The Karagöz puppets recently high-tailed it to the cinema to check out “Mustang,” a new film by Turkish-French writer Denis Gamze Ergüven. Set in Kastamonu province in Turkey, the film follows the lives of a set of beautiful and free-spirited adolescent sisters being raised in a conservative family headed by their Grandmother and Uncle.
Tackling the prickly topic of gender oppression in Turkey, during adolescence in particular, this film has been giving M’Lady agita since she saw the film’s trailer several months ago. Always sensitive to the stereotypes about Turkey that people seem to project onto her marriage and her M., M’Lady worried that yet again, these stereotypes would be fulfilled in the film. And “Mustang” doesn’t disappoint in this regard.
But in viewing “Mustang,” M’Lady realized something important about stereotypes. While she knew that stereotypes are rooted in the truth, she realized that she had to move beyond her fight against them and into an embrace of what talking about them and showing them could do for society. Now Karagöz butts in “Just what is M’Lady talking about?”
Well, M’Lady wishes to say that while the lives of girls in many parts of Turkey do not play out as they do in this film, the lives of other girls do. And the fact that the lives of these other girls do requires us to tell their stories in order to bring awareness to the remaining realities of gender oppression in Turkey. M. calls this Turkey’s “manly culture,” and that culture is very present in the film. Here M’Lady is talking about the macho depiction of the girls’ uncle, regardless of his intentions to do right by them based on societal expectations (despite the fact that he is also portrayed as sexually abusing one of the girls). And if M’Lady is honest with herself, while M. is in her view a feminist who values her opinion, efforts and dreams, she has certainly run into the gendered abyss of human interactions in Turkey herself.
While M’Lady has come to the conclusion that she is glad this film was made, so that the realities of some girls can be talked about in the open, there are other aspects of the film that she does not like. She doesn’t, for example, appreciate the cinematography of the bodies of the girls – which feels overly sexualized to her. The purpose of this choice is unclear to M’Lady. But she can live with that given the larger good that the film provides.
So, in sum, this film does capture one truth about life in parts of Turkey – and as the women’s movement grows in that country, a film like this will ideally be a catalyst for change efforts – although it hasn’t gotten much press attention in Turkey from what I can tell. The truth is that while the gendered expectations of adolescent girls are painfully crushing in this film, in the end, what rises up is the creativity and resilience of those very girls stuck in an oppressive situation. Indeed, the fact that the title of the film is “Mustang” should have some resonance here – a mustang is a strong-willed but small and hardy horse.
Safiye Rakkase, the fashionable dancing girl puppet, says “The costumes used in the film were a wonderful choice – moving between the freedom of skinny jeans and shapeless drab conservative clothes really got an important message across.”
Esma, the hippie feminist puppet says “I couldn’t agree more with M’Lady’s complaint about the over sexualization of young girls’ bodies…but, let’s use this film to FIGHT THE POWERS THAT BE!”
Hacivad Bey, the learned Sufi elder says, “One thing that was very important about this film was the fact that religion seemed to be missing from the discussion – this was a discussion about culture. It is always so tempting to have the call-to-prayer in films about the Middle East – and this film resisted that temptation, which was a good move.”
Mercan Bey, the Arabian spice trader says, “Well, given that Turkish food is amazing, it is terrible that the food wasn’t highlighted as more than something that the ‘wife factory’ of Grandma’s house had to produce. Where was the lusciousness of the food, because, I mean, isn’t everything about food?”