Sep 28, 2015

TIFF Review: Mustang; 3000 Nights

*These reviews were originally published at The Film Experience.

Mustang (Turkey/France)
Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s first feature is an astonishingly assured debut. The story of five orphaned sisters who live with their grandmother and uncle in rural Turkey is at once a joyous celebration of youth and a rage-inducing depiction of young girls’ lives in religious, conservative societies. Locked inside their house after they are found innocuously playing with male classmates at the beach, the girls are forced to stay away from school and spend their days getting primed to be housewives.

The first half takes on a mostly comic tone, as the girls defiantly rebel against increasingly harsh measures by finding inventive ways to step out of the house or sneak off with their boyfriends. One forced marriage and an unfortunate disaster later, however, the film takes a sharp turn for the serious. Ergüven handles this tonal shift deftly, though the final minutes of the film forego the emotional complexity of the buildup in favour of a thriller set piece which feels a bit hokey.

Nevertheless, this is the work of a filmmaker whose understanding of form shows no sign of her relative inexperience, and her work with the young actors—all of whom more or less in front of the camera for the first time—is nothing short of miraculous. Mustang expertly frames the young girls neither as victims nor as implausible heroes, but as multifaceted, empathetic adolescents. As a friend put it succinctly, it’s a beautiful film that reminds us of the importance of seeing the female experience on film.

3000 Nights (Palestine/France/Jordan/Lebanon)
Palestinian and Israeli cinemas are in no shortage of films about the prison system, but 3000 Nights still feels like an entirely fresh entry. Mai Masri’s film tells the story of Layal (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a young Arab woman arrested on a bogus charge and detained in an Israeli prison that is home to women of both ethnicities. As though the prison’s politically charged environment is not difficult enough to navigate for Layal, she discovers her pregnancy early on. Faced with an 8-year sentence, she is torn between options that each seems progressively worse than the other.

3000 Nights features an almost entirely female cast with several stellar performances across the board, but the standout is Abd Elhadi, whose graceful turn is as tender as it is powerful. Layal’s evolution takes her from a naive but surprisingly headstrong newcomer to a commanding presence who is self aware of her vulnerabilities both because of her son and her Palestinian roots. Abd Elhadi is magnetic on screen as she charts this gradual shift. 

Inevitably, Masri will face criticism for her film’s clear political agenda, but no artist is responsible for covering every dimension of a story, and within the parameters chosen here, she remains truthful to reality. Her examination of the problematic Israeli prison system is consistently engaging, whether in moments of ever-present tension between the inmates, or their preferential treatment in the prison hierarchy, or, most memorably, in the film’s striking rebellion scene, an edge-of-your-seat sequence that begins with a breathtaking shooting of a prisoner. Passionate, intimate and intensely moving, 3000 Nights is one of the festival’s great discoveries, and a film that is more accessible and entertaining than its premise might suggest on paper.

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