One of the director’s of the new HBO reboot of Perry Mason is responsible for one of the most outstanding debut films in recent memory. Deniz Gemze Erguven, a French-Turkish director toiled away at filmmaking for years, almost giving up on her dreams before she wrote and directed Mustang, her first feature film that went on to win multiple awards around the world and be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category. Being Turkish, this film is a very personal exploration into the treatment of women, especially young girls, in a male dominated society that sadly reflects the current climate that still exists in Turkey today as well as many other countries across the globe.
The film follows 5 sisters, all between the ages of pre-teen to late teens, who have lost their parents and live with their grandmother in the rural countryside of Turkey. One day when walking home from school with their friends, some of whom are boys, the girls are spotted innocently splashing and playing with the boys in the ocean. This sets off the rest of the film as we see the sisters are about to pay the awful price for what is really just a fun activity at the beach for any child or teenager. Erguven does an excellent job of not wasting anytime presenting the major conflict of the story: the manipulation and controlling of young girls by society. The director doesn’t even give the audience a moment to question what happened to the girls’ parents because right away we see that it doesn’t matter. The girls are now under the care of their grandmother who ultimately allows their Uncle to take control of their lives. It isn’t long before we see the girls being forced to transform from playful, innocent children having fun after school to young available virgins being showcased to young men as prospects for marriage.
The film takes place almost entirely in the girl’s grandmothers’ house. Nestled in the mountains, the house offers picturesque views of the Turkish countryside. This is another marvelous choice by Erguven as we view the beautiful landscape from the girls’ perspective. Sadly, this perspective is through a bedroom window which the Uncle and Grandmother gradually turn into a “prison” with gates and bars on the windows. Erguven also adds elements of familiar “fairy tales” into the plot. When the youngest sister, Lale, in an excellent performance by Gunes Sensoy in her first film, tries to escape to Istanbul, a friendly man on the road kids her for her “muddy shoes.” On her second attempt at an escape, Lale finds a pair of red heels which can’t help but bring to mind Dorothy and her ruby slippers trying to get to the Emerald City, which in this case for Lale is Istanbul. Other scenes of boys and boyfriends coming to the house and calling up to the girls as they stand in the window, “Rapunzel-like” looking down at the boys but being unable to leave their captivity. These “fairy tale” references only serve to underscore the conflict of the film which is the sisters realizing that they cannot wait for a “prince” to come and rescue them. They are the ones who can control their own fate.
This film is an outstanding achievement for any filmmaker let alone someone who was making their debut. Sadly, in an ironic twist, just before Erguven was about to begin production, her original producer backed out after finding out she was pregnant. Fortunately, for Erguven she found another producer and finished the film, giving the world a beautiful, intense, tragic, and uplifting story about women overcoming the oppression that has gone on for too long around the world. Hopefully, thanks to Deniz Gamze Erguven and her message of hope, we are another step closer to women being empowered and treated equally.