Turkish born, French-raised writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s “Mustang,” named after the wild horse, is a confident debut focused on female oppression and liberation. The story is Turkish and set in Turkey, yet it carries out unapologetically feminist motives with universal resonance—no surprise from a filmmaker with the kind of multinational upbringing Ergüven had, in France, Turkey, and the U.S. In Turkey, she is considered an outsider. But her rare perspective has tapped universal responses around the world.
The French Academy controversially selected the French-financed award-winner to contend for the Oscar over a strong roster of festival hits including Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning “Dheepan” and Xavier Giannoli’s “Marguerite.” Yet, an assured female point of view is always a welcome addition to the Oscar race. “Mustang” is playing well for Academy members and is considered a Best Foreign film frontrunner.
Ergüven, a cinephile and intellectual (she has a BA in literature, an MA in African History, and a degree in directing from the prestigious La Fémis in Paris), told me that she felt compelled to examine the place of women in society. She knows she stands at a unique intersection of perspectives and believes she has conveyed this cosmopolitan backbone in her film.
“Mustang” tells the story of five orphaned sisters—the oldest is in her late teens—raised by their grandmother and uncle in a conservative and patriarchal small town near the Black Sea. When an innocent game with boys on the last day of school is spotted by a town gossip, the girls’ normal lives suddenly turn into a nightmare. They get locked up, taught homemaking chores, and matched with suitors they never met before… until the youngest (Lâle, played by Güneş Şensoy) rebels on the night of her sister’s wedding.
The film doesn’t spare its punches on any of the micro and macro pressures Turkish women face on a daily basis, increasingly backed by the current conservative government. In one scene, we even get to overhear conservative politician Bülent Arınç’s real remarks, which received a strong and loud backlash in Turkey, about how a woman of high virtues should act and carry herself in public.
Ergüven is candid about her influences, and admits she drew on the personal secrets of two generations of women in her family. But she won’t confirm who’s who and encourages the viewer to do some guessing. During the post-screening Q&A at the Film Society of Lincoln Center earlier this week, she said she’s had enough of the comparisons to “The Virgin Suicides” (Sofia Coppola, 1999).
As a New Yorker raised in Turkey, I dig deep into the issues raised by “Mustang” with the filmmaker below.
Tomris Laffly: Let’s start from the beginning. Where did this project come from?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: I wanted to say, with urgency, what it was [like] to be a woman; focusing closer onto what it is [like] to be a woman in Turkey. [Underneath] each film, we have deep movements of tectonic plates, going towards what seems most important. The place of women in Turkish society has taken a central part of the debate in the minds of the conservative government of the AK (Justice and Development) Party. They are very vocal on what [women] should/should not do.
The first treatment I wrote was very close to real life people, and to secrets, which were not necessarily mine. I couldn’t just show it exactly as it was. I needed all the resources of cinema. When the girls sit on the shoulders of the boys [in the beginning of the film], it triggers a little scandal. That’s exactly something that happened in our family. And we never knew how the news came all the way home even before us. There was no phone at that time. So it was a big mystery, and we didn’t say anything.
What was the role of your co-writer, Alice Winocour, in the process?
I do the effective writing, and perceive her as a very encouraging boxing coach. She gives you the essence, the feedback and the energy to just go there and kick your keyboard. She would work with me with her extremely raw energy. We would daydream the characters together. And she would say “Oh, you know what? I see Ece (Elit Iscan) chewing her biscuits very mechanically before she kills herself.” There was something about bouncing back immediately on an image that she would give.
One of the things the story captures so perfectly in Turkish culture and any conservative society is the male double standards. There is always a masculine concern about maintaining “namus” (purity/honor) of females. But then, they’re always thinking about sex.
It’s so obvious that for people who see sex in places where there’s none, or see sex in places where everything’s extremely innocent, it’s an obsession. And plus they shout for purity. For me, it really doesn’t fit together at all. It’s in the movie through the structure, like the fact that there’s sexual abuse, which is made by the exact person who is always on a mission for purity.
But I also thought your film was very universal about all women (not just Turkish), perhaps thanks to the film’s fairytale-like nature.
People from all over the world feel a resonance with the story and it’s a beautiful surprise. People from very different societies where there’s no cultural or historical intersection with Turkey say they recognize things from their own lives very, very strongly.
For me, the courage that the girls have is extremely strong. They are the superheroes and everything had to reflect their glory. Like the light of the film, the sun, the sense of humor… When we started pulling the ropes of the drama, it goes into a very muscular fairytale. And the ending had to be exhilaratingly victorious.
How did you find this amazing cast of young girls?
Only Elit Iscan (Ece) had acted before. I went to see her as soon as I had the first version of the script. Then I prayed for her not to grow up too much until the shoot. Then there was a long process of nine months. Our casting director saw thousands of girls and showed me hundreds of candidates. I had prepared some kind of exercise to see their quality of acting, how well they listened, the scope of their imagination, capacity to dive completely into a scene… I couldn’t start giving away the parts before we had the five. It had to be perfect. And eventually, it clicked. We had this magic moment when we got the five together and all of the sudden they were moving like one body.
Did you always know that the story was going to be told from the point of view of the youngest?
Always. That never changed. I’m the youngest in the family, but not exactly like that. We’re a lot of women on two generations. So there are a lot of stories of two generations. It’s not like I’m holding a mirror to exactly to anyone, but there are two girls who have constructed one, one girl of real life, which I split into two. But I was exactly in the same spot.
The house is really well utilized with its outdoors and indoor compartments. How did you find that place?
The checklist of the house and the village was long. It had to look like the edge of the world. It had to have long, winding roads by the sea. We needed something eerie. Black Sea, the notorious, dangerous sea, was very attractive. And we made 1,000 kilometers long of a location scouting, looking at every single village. We only found one place where our checklist was fine, around Inebolu, which has special houses with great personality, constructed in a way that they have little windows put just a little further outside the building. In every room, you can [lean] and see the sea. The wooden house was completely broken and we put it back in shape. Then we [knocked down] walls, added circulations and had the perfect box in which we could play.
The use of camera is from a very pure place. You shine through the girls’ innocence with close angles and airy lighting.
We tried to film the girls very freely in all possible angles with exactly showing that it’s non-sexual. When they’re playing around, fooling around, you see every possible angle. And [they are] very comfortable with their bodies and we’re just as comfortable, because they are little girls.
You can film a point of view with desire by focusing on a specific parcel of skin. I remember a film of Jean-Claude Brisseau [“Secret Things”]. During the first shot, I was so disturbed by the look he had on his [female] actors. Some people—and it shocks me each time— say, “I see something erotic in a Mustang.” But again, it’s their look.
And how about the shooting of that exhilarating football (soccer) scene?
In the beginning I wanted to shoot at an actual game. What happened is eventually, just after we had our distribution, a Galatasaray game was announced, where there would only be women. Everybody had gone back but u-turned. We went on a mission to go shoot there. The Turkish co-producer talked to someone. [So it was] “OK, come and shoot whatever you want.” And one day before the shooting, everything stopped. There were too many people who had rights, like the Football Federation, different TV channels. So they told us the only thing we could do is shoot from a distance, with the cameras in the stadium.
So the stadium cameras shot it.
Yeah. The TV cameras were shooting the girls, and I was shooting with my phone. It was not at all appropriate to what I wanted to have in the can, but I still had the real moment that I needed for my television [scene]. And then I thought about the scene. You know what? I’m going to shoot it whatever way I want. And what’s important about it is the feeling we get. It’s emotional justice. So we shot it outside, in the stadium but not in a real game. And we put the girls in a trance, a real trance. We put music and then they had this acting coach. I was pregnant, so I couldn’t do it. She was in front of the girls, and she went wild, completely wild. And I love that scene.
It’s great that constraints sometimes work to your advantage.
The amount of joy in those shots… It’s orgasmic.
You have a very international background; you’ve lived both in Turkey and France. How did you distill all those perspectives and reflect them through your story?
I feel it’s a big strength to be multicultural, because it really gives you different perspectives on life. U.S. is so far from Turkey, and [in a way], Europe and Turkey know each other better. Here, it feels completely foreign. There’ve been few [Turkish] films that have traveled all the way here. It makes me articulate different things, and widens my base of reference. In France, it’s very different to be a woman. It’s so much harder for a woman in Turkey. They [might] have a harder time to [point it out] and see what it is, because it’s just behind them and it hurts a bit on the back.
But it also goes in the other direction. I look at Europe from Turkey, where there are 2,200,000 Syrian refugees. And when things happen in Europe with 20,000 refugees, there’s a total havoc. I see it from the base of reference [that includes] Turkey. It makes you zoom in and out on subjects. [I have heard a lot of times] “She’s neither Turkish nor French,” and I have the complete opposite impression. I’m very close to and completely in touch all the time with what’s happening in both countries and other countries.
The Turkish reception to the film ranged in extremes. There was love, but then you saw the flip side too.
There was everything, from “a magisterial masterpiece” from the greatest film critic, to… every single word was extreme. I think the film ultimately will be seen [in Turkey]. But something went offbeat with the Turkish release. The Turkish distributor decided to release it in the fall, and he even delayed it to later on. We were released in different countries; a Turkish-speaking movie, shot in Turkey, and Turkish people couldn’t see it. There were a lot of news items about the film. And everyone on social media was: “Why can’t we see it?” And then we arrived in Turkey.
When was that?
That was on October 23, very close to the announcement of the French entry to the Oscars. So it was purely identified as something coming from outside. There was something very, very foreign [perceived] in the film. I identified it as: Turkish cinema has a very specific distance with realism. And this is really my look at the world, and it’s my language. I was tired of hearing “She’s not from us.” I eventually said, you know what? I’m foreign, it’s true. But not in a way that I’m not from you or one of you. But in a way that we haven’t met before. This is my first film and you’re hearing me for the first time. That’s it. And the sense of humor of the film, for example, is more Turkish than anything. There’s an algorithm to Turkish humor. My father had it; my grandfather had it, too. And I make the same jokes because I think like them.
I was trying to explain Turkish humor to someone, and gave the example of [something happening at] ITU (Istanbul Technical University.) Its rector wanted to have a mosque in the university. So the students were saying they don’t need a mosque. This is a university, so let it be. And he said he had 700 signatures from students who want a mosque. And the next day, the students came up with a petition with thousands of signatures -because it went viral on the internet-, to have a Buddhist temple. So they were using the arguments of that rector against him, and it was fun. And this humor is what’s in the film. So, my point of view is constructed by different perspectives and values.
And that’s the strength of the film.
There are a few things in my DNA that I react very strongly to in Turkey. Any kind of attack on democracy, anything against the freedom of people… I think that’s because of my French background.
Based on the recent Turkish elections, what do you anticipate and hope for Turkish women in the future?
Right now I feel as if the woman is the entire country. I have the impression that Turkey is going through rapids, and you never know what’s going to be coming towards us in the next term. You don’t know if it’s going to be light and smooth, or a wild river, or all the sudden we’re going to fall into I don’t know what. And it really feels like that. It’s a huge surprise, the results of this election.
For me as well.
Yeah. Turkey has a really good sense of drama. There’re so many stories coming from there. I’ve often been very, very worried the last few years. But at least we’re never bored…which is a stupid thing to say.
I definitely hear that though, as a Turk who’s also been living away for a long time.
I love to think, with hope, that eventually this will be over. I’m thinking always as if we had abusive parents. One day, we’re going to leave the house.