Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven on her controversial Oscar-nominated film “Mustang”

“This thing of saying ‘Everything a woman does is sexual:’ that thought — for every action, every inch of skin — is extremely dangerous.”

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature Mustang — so-named for the wild horses, not the car — takes place in a tiny Turkish town, and tells the darkening story of five adolescent sisters (from youngest to oldest: Lale, Nur, Ece, Selma, Sonay). Each wispy and sinuous and playful, their seductive charisma is stifled by mounting dread and domestic discomfort as they are shut in the confines of a home-turned-prison, complete with barred windows. It’s distressing to see their mischievous naturalism shunned and deemed indecent, harshly punished by family and society at large, steered by conservative values.

The only ways out are bleak, and the girls are brusquely married off, diverting their spirited personalities into loveless matter-of-fact matrimony. The film is at once feisty and unsettling, wistful and furious, with gorgeous cinematography and winsome performances by the young newcomer cast.

Turkish-born Ergüven lived between Turkey and France throughout her childhood, before finally settling in France and attending the prestigious Parisian film school La Fémis. With her film Mustang nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (as France’s entry), Ergüven spoke about the precarious relationship between film and national representation, the dangers of sexualizing women even for banal actions, and how it diminishes society as a whole to exclude a female perspective.

Women in the World: So how was the film received in Turkey?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: The reactions were always very passionate. Either people seized on the film and loved it — or they were really antagonized by it. Anybody who already knew I say things about the AKP [ruling conservative Justice and Development Party] and what’s happening in terms of politics in Turkey attacked me, and the film — but in terms that were not very intellectually honest. Turkey is going through extremely dark days right now. Extremely dark. It’s frightening.

People who didn’t like the film tried to discredit me by saying “she’s not one of us.” And I never lived something like this — ever. People saying “you’re not Turkish.” It didn’t even happen to me in France, to be considered as “not French.” But in Turkey, where I come from, it was quite shocking to me. That, and I got a lot of very aggressive messages on social media, and I’m sensitive to that. Of course on social media you have everyone, and there are a lot of freaks out there. But I’m shocked by it every day. Now the people who attacked the film violently are starting to shut up since there’s been the Oscar nomination; people are very proud.

WITW: The nomination is a kind of vindication?

DGE: You read stuff every day, “what a shitty script” — everything about the film is denigrated, so the nomination says: Maybe I understand something about cinema.  And it proves that the film resonates, in some way. Cannes is like that too: it’s a very strong tribune. It’s really a place where you have the possibility to say things, so it’s a lot of strength. I live it as a shield and an army behind me.

WITW: You’re one of the only female directors nominated for an Academy Award.

DGE: I read there’s a female [Liz Garbus for What Happened, Miss Simone? nominated] for documentary  So, we’re two. That’s nothing very new. [Sighs] Ever since I was in film school, and every single program that I have done, from labs to co-production forums, we were always a very few female directors. At my film school, every year it was either one girl, two girls — or zero girls. It’s so much testosterone.

Honestly ten years ago I think it was even more difficult. Looking back, the hard thing was to generate trust. People would not trust that you would do what it takes, to walk through fire. But when you make a film you do walk through fire. People think you’re not going to take it. For me, that’s the difficult part of the job.

The thing about women in cinema, I don’t think it’s a question of equity — we don’t just want the same numbers on the sheets — I really feel that the films that we watch have a very strong impact on the way we see the world and the way we shape our societies. Women have been objects through art history and cinema history, and not making the art. So we are used to looking at the world through the eyes of men, and it impoverishes us in terms of perspective. Cinema allows us the strongest language possible — you can exchange eyes, points of views, experiences. And the fact of missing one half of the population of humanity is, in terms of perspective, really extremely narrow.

WITW: What motivated your decision to mute religion in the film?

DGE: There are many reasons for that. Everything is, like, so big already, for instance the sexual abuse, which is addressed indirectly: everything is already such an earthquake. Religion is in the film: you see women with veils, you see mosques. This is the maximum I can say, without saturating the debate. Also, the shape of Turkish society is not just a question of religion; it’s also a question of the code of honor, things that are inherent to the culture, traditions, and patriarchy, which we have been reproducing without questioning. For me, there are a lot of things that are extremely positive in Turkish culture: people are very caring, the community comes before the individual. On the other hand, the place of women is not questioned — even women don’t question it. Women are the first ones to reproduce it.

For me, the film is about something very specific: the filter of sexualization through which women are seen. It gives the guilt to women, it allows them to be limited into a very specific spot of society. This thing of saying “Everything a woman does is sexual:” that thought — for every action, every inch of skin — is extremely dangerous. And the fact of questioning this is saying: OK, there is sexuality, alright, but it’s what percent of your life? Like, honestly. Sometimes you’re just cooking an egg.

WITW: The film was quite straightforward about addressing sexual issues.

DGE: The girls talk about alternative sexual practices — they talk about sodomy. Even in the West, we don’t talk about those publicly. Everything is taboo! Everything concerning women’s lives is taboo, is not discussed. It’s really discretely said. Men often go and speak to their wives or the woman of the family, who would handle it. So most of the time it’s very diffused, it’s behind closed doors. But all those things: we all know.

The scene where Selma has been taken to the hospital, because she hasn’t bled [on her wedding night], was told to me by a doctor from a public hospital in Ankara. He said it wasn’t an occurrence that he happened to come across [once], but something he sees 40-50 times a year at the seasons of weddings. So doctors just know — the way cops here say on New Year’s Eve they’re going to have a lot of drunkards — that on Friday and Saturday nights they’re going to see girls packed in their wedding dresses, to check [their virginity] as if something was wrong with the merchandise.

WITW: The figure of the uncle is a very charged character. Is he an archetype?

DGE: We see him exactly through the point of view of [youngest character] Lale. Is he an archetype of an antagonist? No — in terms of drama, I thought about that while working on him. There was a huge backstory, but I don’t feel the need to encapsulate everything — that’s his place in the film. I don’t need to have a moment of grace for every single character.

The other thing is that Mustang is a film from a territory where there are very few films coming out. Us filmmakers, when we think about the responsibility we have to make a film, realize that it’s [emblematic]. In Turkey there has only been a precedent like Midnight Express, which was, like a truckload of bird-shit on the image of Turkey. Literally. And honestly, each time people asked where you’re from and you’d say Turkey: “Ah, I’ve seen Midnight Express.” It was hell! For decades! Plus no actor in the film speaks Turkish. It feels like a lie. So of course Turks are thinking: how do you show the country. I think the audience is smart — and I count on them to have more background. I don’t need to be kind with every character — no. It’s just this film. We focus on this one story.

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