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Monday 29 February 2016

Mustang, Film, Turkey (2015), directed by Denis Gemze Ergüven, 8* out of 10

A heartbreaking, yet uplifting tale about the fate of 5 girls being forced to conform to the customs of the Anatolian village life, where girls are being treated as property, being passed on from guardian to husband - and are supposed to comply and enjoy it.  Deservedly made it to the shortlist of the 2015 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. 

At the beginning of the Summer Lale (Günes Sensoy) at 12 years old the youngest of 5 sisters, is sad as she has to say goodbye to her favourite teacher who is moving from the Anatolian village where Lale and her sisters live to Istanbul. The Lale, Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan) and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) are a tightknit bunch full of laughter, fun, joy of life and a little bit of mischief. Orphans, they have had an unusual amount of freedom growing up, as they were brought up by their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas), who has been ambivalent about conforming to the the misogynous, narrow minded morals and customs of country-life in Turkey. But now that most of the girls are in their teens, their severe, abusive uncle is taking greater control of their lives. As their grandmother decides to marry them off, Lale senses that her easy-going childhood in comparative freedom together with her elder sisters is coming to an abrupt end when child’s play with boys at the beach sets tongues wagging in the village. At the end of the summer nothing will be as it was before.

Deservedly awarded the prize for the best debut screenplay at the Berlin Film Festival and nominated for the 2015 Academy Award as Best Foreign Film, Mustang works because it does not preach or overdramatise; on the contrary:  it is told, in a matter of fact at times humorous and understated manner by the gutsy little Lale. She introduces us gently to an everyday reality of Turkish village life before the enormity of what is being done by a patriarchal, virginity-obsessed male-dominated society to young adolescent girls becomes clear.  

Putting five girl/woman protagonists into your first screenplay is daring, but Denis Gemze Ergüven and her more experienced co-author Alice Winocour have pulled it of. Under Ergüven’s direction the 5 girls give a strong ensemble performance. Günes Sensoy as Lale and Nihal G. Koldas as the grandmother stand out.   

I do not know enough about Turkey to judge which aspects of this story can be seen as typical of Anatolian village life or how much this is a one off individual tale.  In any event, Mustang is an entertaining and moving film about the loss of innocence that reminds us about the importance supporting those who highlight and defend children’s and women’s rights so sadly lacking not only in Turkish Anatolia.

Tuesday 9 February 2016

A War (Krigen), Film, Denmark (2015), written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, 9* out of 10

Shot in a factual documentary like manner, A War is compelling viewing from beginning to end and fully deserves its Oscar nomination for “Best Foreign Language Film”.  

Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) is the Commanding Officer of a Danish unit in the Afghan War. After one of his soldiers on patrol is killed by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) he decides to move from command-centre to leading patrols of his units in the field. Meanwhile back in Denmark, waiting for the occasional phone call Pedersen’s wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) is doing her best to manage with her three young children, one of whom finds it particularly difficult to cope with his dad’s absence on dangerous duty. 

When on one of his unit’s patrols, Pedersen administering medical care to the little daughter of a local Afghan farmer, a tragic chain of events is set in motion. It will impact not only the local people, whom the Danish soldiers are trying to protect from the Taliban, but also test spirit and morale of Pedersen and the soldiers under his command to the limit.

Shot in a factual documentary like manner, A War is compelling viewing from beginning to end. The action is shown from the perspective of the soldiers and of the unit commander’s family in Denmark. The miniscule area of Afghanistan that the unit is responsible for and its population are viewed through this lens as potentially and of actually dangerous and hostile, but almost always as strange and threatening. By taking this perspective the viewers feelings towards the local civilians and even children vacillates between suspicion and affection.  

For European audiences it is easier to instinctively sympathise with soldiers from a small European country such as Denmark than with troops larger powerful countries like the US, Britain, France or Germany. Considering the duties and dilemmas of an individual soldier, such a predisposition on the part of a supposedly neutral audience is hardly justified; but it plays an important role in the extent of the emotional rollercoaster ride which this film takes us on.    

Writer and director Tobias Lindholm, who gave us The Hunt ( and The Hijacking, has again done an outstanding job, showing both the interpersonal relations among the soldiers in Afghanistan's theatre of (low intensity) war and the impact that such a posting has on an officer’s family at home. Acting performances are strong, too, with outstanding performances by Pilou Asbæk and Tuva Novotny.  Without being didactic or preachy, the story leaves us with a moral and emotional dilemma which viewers will have to think through and answer for themselves. Krigen fully deserves its Oscar nomination in the category “Best Foreign Language Film”. Highly recommended.