During a chastity lesson in 2014, former Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç declared that “Women ought not laugh in public.” Nostalgically evoking those “decent girls, who blushed and lowered their gaze when men looked at them,” he urged today’s youth to follow their lead. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature was shot in the Black Sea town of Inebolu at the time of this sinister speech—which it bravely includes. It’s a tantalizing meditation on what it means to be a woman in Turkey and a smack in the face of retrograde belief systems promoted by ruling politicians like Arınç (and endorsed by more than half of the country’s population).
In a refreshing departure from actuality, Ergüven’s five heroines—teen sisters who resemble Renoir models with their free-flying hair and sunlit sensuality—have the guts to hold their heads high and look those that wrong them right in the eye. Ergüven films their blossoming bodies with the same unyielding energy and liberates her narrative—a skillful blend of tragedy and fable—from genre constraints, crafting her own brand of magical realism instead.
But as the filmmaker herself explains, this emancipated approach to weighty subject matter—the unbearable everyday reality of many Turkish women—can only be achieved by having perspective. The distance between France and Turkey, which the 37-year-old expat Ergüven has traversed all her life, allows her to point out, frame, and name the ineffable, unnamable horror.