesn’t paint its characters with the same broad brush of judgment. For one, it shows a young man, a truck driver, who helps the girls out in a particularly desperate moment. He clearly doesn’t agree with how they’re being married off. And it’s important to remember that, in reality, arranged marriages form 20 per cent of all marriages in Turkey. Not everyone agrees with it. And the film doesn’t lose sight of that.


Even if you didn’t grow up in rural Turkey you’ll still find something relatable in the way Mustang captures being a teen and navigating the choppy waters of adolescence. There’s that burning desire to get out into the world (magnified 100 per cent here) and the uncertainty about what your future holds and whom you’ll end up with. Then there are the little things – splashing about in the sea with your mates, crushing on a football player you’ll never meet IRL. The film zeroes in on little moments like this, romanticising those years like the best films of the genre but without a sugary voiceover exclaiming how “that was the best summer of my life”. It’s poignant, powerful and teems with life.


Somewhere in the near future you can expect to see Deniz Gamze Ergüven with crisscrossed spotlights above her name. The director has hit the target dead-centre with her bracing debut and has shown there’s more to Turkish cinema than painfully slow, austere films about middle-aged men in the throes of an existential crisis. Ergüven displays a sure-footed confidence found in the best European auteurs. Thankfully her film is being showered with plaudits, and it should – if the Academy have any sense – win the best foreign film Oscar come February 28. Miss this film at your peril.