(Written on Friday, June 24th)
I’m not sure there could have been more a more appropriate film to go and see on the last day on which the UK could be said to belong to the project known as the European Union. At the time we went, late afternoon, there was still the expectancy that the following day Britain would remain within Europe. Like so many others in the capital it feels as though we have sleepwalked into an unwelcome oblivion, which has sneaked up from behind and tied a union jack plastic bag over our heads. Asphyxiation will be long and slow and when we finally die and find ourselves reborn, it will be beyond the borders of the Arcadian project.
Mustang’s pertinence to this above paragraph may not be immediately obvious. This is a Turkish film telling the story of five sisters. Their parents are dead and after they are seen playing around on a beach, their grandmother and wicked uncle adopt the hardline, puritan approach to their allegedly wayward charges. The house becomes a prison which the sisters seek to break out of; then one by one they are married off. They youngest, Lale, is the most instinctively rebellious. She has no wish to find herself paired off against her will to a man twice her age and plots her escape.
Mustang has been drifting around London cinemas since I’ve been back. I had seen the trailer so many times that I had little enthusiasm to see the film. The trailer captured the dreamy camerawork and the luscious light of the Turkish mediterranean coast. It presented the film as a dreamy study of adolescent womanhood. Which the film is, but it is also, I discovered when finally the planets aligned and I went to see it, far more than this. At first there’s a suspicion that the film’s success might have something to do with the lingering takes of pubescent flesh, as the girls hang out in their knickers. If there’s something that feels queasy about this, then it is redeemed by the understanding that this queasiness is presumably the intention. The film is a far-from-subtle attack on the conservative and hypocritical Muslim mores of the girls’ conservative guardians and the society they belong to. This society decries any unseemly display of teenage flesh, whilst at the same time happy enough to climb into bed with it. The more the film affronts this conservatism, the more potent, on a visceral level, is its attack.
The repressive, mind-numbingly restrictive scope of this society, which attempts to quash the girls’ instinctive joie de vie, is something anyone would want to flee. In the end, after a well-constructed escape sequence, Lale and her sister Nur succeed in doing so. They get to Istanbul and in a symbolically significant moment, cross the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe. We root for them, because we, as lay Westerners, would want to do the same thing in their shoes: get the hell out of dodge. In so doing, the film helps to explain why many young Turks, not so very different in their outlook to ourselves, might want to head towards Europe. Which was of course, one of the great terrors projected by the Leave campaign in the election. ‘The Turks are coming.’ As though we belonged to the Ottoman empire on the point of being stormed; as though it was not precisely those who wanted to escaped a repressive, conservative orthodox society who would be the ones most likely to be seeking to discover a place more in keeping with their values.
Supposedly the drawbridge has now been put up, a day later, precisely to stop the likes of Lala and Nur reaching our shores. In the very act of doing so, those who raise the drawbridge show themselves to be just as repressive and conservative as the family the girls are trying to flee. Britain has now become the contrasting pole to orthodox Turkey (itself a gateway for the more challenging orthodox societies which lie to its Southern and Eastern borders.) Our conservatism and orthodoxy might take a different form to its Eastern polar opposite, but things they share in common are a distrust of the alien, a willingness to sacrifice their young on the altar of their narrow-minded mindset, and an introverted neurosis which stymies creativity and hope.