Meet France’s Oscar Entry, ‘Mustang,’ a Controversial 5-Headed Monster of Femininity

Meet France's Oscar Entry, 'Mustang,' a Controversial 5-Headed Monster of Femininity

In a remote seaside village in Turkey, school has just let out for the summer. Five long-haired sisters frolic through the waves, still in their school uniforms. They climb atop the shoulders of schoolboys, laughing and splashing in the water, embracing their newfound freedom with abandon. Little do they know that this will be their last taste of such joys. The sisters return home to find that a neighbor has reported their “scandalous behavior.” News travels and the girls’ innocent antics bring shame upon their entire family. Stunned, the girls maintain they were only playing a children’s game, but their protests fall upon deaf ears. Their burgeoning sexuality is now a threat.

To ostensibly restore honor and improve marriage prospects, the orphaned sisters’ guardians — their grandmother and dictatorial uncle — lay siege to the house. The girls are barricaded inside, banned from communicating with the outside world and sentenced to a life of conservative Muslim observance against their will. Thus begins imprisonment in what the sisters come to call the “wife factory.” Elderly village women visit the house in rapid succession to give the sisters lessons in cooking, cleaning and obedience. The girls are to be married off in a harried assembly line. Harrowing violations of their freedoms follow, such as having their hymens inspected to confirm their virginities.

But the girls won’t take it lying down. They create a gravitational force field as captivating as any all-star ensemble cast. One by one, they enact individual moments of heroism; together, they defy the infringements of their personal liberties (some of which could be classified physical or sexual abuse).

For Turkish-born director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, rebellion was not an option. Ergüven lifted the opening scene at the beach directly from her childhood experience, but with one key difference: “The scandal that was triggered was the same,” she said. “But we didn’t react as the characters did. We just looked at our shoes and were completely ashamed.” 

The “Mustang” girls are super-heroic, according to Ergüven. They possess an inordinate amount of courage to subvert traditional values. “No girl would ever act like this,” Ergüven said. “As little girls, our strategy of survival is so different. You get so hit by shame when you’re accused of something, that even when you do have a sense of unfairness, it’s impossible to take action.”

Growing up between Turkey and France afforded Ergüven critical distance from societal confinements. “Though my family was headed by some conservative figures, I could always step back and get out,” she said. But in recent years, as Turkey has undergone a significant reversion to conservative values and politics, Ergüven has grown increasingly discomfited.

“What seemed striking to me is that there’s this filter of sexualization through which women are perceived in Turkey, and it shapes their place in society,” she said. “It’s something that starts at a very early age — as early as the characters in the film. I wanted to question that deeply.”

Though the “Mustang” actresses — Elit Iscan (21), Ilayda Akdogan (17), Güneş Şensoy (14), Doga Zeynep Doguslu (15) and Tugba Sunguroglu (16) — have experienced a liberal youth compared to the characters they portray, they too feel restricted by Turkish gender norms.

“I’m not getting an arranged marriage, but I feel pressure from the society and political figures,” said Iscan. “In the film, there’s a political figure giving a speech about how women should act in public — that happens. In Turkey, men are discussing too much about how women should act.” Doguslu recounted an instance similar to the film’s opening scene. “I was playing with my boyfriends outside, and someone called my grandma to tell her to take better care of me,” she said.

“In the newspaper every day there will be murder stories about honor killings,” added Ergüven. “Even in the more liberal segments of the society, you are under pressure. When you read about a woman who has been murdered or experienced domestic violence, it doesn’t feel like an [anomaly] — you feel it in your bones. You feel the violence everywhere around you.”

Ergüven portrays this violence contrasted with the ebullience of youth. In many ways, to watch “Mustang” is to experience filmmaking in the present tense. The camera gallivants with the girls, chasing the electric current of their sisterly bond as they communicate without words and test the limits of their newfound sexuality. The cinematography is so kinetic that interruptions to the dreamlike flow, such as instances of violence or threats to the sisters, feel like rude awakenings.

Much of this energy was present in the first draft of the movie. After an arduous and ultimately fruitless five years trying get her first film off the ground, Ergüven was just about to throw in the towel on filmmaking. “My friend and co-writer Alice Winocour was the one who fooled me into writing the script by saying, ‘If you don’t have the script by the end of the summer, you’re going to die.’ It worked so well. I was hammering my keyboard like crazy, working 20 hours a day. The script was written in one breath. There was something very raw about the energy. We daydreamed the characters together.”

Despite the film’s content, Ergüven was unconcerned about the prospect of shooting in rural, conservative areas of Turkey. “The team was anxious, but I wasn’t,” she said. “In one scene, one of the girls is making love in a car in front of a bank, and the location manager was saying that if we didn’t get lynched that very day, there’d be a rumor. Nothing like that happened.” 

Her nonchalance was largely a product of strategic production; oftentimes, Ergüven lied about or refused to share the content of her script. “There’s a moment when a girl takes her T-shirt off,” she said, “and I told someone, ‘Oh, we’re just suggesting that.’ But then when the scene rolled he almost had a heart attack.”

The “Mustang” girls are clearly written from Ergüven’s devious nature. “One day, I took my dog into a restaurant and she puked all over the floor,” she said. “Dogs were forbidden and they had allowed her, so I freaked out. I took the napkin, cleaned it up, and then walked across the restaurant holding the paper towels as if I was on a catwalk. Nobody noticed what I was holding, of course. There’s always a way of diverting the attention someplace else.”

There’s such striking intimacy between the actresses that sometimes it’s hard to believe “Mustang” isn’t a home movie. “There was this scene where we were playing in our rooms, and I felt like there was no camera there, that’s how comfortable we were with each other,” said Iscan. “The camera became like our sixth sister,” added Akdogan.

To get there, Ergüven and her casting director saw thousands of young girls. Although Ergüven had Iscan in mind from the beginning — she had acted in several Turkish films — the rest of the sisters were first-time actors. “I had prepared this kit of auditions, and it allowed us to see qualities of acting in girls who had never acted before,” explained Ergüven. “We could see how they listened, the scope of their imagination, and how much they’d dive completely into a moment and stay there.”

In one round of auditions, Ergüven asked the girls to imagine they’d been dealt a serious injustice by an abusive man. “Nine out of ten of the girls who came in would just start begging,” said Ergüven. Then, Şensoy, who plays the youngest but most dominant and audacious sister, came in and stole the show. “She had the temper of a hardened criminal and just insulted the guy and yelled at him and cried at the injustice,” said Ergüven. “The elder, Ilyda [Akdogan] came in and immediately started flirting. The strategies were different and very lively.” 

Ergüven spotted Sunguroglu on a flight from Istanbul to Paris. She cast her on the spot. “I was really shy before this movie, so acting was a little bit hard,” said Sunguroglu, who, like Ergüven, is both Turkish and French. “But when I’m with the girls, I feel okay.”

In the trenches of the nine-month-long casting process, Ergüven read Greek tragedies in which the ensemble was described as moving with one body, communicating nonverbally. “One day it literally clicked,” she said. “The day we had the five together, it felt like magic. On paper we had described this monster of femininity — five heads, ten arms, ten legs — and all of the sudden it’s there!”

Ergüven wanted the girls to spend a significant amount of time together to cultivate the closeness of sisters. “Soon we were hugging each other, sharing our secrets,” said Iscan.”We also watched some movies with powerful women to be inspired,” added Sunguroglu.

Everyone watched “Fish Tank,” but Akdogan, whose character is the most sexually sophisticated, took cues from “Wild at Heart” and “Lolita.”

In person, the actresses are miraculously in tune with one another. Iscan, the oldest and most fluent in English, keeps the order, while the others regularly break into excited chatter. “I’m an only child, so now I have four new sisters — and also five, because Deniz is our sister, too,” said Akdogan. “I don’t have sisters either, so it’s nice to have a lot of them now,” added Şensoy.

“It’s funny, because in promoting the film, we travel a lot and they’re a riot together,” said Ergüven. “Yesterday they were coming out of Lincoln Center, two of them on the backs of the others, racing around, and I was feeling like I should wall them in or restrain them!” 

In September, France selected “Mustang” as its official Oscar submission. It was a surprising and political choice, given France’s historically turbulent relationship to its Muslim immigrant population. Despite French crew members and a distinctively Western sensibility, the film is deeply Turkish: It was shot in Turkey, in the Turkish language, with Turkish actors and crew. But Ergüven said this decision isn’t entirely unprecedented. She points out that France has a tradition of supporting foreign directors, and that the Cannes Film Festival, supported by the French government, is the epicenter of world cinema.

Of course, the political message does not escape her. “It’s a very radical and very modern way of saying we embrace you with your different origins and values, and that’s a very big statement,” Ergüven said. “There was no distinction between my film and any other French film. We were invited to the Ministry of Culture to watch it, and same with UniFrance. It’s France’s project. I feel like the adopted child with a very big responsibility.” 

When asked about their Oscar prospects, the “Mustang” girls lit up and crossed their fingers in unison. “We’re so proud that France has trusted us, given this responsibility to us,” said Iscan. “It’s great for the women of Turkey, because this film is making their voice heard all around the world.”

“It’s a Turkish movie, but it’s also a universal movie,” added Akdogan.

As the girls were led out of interview room and into adjacent offices, something caught Iscan’s eye. It was a Wonder Woman shirt hanging on back of a desk chair. “Oh my god!” she exclaimed. She clutched the shirt to her chest and smiled proudly. “This is so cool! Can I keep it?”

Read More: In a Surprise Move, France Chooses ‘Mustang’ Over ‘Dheepan’ for Foreign Oscar

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