“Now it’s our turn to wear shapeless, shit-coloured dresses.”
Storytellers have oft been drawn to quintets. The number alone allows for a range of emotions, responses and opinions. From the most Famous of Fives to the emotions in Inside Out, via the occupants of the Mystery Machine, five is often seen to be the perfect balance of diversity and efficiency. Five certainly is the magic number for Deniz Gamze Eruguven.
For her debut feature, Eruguven assembled a quintet of amateur actors, only one of the five had acted before, and took them on a journey. This began in group bonding sessions, fixing the girls to their personas and realising their invented family. Her choices were impeccable. The five on-screem sisters are real: lively, optimistic, vibrant pre-to-teens, pushing the boundaries in action and language. Their world is one obviously familiar to Eruguven, and Mustang quickly revels in their fresh-faced enthusiasm for life.
But this basking is soon put to bed. After being accused of “pleasuring themselves” whilst playing in the sea with male schoolmates, the sisters find their freedom severely restricted. A stern-faced uncle darkens the paradise, locking the girls down. The girls’ surroundings often look idyllic, from the light that streams through the lush greenery to the expansive, remote household, but the dreamy oasis is just the orphans’ personal prison. They lost their freedom to do as they please, play as they please and dress as they please. Clothing is most colourfully restricted, as the girls take glee in tearing apart their shackles, stripping down the heavy dresses to the free clothing of youth.
Everything good in Mustang is put into orbit around the central five-some, cushioning them as they support and bounce off one another. The sisters are a deeply connected survival system, only functioning as a whole. Organised marriages to family-sanctioned males disrupt this system, and leave the youngest siblings to tread water alone. The trademark image of the five huddled together is a sign of this connectivity, and grants a grateful audience a moment of quiet yet sombre calm with those whom we feel such sympathy for.
As the quintet begins to disband, so does their hope of returning to their past. Eruguven focuses our attention on the youngest sister for much of the latter stages, and it is this same sister, who we were introduced to with tears in her eyes, who’s hope is most apparent. This hope is beautifully visualised in the sparks of a soldering iron, as they flicker in reflection on the face of the young girl. But, Mustang never loses hope.
Eruguven does not paint in black and white. The world is rarely one of right and wrong, rather being one of opposing, supposed rights. Whilst some of the depicted actions in Mustang are utterly indefensible, Eruguven chooses not to villainise all those who oppress, keeping belief that good intentions can materialise in destructive actions.
Mustang also restrains from being as harrowing as it could have been. Lesser directors may have opted for including the more shocking scenes, but Eruguven appreciates that suggestions can be more powerful than any imagery. Her refrain stabs like a sharp knife through the ribs.
Reportedly, this Oscar nominee was nearly a decade in the making, and so Eruguven and her team had plenty of pause for thought. Its messages are clear and thoughtful, accusatory but measured, acting to inform rather than enrage. Film is Eruguven’s tool, and she uses with precise, yet forceful dexterity.
Images courtesy of nziff and curzon-artificialeye respectively.