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‘Mustang’ Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven on Femininity in Cinema and French Multiculturalism

'Mustang' Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven on Femininity in Cinema and French Multiculturalism

Mustang” is France’s Official Submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards. ISA: Kinology. U.S. Rights: Cohen Media Group.

Adolescent discovery impaired by tradition is what afflicts the five
untamable souls in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s 
Mustang,” a nuanced portrayal of blossoming womanhood that refuses to
be anything but free. Set in a small Turkish town, the film introduces us to a
group of sisters who yearn for the simple pleasures of youth. They want to
laugh, to play, to spend time under the sun, to meet boys, and to openly
express their desires even when these don’t align with the values of a
male-dominated society. Arranged marriages lurk like an impending threat to
their freedom and their bond. Still, sisterhood can’t be broken even when their
spirits are prevented from running in the wind.

Its cast’s luminous charm and the filmmaker’s authentic
vision have made “Mustang” a critical and audience favorite since it premiered
at Cannes last May. The film’s profile reached even greater heights when France
selected it as its Oscar entry instead of eligible films by other veteran
directors. To have a Turkish-language French production represent one of the
powerhouses in the Best Foreign Language Film category speaks volumes of the
changing cultural identity of the country at a crucial time in history when
acceptance and inclusion are of paramount importance.  

Beyond the accolades, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature is
a thing of beauty and triumphant perseverance. It’s a film about five warriors
in a battle fought indoors always looking for the small victories that offer a
glimpse into a world beyond the confinement of conventions. Here is our
in-depth conversation with a terrific talent.

Carlos Aguilar: When writing the screenplay for “Mustang,” how difficult was it to give
each character her own space and personality within the collective narrative?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven:
That was actually quite an issue, to distinguish them very strongly from one
another because I always perceived them as one character
with five heads. Think of a little hydra. In the film, for me, each time a girl
gets out of the story is as if they’ve lost a battle. Then they recompose
after a shock, reshape, and continue on fighting. Maybe that’s the reason
why the end feeling of the film is sweet and sour, because it’s victorious and
glorious, but at the same time you feel so sad because it’s shaded by
everything that has been lost in the way. All the exists of those other girls
into a different phase were quite sad actually. The temper of the girls came quite
naturally. The film is really constructed like a
little clock. If you take anything out, it falls apart. At some point I was asked to cut characters because of financial constraints, but it didn’t work out. They
were all reacting to the previous girl. One was necessarily the underdog of the
other, so the equilibriums were extremely clear: Sonay had a more dominant
personality, the second one was afraid of flies, then there is the more
mysterious and edgy one. When you start digging into the characters you
discover them. Each of them is so singular.

How did these
personalities and roles change when the actresses came in to bring the pages to life?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: They
bring beautiful life to them in a sense. At some point I tried every girl for
every part, even when it was very obvious that a girl had the nature of a
character. For example, Ilayda was very close to Sonay. She has an immense
trust in herself and she is a bit of a Lolita exactly like the character was,
but I still auditioned her for every single part to be sure. It was obvious.
Then when it came to casting Lale, the actress was different from the character.
She had the intelligence and the wits of the character, but the actress, Günes
Sensoy, she like knitting and is afraid of flies, leaves, and nature. There was
always something of the real character in them and the fact that they had real acting
qualities enabled them to compose. They brought exuberant life to them. They are
all very solar.

Where did the specific experiences and cultural details come from? How close is your relationship to Turkey since you move to France and did these come from your personal experience growing up there?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: My
family life was Turkish even if I was living in France. I went back and forth a
lot between Turkey and France because most of my family was there – even my
mother. A lot of stories cam from my family, for example, the little scandal that the girls
trigger when they sit on the boy’s shoulders, that was something we did in the
family. The things they are told was what we were told, but we didn’t
react at all like the characters. I was mortified and stared at my shows,
whereas the characters start breaking the chairs and saying, “These
chairs touch our asshole, is that disgusting?” That’s heroic, so that’s not true.
I was a complete coward in real life. The girls beaten in the order of their
age, that was something that my mother’s generation went through.

There were
also things that were documented for the needs of the script. There are lots of
little things, which in some way reflect something real. Of course, when you
work with actors and when you work on a script everything that you know about
the human experience can’t possibly go in. With a screenwriter and with the
actors there is always an environment of trust. You can say anything, all your
secrets, and you know that it won’t get out of that room. Sometimes it’s huge,
like you have a huge segment inspired by real life that goes in the film, and
sometimes it’s just a shot,like  the way that you look at someone if you saw
something on his skin. You’ll focus your shot exactly the way you looked at
someone that day. It’s about big and small mirrors, sometimes it’s metaphoric. You say
something but it’s not down to earth or the way it happened

Rebellious things
only become rebellious when oppression comes in. Things that are so normal to most girls become controversial
in the context of the film.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Of
course, each of these represents defiance. It’s a battle. There is always a
conflict at the bottom of each one of those scenes. Sometimes the girls win a
little and that’s the joy of victory, like when they go to the football game.
They have shapeless, shit-colored dresses, but they can tear them up. These are
little victories, and of course you can’t reveal against nothing.

Has the film been
shown in Turkey and what how was it received there in comparison to the rest of the world ? Did some of the themes explored in the film upset conservative people?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Very
different from everywhere else. The
film generated a sense of conquering in France. The audience adopted the film,
they like the girls, there was something special in France.  I think I was hoping
that even people who could feel criticized by the subject of the film in Turkey
would be charmed by the girls and that they would generate empathy, but it’s
been different. People who like it, like it emotionally very strongly and people
who hate it are very virulent against it. It’s inevitable. We are taking very
taboo things.

It’s hard to think someone could hate the film. Were these negative reactions something that concerned or worry you?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: There
have been very violent reactions. The major media outlets are behind the film.
The important journalists and the important film critics are behind the film.
But on social media people have Gilles de la Tourette, the syndrome that makes
people insult compulsively without being able to refrain themselves. I feel
it’s violent. There was this woman,which I don’t know if it’s a woman because the profile is anonymous with a woman’s name, who had been insulting me for weeks and
weeks. Once I was in Turkey she published information on all the places where I was during the
day, “She is going to be at this TV station,” or “She is going to be presenting
the film at this movie theater.” It was awful.

Was it because she or he
felt the film was against tradition or was it something beyond that?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: She
would say things like, “The film is a huge lie. It was made to degrade the
face of Turkey.” The thing is that there’s been one movie made on Turkey, which
was “Midnight Express,” and it was awful for the image of Turkey. It’s one of
those territories where you have little films to come out of it, so the
responsibility of what you show is very important. We are showing things that are
taboo and not always glorious like the sexual abuse and all those things. Of
course sometimes the reactions are, “Why are showing this?” They would like me
to show something heroic or chevalier, and that’s not the case. We are
embracing humans as they are.

“Mustang” has been talked about a lot in terms of female empowerment because of the themes it observes and the strong vision behind it. What’s your stance
on being labeled a “female filmmaker” or the fact that the film could be considered a “feminist film”? The way femininity is depicted in your film is definitely out of the norm compared to what we see in mainstream cinema.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: I
used to not see it. When I was in film school and people asked about female
cinema or male cinema, I didn’t really related to that debate until “Mustang” because of the fact that it’s about what it is to be a woman. There was something about it
that made me perceive that in art history and in cinema history we have been
seeing the world through the eyes of men. Women have always been objectified
and there are very few figures of womanhood that literally look like us and who
work like us in terms of our desires, hopes and all these things – like real
females do. Literally, this is the first in a movie where I can completely
relate to the characters. The metaphor I use is that masculinity is
like New York in cinema. If you are not a New Yorker, when you arrive there for the first
time you have the impression you grew up there because you’ve seen it in so
many films. It’s been filmed from every single angle and by so many different
filmmakers that you know the streets, the sidewalks, the architecture, the
cabs, the temper of the people, all that you know. Whereas femininity is
that village behind that hill with the bad road. Nobody goes there. There is
no camera. We don’t know what it looks like. It’s pioneering to crisscross
those territories.

For example, every step of the way of the experience of
being a woman I always though, “Damn, nobody told be about this, or this, or
this.” After I was a mother for the first time I thought, “Where did you see
breastfeeding in cinema?” Almost nowhere. There was one film by Bergman that
takes place in the Middle Ages where you have people going completely crazy
because there is an epidemic of the plague. They start dancing and walking from one
city to another. It’s an eruption of collective madness, and in that city there
is one guy who has his eye dangling out of his face, then you have a guy carrying a cross, and a
mother who is breastfeeding. That’s the only time you see a woman breastfeeding
in cinema. It’s crazy! All those things which are so common in our lives and
that are there in every step of the way in our lives, are not there.

Would you say femininity and feminism have become taboo in cinema?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: It’s
not taboo, but men, not only in
Turkish society but everywhere, have been the bosses in terms of creation. If
you look at art history, women were the objects. The fact that it’s not been
made by women means that the subjects are not women. You can’t have empathy with
characters who are not the subjects because they are objects. That’s important.

There characters in
your film are not victims, but more importantly they are not archetypes of fragility and weakness.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: The
situations are terrible, but I really wanted them to be figures of courage,
intelligence, perseverance, all those values that are never given to women.

Why was it important for you
to make your debut feature in Turkey and to tell this particular story?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: This
is my second feature project, but the first one to go into production. For me
it’s very important that all my preoccupations about the world are at the
bottom of a project. At that time with “Mustang” that preoccupation was the position of women
and there was an urge to tell this story.

The title of the film is a compelling visual reference that really encompasses the girl’s spirit. Where did it come from?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Etymologically
the word “mustang” means “without master.” One word had to describe the temper
of these girls, which was untamable. There was also this visual line between
these five girls with their long hair running around the village. They have
something of wild animals. The first line of the script says, “Lale has something
of a wild animal,” I had to find which animal it was and represented these girls who have been
growing up without parents and playing around outside after dark. Also, one of my
cousins’ names literally means “wild horse,” so it made sense.

The film is being released at a time when there is a difficult political
atmosphere in Turkey. A film about freedom in times likes these is more than appropriate.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Right
now Turkey is extremely preoccupying. I hope this film will be seen there, if
not in movie theaters I hope it’s pirated and seen. It’s important that it
reaches people.

The girls’
grandmother is a very interesting character. She is helping perpetuate this
traditional lifestyle, but that’s all she knows. She thinks she is doing the
right thing, but in a sense women like her encourage and accept this inequality. 

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: In
some ways she does it with the best intentions and with the means she has. I
can’t say no one is pure evil, but she is not. She does whatever she can. Women
perpetuate machismo. For example, in France, when
people asked me, “Are you a feminist?” I used to say, “No,” when we released the
film there. If you say, “Yes,” people won’t go and see your film. People think
there is something ugly about feminists. There are so many actress like Marion
Cotillard who say they are not feminist because is as if there are all these
negative attributes associated with it. But feminism is exactly as
any kind of combat for equal rights. It’s exactly the same as people fighting
for civil rights and in most parts of the world you can say there is some kind
of apartheid against women. It varies and it’s not always the same scale of
inequality, but there is really a huge problem regarding the position of women. We
are perpetuating this inequality. 
That grandmother is perpetuating it without questioning things that she
has lived, and that’s true and it’s true in different ways in different
cultures. For example, excision or female circumcision, women do it to other women in the cultures where it’s
practiced. You would think that if you had been
victim of something like that you would know better, but it’s not true. We
don’t accept that this is exactly like any other fight for equal rights. We
think it’s not glamorous to be a feminist. We think it’s just about women with
hairy armpits and stuff like that, but that’s not true. It’s just a desire to
be equal. The fact that we are not very articulate about it makes characters
like the grandmother exist.

There is an evocative quality to the film’s cinematography. Did you decide this approach from the screenplay stage or was it something that developed during production? 

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: First
of all, we had to make something glorious and very full of life. From the
script stage there were always passages or movements from light to darkness. The beginning
of the film had to be extremely sunny: the age of innocence, fun, joy. We had
to capture the life and the power of these girls. Then, as the characters
leave the story it becomes darker and darker everywhere and it’s colder.
Eventually it turns into complete darkness like in the last wedding. You have that
movement in the dramatization of the light. There was something about the
characters being full of life and the light they reflected that was glorious. At
the end of the film we see dawn again. There was also something musical about
the film in terms of the drama. I remember at some point I had written a part
with trumpets and then all of a sudden I had this little interlude. I was
thinking, “Now once you have the trumpets you can’t stop. You are not allowed
to do this,” so I took that and threw it away. There were natural movements of
light, maybe it was metaphorically musical, but all of them were natural movements of

Was shooting a film like this in Turkey a difficult task based on the content and the situations it deals with? It seems like this small town was perfect for the film in multiple ways.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: I
was trying to be under the radar as much as possible. For a long time when I
was going back and forth to that little town I would never say what I was doing
there. Ultimately I came with my team and it took two hours and then everybody in the
city knew what we were doing there. There is so much gossip in Turkey, if you
sneeze somewhere someone in another village will say, “Bless you.” People know
everything about what you are doing. It was a very conservative place. I
loved that because people were extremely welcoming, but some people were
against the film too. Women in the restaurants there eat on the first
floor and the men eat downstairs. I didn’t immediately understand that, so I
would eat downstairs with the men and then I thought, “I’m just going to do it
the way they do it.” People were extremely respectful with me and with the
girls, but of course I didn’t share the content of the script with anyone. I
would say, “It’s a fairy tale about being a girl.”

I’m sure you’ve read tons of reviews and pieces comparing the film to Sofia Coppola’s  “The Virgin Suicides.” What are your thoughts on this at this point? 

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: I
understand. There is this one shot when the girls are in the room and I
understand that’s why. For me these girls are like the hydra: a body with five
heads. They’ve been going through a shock and they are not at all like those in
“The Virgin Suicides.” The fact that there is are a group of girls in the bedroom seems
to spark that comparison. The book and the film say so many things about
sisterhood, but when you see two people kissing in a film you don’t necessarily
think about “Casablanca.” There are less films about sisterhood, so of
course it resonates in that particular spot. I’ve read the book and I’ve seen
the film. I was disturbed after a while when people asked the question over
and over again, so I thought, “OK, I’m going to give in.” In the book they talk
about when teenage girls have their periods it’s such a big deal, and I’m sorry
to say this because it’s private, but in the group of actresses that is always
a subject. Who has had it, who hasn’t, etc, and it’s a big discussion each
time. That’s exactly like in the book. It’s true. That’s what happens in
sisterhood when there are a lot of teenage girls. So I see how it resonates.

It seems like a lot of people finding puzzling to see France submitting a film set in Turkey and in Turkish as its Oscar entry in the Best Foreign Language category. What does this mean to you? How surprising was it for you and your team?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: It
came out quite organically and I think it’s a beautiful thing. For me it’s very
touching. I’m originally Turkish, then French. I’ve been going to this film
school in France where they take six directors per year after a long contest. Then for four years you make films and you have all these professionals come
in and out. You grow up as a filmmaker in front of the eyes of the industry. I
had already run representing France at the Cannes Film Festival with a short film in
Turkish years ago. Nobody ever asked because the film was obviously French.
“Mustang” was initiated by France, my producer is French and my team is French.
Once we made the film it was immediacy embraced by the ministry of culture,
there was no distinction between our film and all the other French films
released this year.

We hadn’t even finished the film when it was selected for
Cannes and we were invited by the ministry of culture as part of a celebration
of French cinema. They embraced me with my different origins and it’s a way of
saying, “Look at who we are. France now is this, with people from different
backgrounds.” It’s such a big statement for them to do that. It moves me very
much particularly because I had very complicated relationship to France. Plus,
the Foreign Language Oscar goes to the country, not to the director or the
producer. It’s a huge responsibility.

The minute they told us we were stuck to
the ceiling out of joy. We literally needed someone to bring us down. After that
there was such a sense of responsibility. We’ve been entrusted with this. My favorite quality about French cinema is this diversity. There are a lot of international films supported by France; then there is the Cannes Film Festival, which is the place
where people are most curious about cinema and different points of view from all
over the world; and then there is the French audience, which is curious to see
films in any possible language. There are more movie theaters in Paris than in
any other city in the world and audiences there are so curious. We are at a time when Europe is moving towards values that are extremely right-wing and all of a sudden France says, “BAM! We are behind this film with a
different origin and the values of this specific cinema.” It goes straight to
my heart.  

“Mustang” is now playing in L.A. and NYC.

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