ABOVE: TUGBA SUNGUOGLU AS SELMA, ILAYDA AKDOGAN AS SONAY, DOGA ZEYNEP DOGUSLU AS NUR, ELIT ISCAN AS ECE, AND GÜNES SENSOY AS LALE IN MUSTANG. PHOTO COURTESY COHEN MEDIA GROUP.
The trigger of the chain of events in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s sensuous and ethereal Mustang is nothing more than a brief respite from the oppressive heat of an Anatolian summer: Five adolescent sisters, already confident and sure in their skin, splash in the shallows of the Black Sea with a band of male schoolmates. What follows, in the Turkish director’s debut, is a dash of The Handmaid’s Tale with the very serious reality women endure in parts of the world. Locked in a house on a hill, bars go on the windows, jeans are traded for “shapeless, shit-colored” sack dresses, virginity tests are performed, and the household becomes what Lale, the youngest and our narrator, calls a “wife factory.” Its primary objective? Keep hymens intact, and marry off the brood before wild girls turn into wild women.
Ergüven co-wrote the script with collaborator Alice Winocour, much of it derived from a variety of events in her own Turkish upbringing. Mustang is an emotional account of the inner lights of youth, that burn bright and refuse to be snuffed out. It’s no wonder Ergüven likens her leading characters to a hydra. Her dreamlike, sun-dappled shots of young female bodies and autonomous minds in all their contrarian freedom and resilience, despite the turmoil around them, are an earthy liberation all their own, and a declaration of a new, powerful cinematic voice.
Interview spoke with the director earlier this week in New York.
COLLEEN KELSEY: The event that sparks the whole film happened when you were growing up, but when you were thinking about making this movie, where did you start? Did you begin with an idea about adolescence, or the female experience in Turkey? What was the seed of this idea?
DENIZ GAMZE ERGÜVEN: There was something, which was the turning point: I felt very strongly that women were sexualized, and perceived like they are sexual in every move, and it started off really early. There were so many anecdotes. I have so many different stories, which say exactly the same thing, but the one that was the most cinegenic and dramatic was the one of the girls sitting on the shoulders of the boys. I had lived the exact same scene and when we came home, the news of what we had done had come home before us, which was such a mystery. We never understood who told what to whom and at that time there was no phone, I think. It felt very strange.
KELSEY: When that happened to you, what was your reaction?
ERGÜVEN: Very different from the girls, of course. The one thing about the film is that the situations of each scene are very real. I lived that first scene. The one big difference with reality is the reactions. I would just say nothing at all, and be ashamed, and that’s it. Whereas, for example, the girls start off by breaking the chairs in the house, and saying “These chairs touch our assholes, and that’s disgusting!” so there was courage that I never had, all those things which stay stuck in your throat, that you dreamt you would had said, and never came out.
KELSEY: The psychology of the sexual gaze was so interesting to me, especially when the girls are formally put on display by their grandmother, when they walk into the town and she tells them to parade themselves, essentially, outside the café, or even when the potential suitors come. That is the sanctioned moment to show yourself and some semblance of permitted sexuality, whereas otherwise, you cannot.
ERGÜVEN: I like that scene of the parade of the girls in their shapeless, shit-colored dress. Plus, it’s the scene when it becomes a little bit of a western for a moment.
KELSEY: The showdown?
ERGÜVEN: [laughs] Yeah.
KELSEY: The camera’s gaze is so intimate, and really integrated as another extension of the sisters. Then there is the jarring moment of seeing from the POV of the uncle, where he’s looking at Ece across the dinner table, who he ends up sexually abusing. You can feel that predatory gaze. Why was it important to you to integrate this very overtly evil, predatory force?
ERGÜVEN: I never considered him as pure evil, but for me he’s a mixture of a few male figures that are completely real. There’s something about all the people who are on a mission for purity and chastity, which I find very questionable. He’s the quintessence of that. He’s abusive. He’s like the conservatives in our country who continually talk about what women and men should do, and are continually talking about sex. I find them obsessive on the matter. [I] even make jokes about that because it’s like, again, thanks to our conservative government in Turkey, for four or five days we’re going talk about sex. They’re always micromanaging things and talking about, like a school director saying things like, “Girls and boys shouldn’t take the same staircases when they go to class,” thinking that there’s something so sexual happening at eight o’clock in the morning when you go to math. Most of us aren’t even half awake. It’s so not sexual at all. He’s being zealous towards the social pressure right now in Turkey, towards the higher fears. Ultimately he’s just saying, “There’s sex here, there’s sex there,” and seeing sex in the most innocent and nonsexual moments.
KELSEY: I also wanted to talk a little bit about the fairytale or mythical devices of the narrative. I read that you had described the five sisters as one unit.
ERGÜVEN: As a hydra.
KELSEY: Could you speak a bit about that?
ERGÜVEN: In terms of drama, there was something about wanting to be as far as possible from the gloomy truth we were talking about. Our first draft looked very much like reality. I needed all the resources of cinema to get as far as I could from that. The fairytale thing came out very naturally. You have references to so many fairytales in the film, like the biscuits that Ece eats, which become a symbol of what kills her, like the poisonous biscuits. The football game is a bit like the ball the girls would go to. Then there was of course the hydra, the five girls being like this little monster, then there was the uncle as Daedalus. He’s like a Minotaur. It started contaminating all the aesthetic choices we could make on the film. When a girl came in with super long hair, almost to her knees, of course she looked like she came out of a fairytale. It was like, “Wow.” She got our attention more than someone you would see in the street. Even in the settings, the locations, the scouting was very much about trying to have this eerie nature, and this place, which felt like the edge of the world.
KELSEY: Going back to what you said earlier about the café scene, it being like a western, and the title of the film, what about those genre elements were inspiring to you?
ERGÜVEN: The closest thing was escape movies in terms of structure. Of course, it’s not Escape from Alcatraz . Our character is this five-foot girl. I remember always saying, “I want to be far from naturalism.” A few times, when we were shooting, like, the scene where the girls just run across the village and bang on the doors, that really felt like something; that scene in the shapeless, shit-colored dresses. It’s not exactly a western. But, it has a specific note and distance away from realism—the attitude of it all. The other thing was that, in terms of drama, the conflict between the girls and their family is very much dramatized with the house. I think the house is as much of an antagonist as the grandmother or the uncle. We had to look at it with great care. It was literally an antagonist.
KELSEY: And you were filming in quite a conservative area, right? Were there any sort of challenges or things you needed to get around? I think the car sex scene was the most publically overt.
ERGÜVEN: Yeah, it was a region where, first of all, it’s very conservative and then there’s very few films made there. So I tried to stay under the radar as much as I could and as long as I could. Of course when the production manager came, everyone knew we were making a film, but it was fine. It’s a little town with a lot of villages around it and they have speakers where they do public announcements, so we would say we were looking for extras and people would be very helpful.
Probably the part of the population which was the most liberal came and played in the film and took part of it, or people who were living close by and who were always in contact with the crew. I knew that a lot of things were sensitive. For example, when the boys shout under their windows. The bank scene almost gave a heart attack to the location manager, he really hated me that day, he hated my guts. The situation of the scene was exactly just as in the script, and he was like, “You you don’t realize, there’s going to be a rumor and they’re going come after us.” He freaked out, but it didn’t happen.
KELSEY: France submitted the film for the Academy Awards, which is amazing. Congratulations. But what has the reaction been so far in Turkey?
ERGÜVEN: The reaction was extreme in every possible way. We were literally everywhere. There was nothing in the middle. Most of the important film critics were exuberant, and then the more conservative media just bashed us, plus [there was] a lot of violence on social media, which I thought was really strange. I didn’t get it until Turkey, but the amount, it was crazy. I say it’s a woman, but it’s [an] anonymous [user] with a woman’s name, who for weeks was saying, “You’re doing this to disgrace Turkey.” Plus she was putting the girls in the loop as well, so she was insulting all of us. Eventually when I came to Turkey [in October], we went a week after the worst terrorist attack that happened in the history of Turkey, in Ankara. There was a peace rally, and kids holding peace and love signs were bombed, and those signs were used as stretchers. So I was super tense already. She starts putting on Twitter all the places where I was going to be. “She’s going to be on this TV show at this hour.” “She’s going to be in this community at this hour.” I was like thinking, “Oh my god, she could be threatening…” That was freaky. I never look at the press, and for once I looked at everything. The girls live it very positive, though, because everybody around them loves the movie.
KELSEY: How has working on the film affected your young actresses, and their own relationship to growing up in Turkey as young women?
ERGÜVEN: They take it as a responsibility to voice this. Most of them come from families that are not extremely conservative. I didn’t want to do casting in a way that you find yourself in a situation where there’s this perfect girl for a part and you just can’t cast her because the family says no. I guess we share the same kind of values and ideas of society, to defend the same things. We have whatever we had in our lives that makes us extremely free and much freer, which is in the script. They’re very aware, very courageous, more courageous than I was at their age. I think it made them bolder in a sense.
MUSTANG IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 20/