It probably speaks to how far out in the Sticks I live that I am just now seeing this movie. But given that this film won Best Motion Picture-Foreign Language at the Golden Globes, I heroically braved 45 minutes on the freeway and a quest for elusive downtown Salt Lake City parking, all to get to one of the three art house theaters in the whole state of Utah.
Luckily, nothing puts white girl problems into perspective quite like a film about gender inequality and the on-going struggle for basic human rights in other parts of the world. Mustang is about five sisters growing up in a small Turkish village, where their idyllic childhoods are derailed by impending womanhood and all that implies in some cultures. They are pulled out of school. Bars are placed on their windows. Their futures are now at the mercy of extended family who seem less concerned with the girls’ happiness than with their sustained virginity and culinary competency. But the girls, strengthened by their bond and maybe the memory of former freedom, subvert the new expectations of their community and struggle to hold on to who they are.
I’m making this film sound really heavy, because it is. But it never feels overwhelming or heavy handed, because for each moment of frustration and tragedy, there are moments where the sisters are just sisters. There’s one moment in particular where the two youngest sisters, Lale and Nur, go for a swim in their bedroom by splashing around in their blankets because they aren’t allowed to leave their house. They spit fake water back and forth, and dive off their bed onto the floor. The scene is so warm and painfully adorable that you almost forget the systematic misogyny that necessitated it. It’s part of the reason the film is so effective; the softer moments make the rest of the film so much harder by comparison.
And maybe the worst part is that the horror that these girls are subjected to should feel foreign. As a woman in a developed, ostensibly gender equal country, I shouldn’t be able to relate to the experiences of five girls living in a place where children are beaten for playing with classmates of the opposite sex. But for most women, this will feel familiar. When Lale wants to go to a football match, but can’t because she can’t be allowed to run around with so many men. Or when Selma is rushed to the hospital to have her virginity verified while she’s still in her wedding dress. The feeling of being cloistered and held to standards that don’t apply to the boys, but never trusted to meet those standards without having someone look over your shoulder.
If you’re going to see any Oscar nominees in the next few months, make sure this is one of them. Where ever you’re from and whatever you look like, you’ll walk out of the theater with five new sisters you never knew you had.