‘Mustang’ is on a roll. The French film won the New Auteurs Audience Award at AFI FEST 2015 last week cementing the raves it had already racked up from earlier festivals. (It screened during the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes where it won the Europa Cinemas Prize, and is also France’s entry for Oscar’s Best Foreign Film). Deniz Gamze Erguven’s debut feature opens in Los Angeles, Friday November 20 and most certainly will continue to receive accolades – as of this writing its Rotten Tomatoes score is 95%.
A moving tale of sisterhood and cultural repression in a small Turkish village, “Mustang” begins with a voiceover narration that warns, “Everything turned in the blink of an eye.” We later learn that the voice belongs to Lale (Gunes Sensoy), the youngest of five sisters who are all cared for by their grandmother and uncle (it seems their parents died some years earlier.)
Opening on the last day of the school year, we meet the sisters who wait for Lale. Lale is teary-eyed about her teacher leaving for Istanbul. The teacher sweetly gives Lale her address telling her to write.
Naturally the four older girls tease Lale for being teacher’s pet, as they all run off to the beach with a group of boys. The boys and girls, all fully clothed in their school uniforms, innocently play in the water. But this male-female mix is enough to scandalize the gawkers from the village.
Returning home to their grandmother, the girls are immediately punished. When their uncle arrives having heard of the “whorish behavior,” the punishment is ratcheted up still further. “Instruments of corruption” (cell phones, computers, magazines, etc.) are banned and locked away. The girls are now prisoners of their home, forced to learn how to cook, clean and prepare themselves for marriage.
These young spirited girls react against the constraint. There are wily attempts to undermine authority. Director Erguven intensifies the slow burning powder keg that is certainly to go off. As older sisters Sonay and Selma are prepared for marriage, the younger three wonder if they’ll be next.
Tension grows as we root for these girls to somehow break free. But to what? To where? An arranged marriage to a somewhat bewildered boy seems the only way “out” for a woman. But is that a bigger or smaller cage?
This young cast of mostly first-time actresses (Sensoy, Dogba Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan) is superb. Only Iscan who plays Ece had acted before. Director Erguven, who was born in Turkey, but mostly grew up in Paris, paints a sensitive portrait of the desire for female equality against the backdrop of the conservative village.
“The important thing for me is to provoke empathy for these women. For them to be allowed to speak and for their voices to be heard,” Erguven states in her film’s production notes.
It’s a film full of raw emotions and stunning performances. Not only is director Erguven a filmmaker to watch, but her co-writer Alice Winocour is also someone to note. Winocour’s film, “Disorder” screened at AFI FEST as well, and won the Special Jury Mention for Direction.
“Mustang” has so much talent both behind and in front of the camera. A film full of heartbreak and empowerment, it would be a shock if this didn’t make the Academy’s short list of nominees for Best Foreign Film. Either way, it’s a movie worth seeking out.
“Mustang” is 94 minutes, Rated PG-13 and opens in Los Angeles, November 20 at the Laeemle Royal Theatre.