Turkish-born director Deniz Gamze Ergüven is well on her way to accumulating enough awards to line three mantles. Her first film, Mustang, tells the story of five rebellious sisters and the minor indiscretion that leaves them but two exit routes from the home in which their family imprisons them: marriage or death.
Mustang, France’s official entry for the best foreign language film Oscar, opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center.
Scott Marks: Another critic referred to Mustang as a fairytale. That sounds about right.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Yes. The situations at the base of each scene are real. For example, the little scandal that the girls trigger at the beginning of the film, or Selma being taken to the hospital on the night of her wedding because she hasn’t bled...all those things are true. I have either lived them, seen them, or documented them. But the characters react in a way that I have never reacted which makes them extremely heroic. So in terms of drama and with everything else aesthetically, right up to the music, we were getting further and further away from any kind of naturalism.
Mustang Official Trailer
The mythological motives were also obvious. The girls are like a little hydra character with five heads. (Laughing.) I can see mythology and fairy tales everywhere in it. When I looked at the uncle he reminded me of a minotaur. Yes. It is a very fairytale-like world.
SM: I know nothing about sports. Is it true that when male spectators behave badly during a soccer match they are banned from the game and only women are allowed to attend?
DGE: This happened for three years. Now it’s over. We shot during the very last game when only women were allowed into the stadium. Soccer is a real pressure-reliever in Turkey. Men go wild at football games. It’s a big subject. When they go completely crazy, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) takes into consideration the gravity of what they have done. Depending on their behavior, men can be banned for 3, 6, or 9 games and only women and children under 12 are allowed in. From the first game onward it triggered a crazy situation where 45,000 women came and went wild. It was so surreal that I had to do something about it in terms of cinema. Even in terms of sound, the 45,000 women screaming as in a horror movie was disturbing for the players. It was very rich. I had to use it.
SM: What I admire most about your storytelling is that you never let the messages drive the bus. I’m always fascinated in what filmmakers chose not to tell or show us. We never know how the girls’ parents were killed nor are their accusers named — it’s not important. You also avoid many of the clichés generally associated with this type of subject matter. The girls are surprisingly aware of and open about their sexuality, the word feminist is heard once in passing on the radio, there are no burqas, obviously — if anything the girls cavort around the house in various states of undress — and no overt references to religion.
DGE: There are a few things which are so strongly there already. A lot of people asked me if the uncle really went into the girl’s room. The information which is coming to us is so enormous that I didn’t need to throw a bomb in the film by showing anything bigger. For religion, it’s there in the settings, it’s there on the women’s bodies. As far as their sexuality, we were very intimate with the sisters. We saw them in relation to their bodies. Right now Turkish society says to women everything about you, everything about your body and anything you do with it is sexual. This filter of sexualization for me is extremely disturbing. I wanted to be able to look into that. Yes, sex exists, but it’s just a part of life. Apart from that, we shot the girls from every possible angle. It’s a way of desexualizing young girls’ bodies.
SM: As an American watching this movie, I kept expecting Rod Serling to come out and read the prologue to an episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s certain the film will shake up American viewers, but how is it playing in your native country of Turkey?
DGE: It’s been very polarized. Up to this day I’m having harsh, sometimes violent reactions. We tackle many taboo questions head-on. I’m taking a very clear political position regarding what’s happening in Turkey today. We live in very dark times. There is strong intimidation. Most of the people don’t spout their political beliefs anymore because it’s too risky. I’m under a lot of attack. Not just because of the film, but because of the things I say publicly as well.
There is a very important journalist, Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet, who was jailed a few weeks ago. I took up his position publicly. He has been publishing evidence that weapons were given to some states by the Turkish government. He is being treated as an enemy of the nation. Everyone is trying to discredit him for just doing his work. Turkey has become the country with the most journalists in jail today. So it’s not just about the film. The discussion, of course, is muscular in Turkey right now.