Mustang

The event that leads to the girls’ confinement in their house – the “wife factory”, as it’s quickly labelled – is an afternoon spent playing with some boys in the sea. Gossip begins to circulate. The film introduces early the sense that female sexuality is not only social contagion but an uncontainable energy; the girls’ subsequent confinement and brutalisation is only tangentially related to this initial infraction. “We are dealing with a vicious injunction and a Sisyphean task,” wrote philosopher Jacqueline Rose. “You will enact honour in every bone of your body and every minute of your life because, as a woman, you are the one who carries the seeds of its destruction.”

The director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who was born in Turkey and raised in Paris, drew inspiration for the plot from events that occurred within her own family, stating that “The little scandal in the film did take place in my family, albeit not as violently. The girls being beaten in order of age: that was something that happened in my mother’s generation.” Yet the film isn’t simply a dirge about familial violence, but a subtle and sideways look at the development of adolescent autonomy as it manifests in five individuals. In the same interview, Ergüven stated that her vision for the film “only became concrete when one of my cousins married. Everything that happened around the wedding was beautiful, synergetic, especially the vividness of the young Turkish people who were present.”

Elit İşcan, who plays Ece, was the only one of the five sisters to have acted before. Ergüven spotted Tuğba Sunuroğlu – Selma – in an airport, while the other three were found through open auditions. Their lack of formal training lends the film a dreamy intensiveness that makes this portrait of sisterhood so convincing; as the director states, the fact that the girls were new to acting means that “They became one body with five heads: a single rebellious entity.” The girls’ easy tactility is not always gentle; they grapple at each other for stealing, they mock and hit each other. Alongside these flashes of rage they lie together, long arms outstretched or touching, hand to forearm, someone’s finger tracing a line down another’s upper arm.

“Turkish has a range of terms to describe the risks of honour,” writes Rose. “Namusa laf gelmek refers to other people’s gossip about one’s namus; namusu kirlenmek to one’s namus being dirtied or stained; and namusunu temizlemek to a man’s obligation to cleanse it. Honour is a quality, or an object that can be stained, muddied, tainted, besmirched. This makes the task of cleansing it a symptom or compulsion, as well as offering a new take on domestic work.” In Mustang, the girls’ uncle shrieks at their grandmother, his mother: “If they’re sullied, it’s your fault!”. In English, the word “slut” originally appeared around the middle of the 15th century to refer to “a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance”.

Nâzim Hikmet, widely recognised as the first modern Turkish poet, was imprisoned on and off for long stretches of his adult life. His poem, Things I Didn't Know I Loved (1962), is spoken from the perspective of a newly-liberated person sitting on a train: “I never knew I liked the night pitch-black / sparks fly from the engine / I didn't know I loved sparks / I didn't know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty / to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague–Berlin train / watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return.” His incarceration concentrates and clarifies his capacity to love; for the five sisters, their confinement and the violence they are subjected to serves to focus their anger, determination and solidarity with one another; this is sisterhood as a political, rather than incidental, condition. ◉

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