News & Notes

The Burlington Film Society screens Mustang

Posted on Jan 21, 2016
The Burlington Film Society screens Mustang

Moving from last month’s tale of estranged brothers and the wintry Icelandic expanse of Rams, the first Burlington Film Society screening of 2016 switches focus to the tight-knit and loving relationship between five sisters in the sunny, lustrous environs of the Northern Turkish countryside in Mustang.

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Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Oscar-nominated film presents the story of free-spirited siblings confronted with the forces of repression with a dynamic, even brash, sense of urgent vitality. Here, the coming-of-age tale’s tradition of placing youth’s yearning for independence and self-discovery in opposition to the stifling demands of custom and convention is intensified by setting the story within an oppressively dogmatic environment.

On the last day of school before the summer break, the girls are seen cavorting with some boys at the local beach. Their behavior is misconstrued by a nosy neighbor who tells the girls’ anxious grandmother and noxious uncle, who are raising the kids in their parents’ absence. Embarrassed and outraged, the two react harshly, confiscating all “instruments of corruption” such as cell phones, computers, make-up and sweets, forbidding them to interact with other teenagers, and virtually imprisoning them within the confines of the house. Instead, they are forced to spend their time with domestic instruction and lessons on how to become “good” wives. Soon, the eldest sisters are being married off, leaving the younger girls to begin devising plans to escape similar fates. However, every impulse and increasingly elaborate attempt to resist their confinement and experience freedom results in ever harsher restrictions.

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The film has been frequently likened to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, but the comparison, while inevitable, is somewhat superficial. Mustang draws on a diverse range of films and sources, including Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Nabovok’s Lolita, Escape from Alcatraz, Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Secret Things, and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. (Shades of another recent BFS screening, The Wolfpack, come to mind as well.) The vibrant camerawork by David Chizallet and Ersin Gök, compelling score by frequent Nick Cave-collaborator Warren Ellis, and lively performances by the young cast of mostly newcomers all combine to create an energetic and propulsively paced narrative.

Ergüven wrote the screenplay with French writer and director Alice Wincour (for whom Ergüven appeared as an actress in the latter’s Augustine). The two developed the script after Ergüven’s planned feature set amidst the early 90s riots in Los Angeles fell through. The story contains some autobiographical elements – the misinterpreted beachside frolic leading to unwarranted punishment, for example – but the personal anecdotes provide the basis for a broader, more intense sequence of invented events. And while the film is rooted in a specific locale and informed by the community it depicts, Mustang also contains elements of lyricism and poetic license, occasionally transcending the confines of strict realism and evoking the style and impression of fables and folk tales.

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The film’s reception has not been without controversy, especially in Turkey, where Ergüven has been accused of painting too critical a picture of the culture and the country. The director has defended herself against the claims, saying, “Turkey is very heterogeneous. You have very free people having extremely modern lives, and women have been voting since 1930. There are laws to protect the rights of women, but then it’s also a very conservative society and it sometimes goes by rules that are extremely traditional.” Ergüven took pains to make sure that no specific religious or cultural tradition is explicitly named. Instead, she says, she wanted to speak to issues that women face universally. “In cinema, we have so few films from a woman’s point of view, and in art history as well. As a woman there are so many things along the way about the experience of being a woman and you’re thinking, ‘Nobody ever told me this.’ … It’s really the point of view of women in this film, their desires and their hopes. My hope is to open a new perspective and to know each other better. It’s about having a different angle and a voice for these girls.”

As the film veers between a celebration of unbridled adolescent jubilation and a domestic horror story, as modernity and tradition clash, as youthful defiance is met with rigid inflexibility, a powerful portrait of female empowerment in the face of patriarchal oppression emerges. As the title implies, some spirits can’t be tamed.

-Seth Jarvis, 1/20/2016

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