Mustang is what one might call an important film, though it may be more important to its country of origin than as a film for foreign American consumption. Set in rural Turkey, Mustang is about the ways in which Turkish society fails women and ultimately commodifies them for their sexual potential in the form of wedding dowries. It’s a practice that dehumanizes teenage girls and young women, and yet in parts of the world it is still considered common practice, even though we in the United States may not realize it still happens. But this isn’t a film about us; it’s about them, and I think Mustang gets across an important message to the Turkish people, as well as other cultures where similar practices occur.
Focused on five orphaned teenage girls sent off to the Turkish countryside to live with their grandmother and uncle, Mustang opens on the girls having a good time, playing chicken on the backs of boys their age and generally being goof-off kids. However, the conservative doctrine under which their relatives operate does not allow for such forward contact with the opposite sex, so the girls are held under house arrest, and over the course of the film are subject to various abuses and are systematically sold off to new husbands.
The film walks a fine line between being a dour meditation and a feminine coming-of-age tale, and it largely succeeds, at least once the film begins to focus on the youngest sister, Lale. There are various abuses perpetrated against these girls, ranging from emotional abuse to sexual assault to even worse, yet the film makes a genuine effort to paint these girls as blossoming young adults, with passions and drive that extend beyond the walls of their house-prison. They make routine escapes and have silly antics just as anyone their age would, yet it is never far from our or their minds that consequences are just around the corner.
However, the unfortunate drawback of having so many protagonists so that they may be plucked off one by one is that until their numbers diminish and Lale takes center stage, they function largely as an indiscernible mass, a group of characters that work in concept but aren’t immediately relatable on an individual level. This functions of a symptom of the naturalistic acting performances the leads provide, which are light on exposition since these characters all know each other and aren’t going to bother with audience-friendly introductions. It doesn’t break the movie by any means, but until Lale crystalizes as the true protagonist, the film feels a bit slow and opaque.
Yet once it gets rolling, Mustang is an engaging tale that, at least from a Western perspective, is cogent and pointed in its criticisms of women’s rights in Turkey. There’s a reason it was nominated for the Foreign Language category at the Academy Awards this year, and while I wouldn’t say that it would have deserved the prize, it makes sense why the Academy would select this particular film to give it the attention it justly desires. One film isn’t going to change an entire culture, but it can make it so that some within that culture have some food for thought. We can only hope that is the impact it has.