FILM REVIEW: Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

The debut film from Deniz Gamze Ergüven is so much more than a Turkish retelling of The Virgin Suicides – it’s an enchanting and often fiery love letter to childhood and the bond between sisters

In the Middle Ages, a girl’s virginity was considered sacred. Unsullied and sexually pure, daughters were a treasure to be guarded, their chastity a commodity that could be bought and sold. Girls were passed from father to husband like paper dolls, and women who tried to rupture this patriarchal daisy chain were frequently branded witches, whores and heretics.

Mustang, the directorial debut from Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, isn’t set in the Middle Ages, but it does explore what it means to be a girl whose life is governed by men, and where the fierce dichotomy of holy virginity and whoredom defines her every move.

The film opens like a fairy tale in the height of summer. Five young sisters, with hair as long as mermaid tails, run away to play on the beach with a group of schoolboys. They spend the afternoon exploring the foothills by their uncle’s house and falling down in a tangle of limbs, drunk on laughter and apples and their own shimmering childhoods.

Like a lot of fairy tales, the day soon fizzles into nightmare. Childish fun is corrupted, and innocent games are twisted into “depraved” and “obscene” acts. The sisters’ only crime is becoming attractive young women, but it’s enough to set their sleepy Turkish village ablaze.

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Mustang is a film that feels light, its lens frothy and sun-dappled, but still packs a punch. Like the ethereal youngsters in The Virgin Suicides, the girls are locked away, forbidden to leave the house or make contact with the opposite sex. The youngest sister, Lale, describes their home as a wife factory, where the sisters are moulded into perfect little women that can cook and clean. Paraded before a wreath of potential suitors, the wistful romanticism of girlhood is scraped raw. We are shown that it’s not attraction or budding love that makes a good union, but the twin prongs of wealth and social status.

Despite her lack of experience, Ergüven imbues her debut with the quiet confidence of a maestro. Mustang may be a small film, but it’s not afraid to tackle large subjects, such as society’s perpetuation of virginity and its vilification of sexual prowess. If a woman is not a virgin, then she must be sexually voracious; if she’s a feminist, then she must reject being a wife and mother. Mustang is very aware of this ridiculous outlook. The girls are adored for being beautiful, young and female yet they aren’t trusted. Every laugh is rebellion, and each lingering gaze carries a promise of sin.

“I’ve slept with the entire world,” one of the older sisters says when asked if her virginity is intact. Her response may be deadpan and humorous, but the context is saddening. Here is a teenage girl who’s learnt that she cannot be validated unless she bleeds on her wedding night, that her torn hymen is the most valuable thing she can offer. Youth and beauty are ephemeral qualities, and it’s hard not to compare the film with our own male-controlled, selfie-obsessed culture, where women are told to be eternally young, or risk being replaced by another set of momentarily precious girls.

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Ultimately the film is a testament to sisterhood and the restorative love between women. Although they each have a distinct personality, the girls often appear as a single entity with five heads and ten arms, like a mythical creature or fairy ring. As each sister is married off, a little of this magic is slain. It can’t be accidental that the girls’ veils look like funeral shrouds, or that one wedding is interrupted by a gunshot. Like the most striking scenes in Mustang, these moments are ripe with symbolism. Perhaps the virginity lost isn’t just a bodily one, but one of the self. The sisters may gain husbands, but they also lose their names, their bonds and any identity to call their own.

Mustang isn’t devoid of hope, as Ergüven evokes the unbridled magic and resilience of childhood. Lale becomes the mustang of the film, a spirited, headstrong girl who refuses vulnerability or to become an extension of her future husband. Where the other girls begin to fade, becoming self-destructive or resigned, she fights – spitting in guests’ coffee, stealing money and plotting a prison break. Her creation is on par with cinema’s pluckiest young heroines, like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird or Mattie Ross from True Grit, and her actions summon memories from our own hardy, half-wild childhoods.

In another pair of hands, Mustang could have felt sanctimonious and clumsy. Instead, Ergüven has crafted a subtle masterpiece celebrating the fleeting pleasures of girlhood. The greatest tragedy is realising that these girls will never truly escape their prison of high walls and barred windows. Even upon release, they must learn to navigate a world dictated by the sharply defined categories of virgin or whore, of daughter or wife, of young and beautiful or old and decrepit.

Through each of her achingly fragile protagonists, Ergüven vows to fight these societal chains, and encourages us to do the same.

*Also published in music & culture magazine The 405

Hey, Kristen Stewart, don’t call Dylan Farrow’s abuse allegations “shit”

Let’s get this straight: I like Kristen Stewart. I do.

She comes across as pretty real compared to a lot of people in Hollywood, and surprisingly laid-back considering how famous she’s been from a young age. I like that she wears flat shoes to Cannes premieres and refuses to label her sexuality. I like how prickly, grungy and quick-witted she is. And I like that she’s slipped from the teen-mush trappings of Twilight into more challenging films like Clouds of Sils Maria and Certain Women.

So this isn’t about looking for an excuse to slam Stewart or pick apart every little thing she’s said. I’d hate if everyone was doing that to me.

But her recent comments on the Woody Allen abuse allegations expose a shocking amount of ignorance and gullibility. This is an actress who frequently defends women and crushes the brutal standards we’re expected to meet; who’s played characters exploited and used by men, and has spent the last few years ignoring archetypal film roles for women.

In a recent interview, Stewart was asked about her decision to star in Allen’s new film, Café Society, considering the open letter his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow wrote in 2014. Profoundly disturbing, it describes a childhood of sexual abuse spent hiding in bathrooms and being led into musty attics, and juxtaposes a man winning Lifetime Achievement awards and Oscars with a young woman battling PTSD, eating disorders and self-harm.

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Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Woody Allen on the set of Cafe Society

Instead of thinking about the question, Stewart peddled into denial mode and immediately hopped on the defensive.

She said, “We don’t know any of these people involved. I can personalize situations, which would be very wrong. At the end of the day, Jesse [Eisenberg] and I talked about this. If we were persecuted for the amount of shit that’s been said about us that’s not true, our lives would be over. The experience of making the movie was so outside of that.”

There are so many things wrong with this answer that I have to break it down before I implode. Let me direct this to Stewart as if she were here.

“We don’t know any of these people involved.”

What difference does knowing them or not knowing them make? Does this mean you only feel sympathy for people you know personally? So, when you see or hear about people being hurt, you feel absolutely nothing? When women talk about being abused and raped, you immediately doubt them?

I thought the foundation of being an actor was the ability to empathize? To imagine yourself as someone you’ve never met and completely transform into that person. If that’s true, why should it matter if you know Farrow or not?

Just stop for a moment and consider this: Violence against women will take place and most of the time you will never know the people involved. That doesn’t make these experiences any less valid, or any less harrowing.

This is just stupid.

“If we were persecuted for the amount of shit that’s been said about us that’s not true, our lives would be over.”

First of all, you have just generalized abuse, trauma and suffering as shit. Do you understand how completely irresponsible that is?

The things Farrow has said about Allen are not shit. Losing your house keys is shit. Being late to work because you got stuck in traffic is shit. Being charged too much at the supermarket is shit. This is not shit. This is a nightmare, and a young woman who feels broken. What you’re saying is shit.

Secondly, you have just come out and said you don’t think the allegations are true. Have you read about this case, like, at all? I get you don’t want to openly criticize the director you’ve just made a film with, but you’re willing to do that at this woman’s expense? You don’t even consider the possibility that what Farrow is saying is true or think about the harm Allen has caused.

And another thing – no, your life would not be over. Arguably the worst thing that has happened to you in your career is being caught cheating on your boyfriend with a married man. This has to be mortifying, and the things you were called must have stung. I won’t belittle that. But that is nothing compared to being accused of sexually abusing your child. It’s nowhere close.

Seriously, grow up.

Opening Night Arrivals Of "Gypsy" On Broadway
Dylan Farrow and her mother Mia Farrow in 2003 (Bruce Glikas/Getty Images)

“The experience of making this movie was so outside of that.”

This is the part I have the biggest problem with. How was making this film somehow detached from these allegations? Because the man who was directing you wasn’t the same man Farrow said assaulted her as a little girl?

Reality check: He is. You can’t separate a person into parts or compartmentalize the sections that aren’t as palatable as his quirky films. This man as a whole has to be taken into consideration. You have to understand that a man can be an artist, beloved and endearing in all his neurotic, whimsical charm, and still be perverse and be a predator. They’re two halves of a whole.

In an interview in 2010, Stewart said, “If you looked at a girl wrong now, I would fly across the room and kill you. I feel so, so, so protective of this certain thing that women have.” Last year she also made a Funny or Die comedy sketch mocking how women are treated in the media compared to men.

If you feel so protective of women, what happened this time? Is it so easy to gloss over your former proclamations of feminism when it means working with a director you’re particularly passionate about? Another reality check: Being a convenient feminist isn’t the same as actually being a feminist.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about sexism. It’s not just about being in interviews where people constantly ask about your bra size and who you’re dating. The kind of sexism you’re picking apart is Sexism 101.

Sexism is also silencing and discrediting women who are brave enough to come forward and talk about abuse at the hands of men. Sexism is protecting the culprits, especially ones who are respected and well known, and vilifying the victim, who is twisted into a temptress and false oracle. That’s the kind of sexism that cuts the deepest. That’s the kind of sexism that kills.

Think about these things the next time you’re asked a question about women. And don’t turn someone else’s experiences, which you will never fully understand, into what you so eloquently describe as “shit”. Whether you like it or not, millions of young people look up to you and are guided by the things you say. Don’t enable a society that blames the victim or portrays vulnerable women as liars. You should know better.