'Mustang' Takes On Women's Rights In Fairy Tale Form Five beautiful Turkish sisters are locked up together and forced, one by one, into marriage in the new film from director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. The movie has gotten rave reviews all over the world.

'Mustang' Takes On Women's Rights In Fairy Tale Form

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Five beautiful sisters with long, flowing hair are locked up together and forced, one by one, into marriage. That could be the start of a story out of Grimm's fairy tales, but it's actually a tale set in a contemporary rural Turkish village - a new movie called "Mustang." NPR's Neda Ulaby reports it was made by a woman who is a first-time Turkish director.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It's summertime when the film begins. The sisters are about 12 to 16 or so, all adolescent energy and coltish limbs. Vacation's just started. They run to the beach and horse around with some boys. They splash and play. It's completely innocent. But then they get into trouble.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Character, foreign language spoken).

ULABY: Their grandmother screams at them when they get home. "Everyone is talking about your obscene behavior," she yells. One by one, she beats them and shuts them up in their room. But the film's title, "Mustang," describes the girls' spirit. They can't go to the beach, so they pretend to swim in their beds. Actress Gunes Sensoy plays the youngest sister, who's also the film's narrator.

GUNES SENSOY: Like, that scene is full of happiness and sadness at the same time because they can't go to the sea. They can't go outside. But they're still trying to have fun. And they are, like - I think that's what makes it beautiful (laughter).

DENIZ GAMZE ERGUVEN: You know, finding everything from inside to be extremely free and in very constrained circumstances.

ULABY: Director Deniz Gamze Erguven made "Mustang" partly as a response to rising religious conservatism in Turkey, a country with a proudly secular past.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character, foreign language spoken).

ULABY: At one point, the family's eating dinner while listening to a real broadcast of a government official telling women to be chaste and know their limits.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character, foreign language spoken).

ERGUVEN: OK, women should have three kids. Now it's four kids. A woman shouldn't smile. A woman shouldn't laugh. Women should look down. Women should blush. It's supposedly conservative, but for me, it's more like obsessive about sexuality.

ULABY: "Mustang's" take on sexual politics seems to have helped it get attention. The movie won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival and gotten rave reviews all over the world. Elif Batuman is a Turkish-American staff writer for The New Yorker.

ELIF BATUMAN: Women's rights and the fate of women in Muslim countries is something that's on people's minds. And I think this probably tapped right into its sweet spot of political and atmosphere and - yeah.

ULABY: If that sounds qualified, it's because Batuman is not wild about "Mustang."

BATUMAN: Something in me resisted it. There was something that felt a little bit simplistic. I guess the fairy tale-ness (ph) of it is - maybe just was not for me.

ULABY: Batuman thought a lot of the movie's details felt off, like a rigid, moralizing a Muslim character drinking alcohol. She thought the betrayal of patriarchy lacked nuance. And the girls' sensational punishment seemed inconsistent with their freedom and education before.


SENSOY: (As Character, foreign language spoken).

ULABY: "Anything likely to pervert us was banned," says the youngest sister, as her grandmother confiscates the girls' cellphones, computers, chewing gum and makeup. Two other girls are subjected to virginity tests. Director Deniz Gamze Erguven did not grow up in Turkey. She's a diplomat's daughter who's lived in France since she was a baby. France mostly financed the film, and that's how "Mustang" ended up as that country's entry for best foreign language film at this year's Academy Awards.

ERGUVEN: France has this way of - in a very modern and a very radical way - of embracing the diversity of who we are. So saying, OK, she's with Turkish origins; she's French, so we embrace her and her film.

ULABY: That's why it's hard for Deniz Gamze Erguven to talk about the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

ERGUVEN: Yes. It's a turning point. And, yeah, this film...

ULABY: She was about to cry. Paris, she says, also Ankara, the city where she was born...

ERGUVEN: You know, just in one month, there has been, like, the worst terrorist attack in Turkey ever in Ankara, where there was, like, a peace rally and kids who had drawn, like, peace and love signs on cardboards and everything and who have been bombed by two suicide bombers, those cardboards were used as stretchers.

ULABY: Deniz Gamze Erguven plans to make her next film in Turkey as well. This one, she says, will be about democracy. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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