Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Won’t back down: Reproduction and rebellion in Mustang

Left to right, Mustang director Deniz Gamze Erguven and stars Gunes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, and Elit Iscan speak at the Lincoln Center.

One of the things you learn early on when studying social sciences at the university level is not to view other cultures through your own lens. It is an important lesson because it is a natural response to see another culture and judge its virtue or villainy based on the practices we preach. Eating dog meat, for instance, may be repellent to many of us, but that is a lens issue. It is important to view actions through the lens of others, and the more lenses you are able to look through, the clearer the cultural tapestry of our world becomes.

That said, there are inherent wrongs in this world. You do not need to look too hard to find places where the mask of “culture” is used to justify murder, oppression, and injustice. No matter what lens you view these acts through, the image is one of tyranny and evil. Among the most common and least comprehensible forms of this is the subjugation of women. In nearly every part of the world, including the U.S., women face discrimination and repression for the simple fact of being women.

With the idea of bringing this injustice to the fore, first-time feature writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven delivers us Mustang, a genre-bending tale of female oppression in modern Turkey. It is a powerful story of how small transgressions against human rights lead to greater violations and how entire societies contribute to and reinforce the problem.

Doguslu, Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, and Ilayda Akdogan at the Lincoln Center.
On Monday, Ergüven and the film’s cast – Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, and Ilayda Akdogan – were in New York for a sneak preview of the film and post-screening discussion. Ergüven spoke at length about her filmmaking influences, putting together the fabulous ensemble, and the importance of speaking out against oppression.

“There was an urgent need and drive to tell what it is to be a woman, focusing on something even more specific – what it is to be a woman in Turkey,” said Ergüven. “One thing about living in a patriarchal society is it’s so part of the setting that most people will not even start questioning it, and they will reproduce it. Like the woman in the film, the grandmother, reproduces what social pressure tells her to reproduce. So even the starting point of saying, ‘Let’s discuss this,’ is already something to step forward.”

The film follows five sisters living with their grandmother and uncle in a small village in Turkey. After the girls create a scandal in the village – in an incident taken directly from Ergüven’s life – the uncle and grandmother begin the process of breaking these five girls – hence, the film’s title. It starts out small with lessons in cooking and sewing, turning the home into a “wife factory,” according to the youngest sister, Lale (Sensoy), who narrates. Soon, however, the factory becomes a prison as bars go up over the windows and the locks are changed on the doors.

Of course, the girls rebel, fighting back against their lessons and sneaking out at every opportunity. Their greatest infraction is to attend a soccer game, and the resulting punishment changes the course of all their lives. One by one, the girls are promised and married off, leading to a final showdown between the prisoners and their captors. The last 20 minutes of the film constitute a glorious payoff to everything that has come before, and though I will not reveal the story points here, I will say the direction, cinematography, editing, and acting in the sequence all come together to create one of the most stirring climaxes you will see this year.

The chemistry among the five actresses on screen and off is a sight to behold. Their bond seems so unbreakable that even as events conspire against them, we in the audience secretly believe there is nothing that will tear them apart. The film, co-written by French filmmaker Alice Winocour, has no such sentimentality, and there is a moment midway through when the girls huddle together and Lale tells us in voiceover this is the last time they will all be together. Such is the performance of the actors as a group that your heart breaks at this news. The effect works because of the great performances Ergüven gets out of these mostly first-time actors.

The sisters come together in Mustang.
“It was impossible to give any parts to anyone until we had the five,” said Ergüven. “It was always one body with five heads from the script on. Five girls who don’t have their parents, who find everything they need emotionally among each other. It was always thinking about the level of intimacy they have. … It had to be perfect. One day, we gathered these five, and it was a magic moment, actually. It clicked.”

If the story of a group of sisters fighting back against the roles society has predetermined for them reminds you perhaps of The Virgin Suicides, rest assured, Ergüven has been made aware of the similarities. In fact, she said she has been asked the question hundreds of times while doing press for Mustang, including by one audience member Monday night. While there are shades of writer-director Sofia Coppola’s 1999 drama, Ergüven’s influences are much more wide ranging and surprising than you might think.

“The closest script in terms of structure is Escape from Alcatraz, really … but of course, the context is completely different,” said Ergüven, who also drew from classic and modern westerns for the look and feel of the film, even cribbing a couple tracks from the original score of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Warren Ellis, who composed the music for that film with Nick Cave, also composed the haunting soundtrack for Mustang. The film also contains visual references to Ingmar Bergman, most notably Persona.

The script’s tone reflects these myriad genre influences and finds a sweet spot between black comedy and chamber drama. The sisters laugh and play and make the best they can of their situation, but the dire nature of their circumstances is never out of mind for long. Around every corner is another lock, another set of bars, and another reminder of their position in the household and the world.

“The place of women is very central in the debates on society and about this government [in Turkey], which is extremely conservative, which has an idea of what we should be living according to the place, a very specific place women should have, and they’re very vocal, so they speak everyday about what you should do or not,” said Ergüven. “Like, you should have three or four children. It was three. Now, it’s four. You should not laugh in public places. They micromanage every little thing. Like, they say girls and boys shouldn’t be roommates if they’re students. It’s like not only having a person who is holding your throat but who also is whispering something in your ear.”

It is this two-pronged attack that makes the reality of such oppression so insidious. In Mustang, the girls’ uncle holds them by the throat as their grandmother whispers platitudes about culture and respect. In the film’s most disturbing scene, one of the girls is set to be married off after being sexually assaulted, and the grandmother tells her it will be okay as her own wedding was one of “special circumstances” – special circumstances in this case meaning rape. As Ergüven said, she reproduces what social pressure tells her to reproduce, and here, she reproduces an affront to human decency.

Mustang is a powerful document of what happens when we allow cultural norms to dictate our actions without questioning the origins or motives of those norms. More than likely, these traditions are in place to keep powerful people in power and keep all others quiet. As such, Mustang is a defiant shout and a brash, bold takedown of a system that should require no lens to see its evil.

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