“Everything changed in the blink of an eye. First, we were free, then everything turned to shit.” The amusing, jarring use of the word “shit” by a sweet young Turkish girl in the opening sequences sets the tone for Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Oscar-nominated film “Mustang” – a film that magically intertwines humour, brutality and an ethereal beauty that almost breaks your heart.
That this exploration of the suppression of five gorgeous, spirited, wild-maned (mustangs – geddit?) sisters in a Black Sea village is fast becoming one of the most acclaimed Turkish-language films ever is no surprise. What is, however, is that only 4,000 people went to see it in Turkey in its first weekend. Yes, there were distribution and timing problems about its limited release in October, but given its reputation elsewhere, one might have expected better numbers.
Despite being feted in the international press, garlanded at festivals including Cannes, and hailed as a “masterpiece” by leading Turkish critic Atilla Dorsay, the tale of the five orphans brought up with increasing oppression by their grandmother and uncle is polarising opinion in the country where it is set and inspired by. Notwithstanding Dorsay and a smattering of others, several Turkish critics and film bloggers have slammed “Mustang” for being inauthentic, amateurish and – that old chestnut – orientalist.
“Mustang is a work designed for the Western world in the most annoying, calculated way,” wrote critic Ali Ercivan in on the film website Beyazperde. “So let the Westerners enjoy it, give it awards, and take photos at festivals… But no thanks from us.”
In interviews, the Paris-based director has suggested that some of the ire is political. It is true that the portrayal of the hypocritical honour code upheld by the girls’ family is uncomfortable viewing for conservatives and there are some deftly inserted political statements. When the net starts closing in on the girls after gossips put a sexual spin on an innocent game they play on the beach with male school friends, the first thing their grandmother does is remove books, computers and phones in what Erguven admits is a reference to the increasing government media censorship sparked by the anti-government Gezi Park protests. At one point we hear from the ever-present television – almost a main character here, as it is in many Turkish homes I know – the much-ridiculed words of the gaffe-prone former parliamentary speaker Bulent Arinc declaring that women should not laugh loudly in public.
But for me, the reaction goes beyond the political. It says more about the beholder than the film, and is symptomatic of Turkey’s perverse relationship with ‘Abroad’ and all Turkish-borns who successfully sail in her. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk and fellow novelist Elif Shafak are both often criticized, even by the most urbane Turks, for allegedly writing untruths that please the foreigners, and film directors living abroad such as Italy-based Ferzan Ozpetek are accused of trading Turkish pride for creating fantasy orientalist worlds that win plaudits by reinforcing stereotypes in a condescending West. Interestingly, “Mustang” was rejected as an Oscar contender by Turkey, whose choice did not make the nominee shortlist, and picked instead to represent France, where Erguven lives and works.
This tortured relationship with a West that Turks secretly believe is superior but also out to get them, and the accompanying suspicion of countrymen and women who can move in and appeal to that world with ease, is a root cause of many of Turkey’s international identity problems, and one currently exploited by an administration seemingly at war with the world. It also enables the country to sweep under the carpet the many glaring ills that Turks know to be true – in the case of “Mustang”, its still appalling state of women’s rights.
The catalogue of dismal themes explored by Erguven – from oppression, sexual abuse, incest, child brides and violence, to virginity tests, ill-conceived ideas of honour and wasteful young death – makes me feel angry, especially as I remember the small instances of my own, incomparably happier Turkish childhood that nevertheless included unkind village gossips and comments such as “how can you understand that with your ‘girl’s mind’?” It also reminds me of the stories I reported on as a journalist in Turkey, of domestic violence, casual discrimination, child marriage and the sometimes murderous, interpretation of “honour”.
The death two years ago of Kader Ertan just one year after she gave birth at 13 brought the widespread issue of child brides into the spotlight in Turkey. Women’s groups report that domestic and sexual violence is rife, and opposition MPs say hundreds of honour killings take place annually.
Such reports should lend the film the authenticity that some critics complain it lacks. But perhaps Erguven’s greatest achievement is how she manages to highlight many social ills while giving this watchable film a stylized, fairytale quality that, despite everything, exudes hope. This is helped by the regular injection of fun – just when the viewer is shocked at what is basically the forced marriage of a child, Lale, the young, feisty narrator, suddenly spits into the carefully prepared Turkish coffee for her sister’s unwelcome betrothed, rudely and comically desecrating one of the most solemn ceremonies of the traditional handover of the bride from parents to husband. And the scene showing Aunt Emine’s antics as she tries to cut off the village’s electricity supply so that the girls’ unkind uncle doesn’t spot them at a football match on television made the audience guffaw.
Lale’s narration is key here. She is not present in all the scenes, so we get only a tangential view of a suicide (the unexpected sound of a shotgun) and incestuous sexual abuse (a groan from a room next door and the perpetrator’s quiet departure) and this saves the film from being the kind of misery memoir it might have been in a more traditional Turkish filmmaker’s hands.
Maybe this unfamiliar perspective in a country whose film viewing habits more usually range between Hollywood blockbusters, unsubtle Turkish comedies and tortuous auteur films, is one reason for the divisive reception in Turkey for “Mustang”. Who knows, maybe like small British films that get re-released to new enthusiasm after Oscar nods, Turks will come to love this film? They really should.