Knowing I had taken the 52 films pledge, a friend sent me this film as a present and I’m so glad she did. It’s a remarkable film that I think all women can powerfully relate to. Co written by director Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Alice Winocour (director of ‘Augustine’ and ‘Disorder’), the story follows the lives of 5 orphaned sisters growing up in the Turkish countryside and deals with the sexualisation of young girls, internalized misogyny, abuse and the bonds of sibling hood.
Told from the perspective of the youngest sister, Lale, the story begins as the sisters leave school at the beginning of the summer. They are beautiful and carefree. In celebration they race down to the beach with the boys, plunge into the water fully clothed and spend the afternoon reveling in the freedom. But the prying eyes of their community are watching and news of their flagrant disregard for propriety quickly reaches their family. The girls find themselves prisoners in their own home under the supervision of their grandmother and tyrannical uncle. All items that could corrupt them (phones, computers, lacey underwear, makeup) are removed and locked away. Invasive virginity examinations are ordered for the 3 older girls. Lessons in cooking and cleaning ensue as granny turns the house into a ‘wife factory’ and starts to arrange marriages for them. Lale watches as the future of her sisters is decided for them and becomes more and more resolute in her belief that escaping a life of tradition and submission is the only choice left to her. As the situation worsens it becomes a matter of life and death.
Despite the fact that the film deals with circumstances specific to Turkey, it’s themes are universal. I’m sure any woman watching this film can relate to the feeling of shame and injustice at their first experience of being told their behavior is ‘unladylike’. It might be to do with their first flourishing of sexuality, or it might be to do with being too boisterous, it might just be to do with being too outspoken. There are myriad reasons young girls are made to feel that part of their nature must be repressed in order to please family or community. Most women can pin point a time when exploring, being free, ‘being themselves’ suddenly became shameful because it was unseemly. The ensuing policing of how they dress, how they move, what they say, feels like a betrayal. It’s the early suppression of the female spirit and it is at the heart of this film.
The regime the girls find themselves under is invented and enforced with violence by men but it is meted out on a daily basis by women. The internalized misogyny of the situation definitely feels like a betrayal. However, there are moments of solidarity between the older generation of women and the sisters. And the films gaze is decidedly female. The more shocking or intimate incidents are never actually shown on camera which give them more gravity and concentrates the attention on how the girls are effected by them. Ergüven never paints them as victims either, she concentrates on how resilient they are which makes the film much more uplifting than you’d expect. With every new attack on their autonomy, they always find a way to claw back some freedom and remain defiant.
Ergüven spent months auditioning girls of all ages and backgrounds to find the perfect group with the right chemistry. Her casting is absolutely impeccable. It was so well judged that she described them during the filming process as having become a ‘five headed body’. Of the five girls (Llayda Akdogan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Doga Doguslu and Gunes Sensoy) only Iscan had any previous acting experience but they all give utterly convincing, completely individual performances. Gunes Sensoy in particular harnesses such determination, strength and bloody mindedness in playing Lale. She is one of the most courageous female characters you’ll ever get to know.
It is also a really poignant portrayal of sisterhood. To an extent it’s a relationship anyone with siblings can relate to in the way the sisters are dismissive towards each other, the way they tease and belittle each other but also how they rally together against a common enemy or defend each other without question. Ergüven and Winocour also explore the power of imagination and invention that comes so naturally to children and that is suppressed as we grow up. But specifically this is a story about the unique relationship sisters experience, even if they sometimes don’t get on. They are very physical with each other in a more nurturing way than brothers are. And they share the very specific experience of being a girl and becoming a woman. They talk about everything, their first sexual experiences, their hopes, their fears, their plans, their opinions.
I haven’t seen a better exploration of the betrayal of women by society since the Virgin Suicides. But this film makes Sophia Coppollas look like a voyeuristic and slightly romanticized depiction of female repression. It tackles the subject head on with courage and without apology. It, and Ergüven, have been attacked with violent criticism in Turkey but it’s not just an indictment of Turkish attitudes towards women. This film serves as a wake up call to all of us to look at our treatment of women and girls. It’s the best film I’ve watched this year.
And it passes the Bechdel test with ease.