When I gave a talk on Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Turkish-language debut feature film Mustang (2015) to a group of 16-and-17-year-old students studying the film at college, I was struck by one of the comments made. A student hadn’t appreciated how many deliberate choices Ergüven had made with regard to casting, locations, costumes, cinematography, editing, music etc. They had assumed that because the film was ‘naturalistic’, that many of these things just happened. Mustang is certainly part of neo-realist film tradition with its use of real locations in rural Turkey, a powerful social and political narrative, and casting non-professional actors in central performances, but Ergüven has a strong visual aesthetic and uses these elements in a considered way to add further layers of meaning.
This can clearly been seen in the numerous images and scenes that are mirrored such as the opening and closing shots of Lale hugging her teacher and the repetition of the marriage proposals. Look out for how the five girls are framed, reinforcing Ergüven’s notion that “They became one body with five heads: a single rebellious entity.” Initially they are filmed as one group, but then increasingly, as the girls are married off by their strict uncle, they become separated from one another, isolated in single close-ups or two-shots.
To reinforce this further, Ergüven cast five young women who share a striking similarity, particularly their long brown hair, and used costume as a way to show their sense of unity, their prescribed roles within society, but also their move from freedom of choice to one controlled by their grandmother and uncle. We first see them in their school uniform of white shirt, black skirts and ties; then in their tight jeans and t-shirts. As their freedom is stripped away, they are forced to wear ‘shapeless shit-coloured dresses’ that have been made for them; and as they marry, in white wedding dresses.
Given Mustang’s themes of women oppressed, the power of patriarchy, and a young girl’s desire for freedom and determination not to follow her older sister’s fate, it will be fascinating to see what Ergüven brings to her episodes of A Handmaid’s Tale Season 3.
Ellen Cheshire is a film writer and lecturer. Her books include In the Scene: Jane Campion and Bio-Pics: a life in pictures. She has also written on women filmmakers working during the silent film period in Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema, and contributed to books on James Bond, Charlie Chaplin, war films, and fantasy movies.