A group of boys and girls play in the sea. They eventually start playing a game of chicken where the girls sit on the boys' shoulders and try to knock one another off. When the girls return home, their grandmother starts swatting them and disciplining them for being obscene. A nosy neighbor told the grandmother that the girls were inappropriately rubbing their genitals on the boys' shoulders and necks to receive sexual gratification. An innocent game of chicken creates the entire conflict for one of the most powerful films of the year.
"Mustang" could not have been released at a more perfect time, not just in terms of Academy Award recognition or box office, but in what the film is saying to the world at a time when it is ready to listen. Every year there is a foreign film or two that really connects with American audiences that deals with one of the big three: race, gender or historical events seen through the eyes of the oppressed.
"Mustang" tackles gender, specifically sexism in relation to a culture that views women through a much narrower lens than we do in America.
Whether or not we like to believe it, there is still systemic racism and sexism in America, not just in the rural South as some like to believe, but in Hollywood and all across the blue states. However, when that sexism is cultural or religious in nature, the hurdles to surmount that oppression seem almost insurmountable.
"Mustang" takes a look at five sisters growing up in a rural Turkish village. The young women were orphaned at a young age and raised by their loving but old-fashioned grandmother and their downright evil uncle. After being accused of obscenity by the neighbor, the girls are pulled out of school and never allowed to leave the house except to go to the doctor's office to make sure they are all still virgins. If they are not still virgins, then they will never find a husband according to custom and marrying these girls off becomes the grandmother and uncle's primary goal once the girls are forced to abandon their education.
Each of the five young women are fundamentally different in almost every regard. This gives the audience the ability to see five separate futures with five different outcomes for the young women as their worth is equated to childbearing. Most of the women from this village never get out. They are subjected to arranged marriages and their futures are whatever their husbands decide.
Lale is the youngest of the sisters and she doesn't remotely accept what this culture expects from her. None of the young women really do, but Lale is young enough to exist outside of the influence of her elders. Güne ensoy gives a nuanced and fascinating performance as Lale. Her defiant and questioning eyes are windows into the future of these rural women. She won't live in a society that places so little value on their lives. Those eyes gave me hope for their future.
"Mustang" is brutal, while also being poignant, bittersweet and heartbreaking. Deniz Gamze Ergüven's direction is flawless. She keeps the camera moving and fluid, yet frames everything fairly classically, keeping the entire film feeling intimate and immediate. This is easily one of the best films of the year and likely to be one of the top two choices for Best Foreign Film at this year's Oscar ceremony. Experiencing "Mustang" makes our first world problems pale in comparison. Until equality is achieved everywhere, we haven't achieved much of anything at all.
Dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven