Turkey France Germany Qatar (94 mi) 2015 ‘Scope d: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Everything changed in the blink of an eye. First there was comfort, and then suddenly everything turned to shit.
—Lale (Güneş Nezihe Şensoy)
For film festivals other than Sundance, the stories and slotted in-competition directors appear to be dominantly male-oriented—at Cannes, 16 competition films by men and only 2 by women, and at the Chicago Film Festival, there are 13 male competition films to only 3 by women—making it a rare occurrence when viewers come upon a film written and directed by women, where within the overall history of cinema this still remains relatively unexplored territory. Winner of the Europa Cinemas prize at Cannes for best European film in the Directors’ Fortnight, this film immediately stands out by conscientiously altering the viewing patterns among the largely male-dominated efforts of contemporary cinema, turning the tables and focusing on the treatment of women, particularly younger adolescent girls who live under extremely repressive social conditions. Co-written (with Alice Winocour, the 2012 director of Augustine) and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, she was born in Ankara, Turkey while studying literature and African history in Johannesburg, South Africa, eventually learning to direct at La Fémis in Paris, where her first feature film is France’s submission to the Academy Award Foreign Film category. Set in a small Turkish village by the Black Sea, hundreds of miles away from the more populous city of Istanbul, the film opens innocently enough after the last day of school, where instead of riding the bus, 12-year old Lale and her four older sisters Nur (Doğa Zeynep Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit Işcan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), and Sonay (Ilayda Akdoğan) decide to walk home instead, as it’s a beautiful sunny day, where they decide to play in the shallow water with some boys in their class, mostly splashing around, but also playing a game where girls sit on the shoulders of boys and try to knock the other sister into the water. By the time they get home, however, one by one they are beaten by their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldaş), proclaiming their behavior immoral and scandalous, as the girls are the subject of malicious gossip spread around town by their neighbor who claims she saw them “pleasuring themselves” on the necks of the boys. As their parents died a decade earlier, the grandmother has been raising them, but in this instance their domineering uncle takes over, Erol, Ayberk Pekcan, the driver from Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu) (2014), sending the oldest girls for a virginity test while removing their computers and phones, forcing all girls to wear plain brown dresses while placing iron bars on the windows locking them all indoors in order to “protect” them.
Essentially believing they have to save the girls from themselves, the film isn’t a comment against Islam, which is the primary religion in Turkey, but against a patriarchal society where men, especially those coming from a poorer educational background, expect women to protect their purity and remain virgins until marriage, believing otherwise their marital chances will be ruined, along with the honor and reputation of the family. Narrated by the youngest sister Lale, who offers a kind of outspoken Linda Manz sensibility from DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), the closeness of the girls is evident throughout, as the film pits the expectations of the girls against that of their family, who immediately go about the business of indoctrinating the girls how to be loyal and subservient wives, turning the home into a “wife factory.” Informed that their school education is over, older women are brought in to teach them how to cook traditional dishes and sew clothes while the uncle goes about the business of arranging marriages for the oldest two sisters, including a stream of inspections from potential suitors, where the goal is to have all the girls, ages ranging from 12 to 16, to be married off by the end of summer. While the title is a reference to the wild horses indigenous to the area, the symbolism of taming the wildness out of the horses is not lost on the viewers, as much of the film plays out as a clever battle of wills, where an unbridled, free spiritedness is pitted against an entrenched conservatism that condemns their behavior. This is as much a battle of the West versus the East, where the ideals of freedom and democracy conflict with the more authoritarian, patriarchal governments of the Middle East that are more inclined to impose a strict order upon a society rather than leave them to their own inclinations, where the rights of women have traditionally been stifled for centuries. Nonetheless, the grandmother is equally conflicted, as she loves the girls, even indulges them from time to time, and in the most hilarious scene of the film is willing to go to outrageous methods to protect them from the wrath of the men after they sneak off to see a local soccer game and can be seen on television cheering them on, literally cutting off the power of the entire village to avoid detection, yet she is also fully complicit in their subjugation.
The timing of the film uncannily follows in the aftermath of the horrific murder of Özgecan Aslan, a young Turkish university student that was brutally murdered during an attempted rape, her body burned beyond recognition and her hands cut off to avoid detection, an event that sparked outrage across the country leading to massive protests demonstrating against unacceptable violence to women, the first mass movement in support of Turkish women, where Aslan’s father was quoted after her death, “We grew up with fairy tales. Once upon a time… Once upon a time there was an Özge. And then there wasn’t any.” The film is interestingly presented like a fable with Lale’s innocence and fierce independence at its center, with a focus on faces and bodies, often intermingled together, heightening the tension between freedom and repression. Bathed in the radiant pastel-colored cinematography of David Chizallet and Ersin Gok which beautifully captures the carefree innocence of the young girls, but also how freely they move their bodies as an extension of their inner spirit, the performances have a wonderfully naturalistic feel, where the sisters are often framed in close proximity to one another, almost as if they are an extension of one body and one soul. What’s so effective about the film is how each of the young girls is portrayed, smart, overly clever, and mischievous, with healthy desires and a burgeoning curiosity, perhaps overly Westernized, but from the outset that’s the way they’ve been taught. Adding to an interior psychological context is moody, introspective music by Warren Ellis, some of which can be heard here: Robes De Couleur Merde in Mustang (Warren Ellis), including several with Nick Cave, the duo that masterminded the glorious soundtrack of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007). The haunting music suggests an element of fragility, a contrast to the defiance and open rebellion they feel in response to their tyrannical treatment. One by one, as each sister is delivered to the groom’s family like custom bought merchandise delivered to order, the results are mixed, as only the oldest is married to the boyfriend of choice, while all the others are forced to resist in their own ways, often with staggering consequences. While the youngest is the most independent and outspoken, she is literally the anchor of the film, where the film is largely seen through her eyes, with a narrative slowly evolving from lighthearted comedy to tragedy, where much of this plays out in the realm of horror, though to the director’s credit, even the most tragic sequences are delicately handled. Ostensibly about the mistreatment of women around the world, and in particular, by overcontrolling men — who deserve to have their heads examined — this is actually one of the better films seen that expresses this universal travesty in such a lyrically poetic manner. While there is a window of hopeful optimism, the film offers a beautifully observant exposé on childhood ending all too soon, where an idyllic innocence hits a brick wall of male-enforced societal rigidity that becomes fixated on adolescent women, all but imprisoning them for the rest of their lives.