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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Mustang: Watching American Cult Classics with my Turkish Husband

By now, many movie buffs have likely heard of the 2015, Foreign Language Film Oscar Nominee, Mustang. The movie is a French film with a Turkish-French director, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, in her feature-length debut. First brought to my attention by Steven Hudosh, who is currently producing short films for feminist film maker Jennifer Reeder, the movie was described to me as a remake/update The Virgin Suicides. Apparently, a must-see film for me, seeing as I live in Turkey, where the movie was filmed.
After watching The Virgin Suicides, my husband and I sat down to watch Mustang. He downloaded the movie for us, and after a few tries, got the English subtitles working (the film is in Turkish).

The movie is filmed in the lush and picturesque Black Sea region, where I happen to have traveled to a few times in my short 1.5 years here in Turkey. My dear friend is from the same region and I was lucky enough to attend her engagement party, as well as, her wedding in the small town she's from. While the movie was showing widely in theaters here in Istanbul before the new year, none of my Turkish friends had heard of it. However, my French and American expat friends knew of the film. I guess it's worth noting that I hang out with a pretty arty crowd. Since the recent Academy Awards the movie is now re-showing on screens in Istanbul and there seems to be an increased awareness of it amongst Turks...more on that later.

Mustang, 2015


Five orphaned teenage sisters enjoy the summer in their village in northern Turkey, but one day, their romping with male friends is misinterpreted and reported to their family as sexual licentiousness. Determined to keep the girls pure, the family effectively imprisons them, prompting the girls to become even more closely knit as they rebel against their arranged marriages. link
The movie has beautiful moments of cinematography which directly reference the Virgin Suicides. Admittedly, I found that the Virgin Suicides better employed the hazy, sun-drenched scenes which appear in both films, as it is subtle and a bit forlorn, whereas Mustang seemed to overuse the effect. The story of a family oppressing their five daughters into paths of desperation is virtually unchanged except for one major detail – in Mustang, it is not the religious nature of the family which oppresses the girls, but that of their village. In the Virgin Suicides the girls are reared by a religiously fanatical mom and an impotent dad. In Mustang, the orphaned sisters are raised by their grandmother and an uncle, neither of which is particularly conservative. Their decision to force the young girls into arranged marriages is a response to the conservative values of the town which apparently pressures the guardians into the drastic move. This shows us that, more than an attempt to retain/save the girls honor/purity, the marriage are an attempt to save face. This is what makes the movie seem like any other far-fetched (Hollywood) fiction, and not any type of real representation of life in Turkey on a broader scale. 

Of course, I am a yabanci (foreigner), and there are many, many things which I do not really understand about Turkish history and culture. However, after watching the movie, before I mention it, my husband seems to agree.

Paraphrasing him - It's weird that the family imposes such measures, and so strictly, since the family is openly not religious – the girl's uncle is shown drinking raki, for instance. They also seem to be strangely inconsistent with the conservative values they impose, as the girls wear their long hair out and are constantly wearing what would be deemed extremely 'immodest' clothes.
He goes on, “It feels like they fit the story and the characters into a unprepared shape. It becomes hard to understand the point of it.”
“You will see the families in Turkey who grow their child religiously.” He admits, however “...they (those kids) will find the same type of people socially, they will accept the situation.”

This idea is echoed by Academic Eylem Atakav, who in a recent article by Jennifer Hattan about the film says, "There is so much respect for mothers and fathers, the people who are often forcing marriage upon the girls, that you wouldn't see this rebellion that you see in 'Mustang.' Instead, women internalize this idea that they're not worth anything [outside of marriage]."
It just seems like Mustang tried to say/do too much. Instead of telling the story of 5 sisters, the movie could benefit from a tool like the Virgin Suicides, where the story is told through the tale of only one sister (or two). The identity of the sisters in Mustang gets lost in the fray. It's hard to keep track of them all, and this weakens the story. In Mustang, the story is told from the point of view of the youngest daughter. This in direct contrast with the Virgin Suicides, where the girls are remembered through the eyes of neighborhood boys. It is a nice change and seems to be a feminist nod, which should not go unmentioned.

While the Virgin Suicides was a flashback, Mustang has no clear time frame, but appears to be contemporary. This adds to the confusion for contemporary Western audiences, who will no doubt take this as somewhat representative of 'Turkey' today - it is not. While Mustang doesn't purport to be a documentary, or even the telling of a true tale, the danger that it will read this way to Western audiences is quite clear. The long history of Orientalism was no doubt understood by the director/producers and it is this willful misrepresentation which makes me think it was mostly made as Oscar (award) Bait. It feeds into the West's already established ideas about Turkey (and religion and rural lifestyles) as being backwards and conservative, while showing (the Western city of) Istanbul as being a modern oasis for the progressive (you guessed it - Western) lifestyle.

To add to my overdone Oscar-bait argument, there is a side of sex abuse thrown in (incest!) and I'm not really not sure why... Except, *maybe*, that the Oscars love that type of thing. Indeed, this year's big Oscar winner was about sex abuse and Lady Gaga did a performance highlighting the plight of sex abuse victims. While no doubt a substantive and traumatizing event for the girls, it can only take a backseat (supporting role) to the story of five girl's individual misery. It muddies the waters. What is really driving these girls to their desperate actions? Religion? Sex abuse? The death of their parents? Taken as a whole there is just too much going on. The movie ends with no ending....while the two younger girls finally escape to the city, I was left to wonder, "What now?" This ending only 'works' if you think Turkey is some kind of backwards country where your child (or children) can run off and live with a new person of their choosing, without being returned to their guardians - it is not.

A comment I have heard more than once from both Turks and expats alike is, "It's made for 'yabancilar'." (Turkish for “foreigners”) And I have to agree. Since the Oscars and the re-release here there has been a lot of debate about the film, facebook group arguments and heated conversations ensue. I hear the same thing from a lot of Turks. They seem unimpressed at best and offended at worst. While the movie has some wonderful moments, including beautiful cinematography, it should be understood as a fiction, which is not representative in any way of the country in which it is set.

Hearty congrats are in order on the plethora of awards and nominations the movie received, but hopefully some of the criticisms will be headed by Ms. Ergüven in her next work. 

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