The Value in Foreign Films


Denis Erguven’s 2015 film, “Mustang,” proved to be a little-engine-that-could at the Academy Awards last winter — it may not have won as the Best Foreign Film of the year, but its legacy seems to transcend one award given to one film on one night. “Mustang,” a small Turkish movie comprised of crisp cinematography and courageous storytelling, has already garnered itself a trusty (albeit small) cult following.

The image Erguven produces of the Middle East is not that of the dusty, debris-ridden warzone that so commonly colors movie screens every award show season (think “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”). It is a composition of dreamy music and sweeping views: glow-lit trees speckling country roads, the turquoise blue stream of the Mediterranean, five beautifully-cast sisters lying with one another in a bedroom amidst a tangled web of sandy-brown hair and sun-kissed limbs.

All dialogue is in Turkish, and while we can assume that the coastal village our characters live in is some hours outside Istanbul, the ambiguous locale soon becomes practically irrelevant. This is a story of sisterhood, female growth and burgeoning sexuality — authoritarian family members are quick in their iron-fisted attempt at stunting the slowly blossoming sexuality of Erguven’s heroines, the youngest of them barely at the wake of puberty, by locking them away and promising them to crude and misogynistic young bachelors.

What is most beautiful and horrifying about “Mustang” is that we don’t need any precise setting or time period to understand that the story of these girls is not just an artistic rendering, but a sharp reality. The main characters, endeavoring amongst tight-knit conservatism and sexual repression, could be living in 1950 or 2016. It doesn’t really matter when it’s happening. All we, as teenagers ourselves, really care about during our 130 minutes as audience members is that we understand that any of them could be one of us.

If films like “Boyhood” go down in history as emblematic of adolescent male maturation, then “Mustang” should play the corresponding role for female viewers. It’s not just that all of us can relate to the characters’ subjugation to unethical virginity tests and virtual domestic imprisonment — it’s that the actresses cast in the film create an experience that feels as natural as it is potent. Their dialogue streams with ease and fluidity — they are teenagers in the same cumbersome period of self-discovery we’re all in, battling the same internal demons and aching to experience the same worldly adventures that we all are.

Just because “Mustang” isn’t in English doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be given a chance; like many other impeccably-written foreign films, it simply doesn’t receive the attention it merits. In order for a foreign film to even make it into our awards-season queue, it must be in the upper echelon of filmmaking, often as good if not artistically superior to the classic Hollywood blockbuster.

According to IndieWire, “U.S. box office for the top five foreign-language films has declined by 61 per- cent in the last seven years.” As bigger film companies buy up smaller, independent ones and reduce their foreign film budgets, it’s becoming harder and harder for foreign films to garner even mild amounts of popularity when competing with Hollywood. “Mustang” was shown in only three theaters in the U.S.: there just isn’t a big enough market for these films to take off commercially.

To the mainstream public, foreign films are often seen as just pictures and subtitles. But take the Acad-
emy Award winners in the foreign language category in years past — Iran’s “A Separation” made waves as it delved into the bleak anxiety of divorce and the observed unraveling of a family unit, while France’s “Amour” studied the ruinous effect of aging on a marriage. It’s not the ideas of these films that are foreign to us, it’s the ways in which these ideas are expressed. We still relate to the heroes, feel scorn for the villains and empathize with the human frailty that these movies shed light on.

In viewing these tales in another language, through another lens and with a focus on the cultural dynamics of countries we may be unfamiliar with, we are afforded the opportunity to become more compassionate human beings.

So next time you’re watching Netflix, scroll your cursor over to the foreign language category of films. You’ll find “Mustang” there, but you’ll have also opened up a key into a new dimension of art that you may have never imagined before.