The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is on the right track after controversy erupted at the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees this year, but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to honoring women and people of color — something shown all too clearly by the fact that only one woman, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, was nominated in the narrative feature-length categories of the 2016 race. Ergüven's film Mustang is a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, and it's notable for more than just its uniqueness in this year's competition; though many of the films in this category are often infrequently seen by mainstream American audiences, Mustang is a definite must-see for any film lover in search of female representation and feminism in cinema.
A French-Turkish production, Mustang tells the story of five lively sisters of varying ages who live with their grandmother and tyrannical uncle in in rural Turkey. Conflict begins when, on one hot day after school, the girls frolic in the nearby ocean with some male classmates, but their innocent intentions are misconstrued by their strict Muslim community. Sitting on boys’ shoulders to play a game of chicken reaches their grandmother’s ears as “rubbing their private parts on boys necks," and as a result, the girls are sent to a doctor, subjected to maddeningly invasive “virginity reports” before being essentially jailed inside their own home.
And that's just the beginning. “The house became a wife factory,” says youngest sister Lale in a voice-over. The girls are removed from school, have their phones, makeup, televisions, and clothes taken away, are forced to wear brown, shapeless dresses, and are taught only to cook and clean. Their only interaction with the outside world comes from peering out into the sunshine through bars welded onto their windows, and their family attempts to marry them off in arranged marriages one by one.
It sounds like a twisted fairy tale, but as Mustang's director attests, it's all too common in certain parts of the world. "In the newspaper every day there will be murder stories about honor killings," Ergüven told Indiewire in November. "Even in the more liberal segments of the society, you are under pressure. When you read about a woman who has been murdered or experienced domestic violence, it doesn't feel like an [anomaly] — you feel it in your bones. You feel the violence everywhere around you."
And while much of Mustang focuses on the sisters' deep bonds and unwavering resilience, the film's larger commentary on sexism and oppression cannot be ignored. Through strict religious expectations, and the idea that women’s sexuality should be controlled, the girls are subjected to incredibly misogynistic, male-dominated rules, often to tragic results. Watching Mustang, one is simultaneously uplifted by the girls’ spirits and overwhelmingly strong senses of selves and enraged by the medieval restrictions placed on such young women. The film is an incredibly moving and joyous look at sisterhood and the triumphant power of self-reliance, yes, but it's also an unforgiving depiction of the brutal realities so many women and girls experience.
Yet while Mustang has earned rave reviews, it heads into Oscar night as the underdog in the Best Foreign Language Film race. Many prognosticators assume that Hungary’s Son of Saul will take home the prize, as it did at the Golden Globes. Is Mustang's female-led story and female director a factor? There's no way of knowing for sure, but it's an issue that Ergüven has said that she's all too familiar with. Much of her pre-production time on Mustang, the director told W Magazine , was spent convincing producers that she was a capable choice, despite her gender; one producer, the director claimed, even dropped the project simply because Ergüven was pregnant. “We’ve come a long way, but I still have a hard time gaining anyone’s trust as woman director,” Ergüven told W, adding, “I have a soft voice, clothes with flowers. It gives this idea of fragility that is not true. I’m strong, but you might not imagine that at face value.”
How the challenges Ergüven faced getting the movie will factor into its potential at the Oscars is unknown, but there's no question that the movie's existence, and its director's involvement, are worth celebrating. And even if Mustang doesn’t win the Oscar, seeing a horde of young, outspoken women on the red carpet — Mustang's five stars are all set to attend the ceremony with Ergüven— and such a moving, feminist film celebrated at this year’s ceremony sends a powerful, much-needed message.
Images: Cohen Media Group