Monday, January 18, 2016

mustang and the mountaintop

When my sister arrived to babysit Saturday night, I told her that AK, Andrew and I were going to see a movie I described “kind of like a Bosnian Virgin Suicides, I think.”

I came up with that tactful description based on the trailer for Mustang—because I’d seen some white-looking Muslims and bored-looking teenage girls trapped at home. The movie is Turkish—in fact a completely different country than Bosnia!—but there are some Virgin Suicides parallels.

No suicides for these sisters.
Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale are a pack of sisters ranging in age from about ten to seventeen. They all have long, untamed brown hair, and they spend their days wandering the fields and beaches of their small town. Lale, the narrator and the youngest of the girls, tells us that it all changed in the blink of an eye, on a day when they play a game of chicken with some schoolboys in the surf and steal apples from a farmer who threatens them with a shotgun.

When they get home, they’re in trouble. They think it’s for the apples—that’s how innocent they are. But they’re about to be exiled from the Eden of their youth, as the grandmother who has raised and protected them reluctantly yields to the will of Erol, the girls’ uncle (their parents, as in any tale of princesses trapped in towers, are dead).

Erol drags the girls to a hospital for a virginity check, takes away their computers and phones, and turns their sprawling country home into a prison, complete with barred windows. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to say that, like so many people who order lock-downs on alleged perversion, Erol is the one with problems. Erol sees young girls as sexual timebombs because he’s the one who sexualizes them.

Mustang stampede.
But a big part of what makes the movie delightful and not just tragic is that the girls are truly indomitable, the wild horses who refuse to be broken. They are a handful. They are goofy and bratty. They prance around in neon bras and flop down on the floor like puppies. When they’re barred from the beach, they pretend to swim in their bed sheets.

Sonay sneaks out to see her boyfriend. At one point she tells Selma, “We make love, but I’m still a virgin. We do it the back way.” So, okay, maybe they’re not all so innocent.

AK said the movie reminded her of Aimee Bender’s short story “Job’s Jobs,” about an artist whom God bars first from painting, then writing, then cooking, then accounting—but even completely cut off from the world, the man finds art and love. I hesitate to use the phrase “triumph of the human spirit,” but, well, the human spirit is alive and well in that story and in Mustang.

Prairie dresses won't keep us down.
I was also really interested in how the older women in the family find small, subversive ways to help the girls, even as they’re supposedly teaching them how to be proper, marriageable young ladies. These women in “shit-brown” dresses (Lale’s words) teach them how to make their own chewing gum and shield their uncle from their worst offenses. These moments are the film’s funniest and sometimes the most difficult, as when their grandmother scrambles to save the girls from Erol’s advances by marrying them off as quickly as possible.

With Lale’s turn rapidly approaching, she plots a getaway in ways that are both childish and desperate. She and her sisters talk of Istanbul the way young gay men in small towns in the 1970s must have talked of San Francisco. It is their one hope.

Watching the movie, I thought about how I don’t think much about freedom. I’ve rarely been barred from doing anything, unless you count dating when I was ten (not that anyone was asking me out; not that I really even wanted to date; I just wanted the option, or maybe I wanted to want the option). I grew up with parents who prized security, and I’ve tended to think of that as the harder thing to come by. But only a free person would think that.

I also thought about my other friend Andrew, who is now living in Istanbul with his Turkish wife. As he’s described it to me, life in Istanbul is radically different from the small towns—the kind of place where you may go through elaborate tea ceremonies with your girlfriend’s extended family, but then you and she and all the other young people go out drinking afterward.

Making it visible.
Earlier today, I was listening to excerpts from Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, made on my birthday nine years before it was my birthday. At the time, he was being told to get in his place and stop talking about Vietnam and poverty. He was tired and not so optimistic. And this part made me cry, possibly because he shows his vulnerability—he admits he has no desire to be a martyr—and finds freedom anyway. Or maybe it’s because he knows his own vulnerability that he can fly. It is the ultimate human and spiritual endeavor, to be in such deep kinship with your people that you neither undervalue nor overvalue your own bodily life:

Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight.

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