Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 37 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
… And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness…
Turkish born Deniz Gamze Erguven’s feminist film has been nominated by the French Academy as its entry into the Oscar “Best Foreign Language Film,” a controversial choice because it is set in a northern Turkish village on the coast of the Black Sea, and thus the characters speak Turkish. However, it is largely French financed, and apparently so highly regarded that it was chosen over the Palme d’Or-winning Dheepan. This tale of five orphaned girls being raised by their ultra-conservative grandmother and uncle is one of the most delightful, as well as saddest, sisterhood films you are likely to see.
The story begins with Lale (Güneş Nezihe Şensoy), Nur (Doğa Zeynep Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit Işcan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), Sonay (Ilayda Akdoğan) and their classmates are exuberently leaving on the last day of school for the summer break. The youngest, Lale who narrates the film, says a sad goodbye to a beloved teacher, Dihek (Bahar Karimoglu), who is moving to Istanbul. The girls, dressed in Western style school uniforms–white blouses, short plaid skirts and dark blue tights–run and frolic fully clothed into the sea. They play with the boys, splashing one another, and then, girls atop the shoulders of the boys (also fully clad), they engage in games of pulling each other off their opponents’ shoulders.
Arriving home, their clothes unkempt but dry, their merriment abruptly vanishes when Grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) yells at them, and, one by one, takes them into another room for punishment. It seems that a nosey neighbor has watched them and jumped to the dark conclusion that the girls were “pleasuring themselves” on the boys’ necks and shoulders. No amount of denials or attempted explanations will convince Grandmother otherwise. The same is true with their Uncle Eror (Ayberk Pekcan) when he arrives home. He also punishes them physically and vows to protect them from predatory boys and their own desires. He herds them to the local health clinic where the staff examines all five and assures the elders that all of the girls are still virgins.
Day by day the house becomes more of a prison than a home. Grandmother confiscates their electronic devices connecting them with the outside world, as well as some of their clothes, make-up and such deemed impure. At first the Uncle has workmen build the compound walls higher and install iron grill work over the downstairs windows Then, when he discovers his nieces are climbing out their upstairs bedroom window and using the large drainpipe to reach the ground, he covers the upstairs windows as well. Grandmother believes that the three older girls should be married off, so she brings in various women to teach all five of them cooking and other domestic arts. Lale wryly observes that the home is now “a wife factory.”
The sisters fight back as best they can, sneaking out at night until the upstairs windows are covered. There is a funny incident when, the girls having run off to attend an “all women” audience at a soccer match, the entire village is deprived of electricity. The match is being televised, and when the women watching on their TV set catch a glimpse of the girls in the crowd, Grandma smashes the house’s electrical connection, and then throws rocks at the village’s power substation so that none of the men in the house or village will catch sight of the errant girls.
The girls up to the end of school had had a warm, loving relationship, despite the usual sibling disagreements, and it is this which helps them during their days of oppression. Their spirits are like those of wild mustangs, but the sisterhood begins to break up when the first, and then the second oldest, are married off. Just how tyrannical the male-based oppression is we see when on the morning after her marriage, the oldest daughter Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) and her new husband Ekin (Enes Surum) are awakened by the pounding on their locked bedroom door. The family is demanding to be admitted so they can see blood on the sheets from the torn hymen, the sign that the bride was indeed pure before the ceremony. However, there is no blood. Ekin believes the frantic girl assurances that she had never had sex with anyone else, but his family does not. When the family finally gain entrance, they skeptically rush their daughter-in-law to the clinic, where an examiner assures them that often the girl’s hymen is so deeply recessed that several penetrations must take place before it is torn.
Lale proves to be the most spirited of all the “mustangs” because she secretly gets a friendly truck driver to give her driver lessons. She had tried several times to start her uncle’s car, but had known nothing about a clutch. Acquiring this knowledge is the beginning of her joining with the psalmist in the wish to “fly away and be at rest.” We are left to ponder what might be the fate of her and the two remaining sisters. The girls have fled, but how long will they remain free?
Their Turkey is officially a secular society, but one still infested with the vestiges of a repressive form of religion. The family and villagers do not seem to practice Islam. Indeed, we often see a minaret towering over the village, but never hear a muezzin calling the people to pray. The adults use God talk, but we never see them engaged in prayer or other Islamic practices. Perhaps this should remind us that the effects of an oppressive system can, like radioactivity, remain long after its source is gone. Ms. Erguven’s powerful film both informs us of the plight of women in a far off country, and also serves as a cautionary tale, urging us to be sure that similarly oppressive religious beliefs do not obtain a foothold in our own nation.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the March issue of Visual Parables.