On November 20 at the Royal and Christmas Day at the Playhouse and Town Center we’ll be opening one of the best films we’ve screened all year, the Turkish/French production MUSTANG. It begins in a village in Northern Turkey in early summer. Five free-spirited teenaged sisters splash about on the beach with their male classmates. Though their games are innocent fun, a neighbor passes by and reports to the girls’ family what she considers illicit behavior. The family overreacts, removing all “instruments of corruption,” like cell phones and computers, essentially imprisoning the girls, subjecting them to endless lessons in housework in preparation for them to become brides. As the eldest sisters are married off, the younger ones bond together to avoid the same fate. Their fierce love for each other emboldens them to rebel and chase a future where they can determine their own lives in the filmmaker’s feature debut, a powerful portrait of female empowerment.
The filmmaker is Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Born in Ankara in 1978, she had a very cosmopolitan upbringing, between France, Turkey and the United States. A compulsive cinephile, she studied directing at La Fémis in Paris, after a BA in literature and an MA in African History at Johannesburg. Her graduation film, Bir Damla Su (Unegoutted’eau), screened at the Cannes Festival Cinéfondation and won a Leopards of Tomorrow award at the Locarno Festival. Opening with a shot of a veiled woman blowing a bubble with chewing gum, the 19-minute short tells the story of a young Turkish woman (played by Deniz herself) rebelling against the patriarchal attitudes and authoritarianism of the men in her community.
After graduating from La Fémis, Denis Gamze Ergüven developed a debut feature set in South Los Angeles, during the 1992 riots. Titled Kings, the project was selected by Emergence, the Cinéfondation Workshop and Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Ms. Ergüven set it aside in favor of MUSTANG, co-written with Alice Winocour in the summer of 2012.
The story of an emancipation, MUSTANG is a powerful, feminist take on contemporary Turkey. Ms. Ergüven shot it around Inebolu in northern Turkey, 600 kilometers from Istanbul.
INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR DENIZ GAMZE ERGÜVEN
You were born in Ankara but have lived mostly in France. Why shoot your debut feature in Turkey?
Most of my family still lives in Turkey and I spent my whole life going back and forth. I feel particularly concerned by stories set in Turkey because the region is really fizzing, everything is changing. Recently, the country has swung toward a more conservative position but you can still feel the force and energy. There is a sense of being at the heart of something, that everything could go into a spin at any time, that it could go in any direction. It’s also an unbelievable reservoir of fiction.
Just like your graduation short, MUSTANG is the story of an emancipation. What were the origins of the project?
I wanted to talk about what it’s like to be a girl and a woman in modern-day Turkey, where the condition of women is more than ever a major public issue. Clearly, the fact that I had a different perspective, because I frequently left Turkey for France, played an important role. Every time I go back, I feel a form of constriction that surprises me. Everything that has anything to do with femininity is constantly reduced to sexuality. It’s as if everything a woman or even a young girl does is sexually loaded. For example, there are stories of school principals who ban boys and girls using the same stairs to get to class. They build separate staircases. It lends a huge erotic charge to the most banal things; climbing the stairs becomes a really big deal. It demonstrates the absurdity of that kind of conservatism: everything is sexual. In the end, they talk about sex the whole time. And a conception of society emerges that reduces women to baby-making machines who are only good for housework. Turkey was one of the first countries to give women the right to vote, in the 1930s, and now we have to defend basic rights, such as abortion. It’s sad.
Why the English-sounding title, MUSTANG?
A mustang is a wild horse that perfectly symbolizes my five spirited and untamable heroines. Visually, even, their hair is like a mane and, in the village, they’re like a herd of mustangs coming through. And the story moves fast, galloping forward, and that energy is at the heart of the picture, just like the mustang that gave it its name.
How much of you personally is in the movie?
In the opening scenes, the minor scandal that the girls provoke by climbing onto the boys’ shoulders before being violently reprimanded really happened to me when I was a teen. Except that my reaction back then was absolutely not to answer back. I hung my head in shame. It was years before I was able even to protest. I wanted my characters to be heroines. And their courage had to pay off. They had to win in the end, in the most exhilarating way possible. I see the five girls as a kind of five-headed monster that loses a part of itself every time one of the girls is absent from the story, but the last-remaining piece succeeds. It’s because her elder sisters were ensnared that Lale, the youngest, rejects their destiny. She is a condensed version of everything I dream of being.
You seem to be saying that the only way out is education.
The girls’ removal from school and the reaction it provokes in them is crucial to the story, but I don’t adopt a militant approach. A film is not a political speech. Romain Gary used to say that he didn’t go on protests because he had a whole shelf of books that marched for him. There’s an element of that. The film expresses things much more sensitively and powerfully than I ever could. I see it as a fairy tale with mythological motifs, such as the Minotaur, the labyrinth, the Lernaean Hydra—the girl’s five-headed body—and a ball that is signified here by the soccer match that the girls long to attend.
A family with five teenage girls who arouse desires in local boys and must be protected for their own good. It brings to mind Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. What were your cinematic references in making the movie?
I saw The Virgin Suicides when it came out and read Jeffrey Eugenides’ book, but MUSTANG is not a derivation of it. No more than it has its roots in Rocco and His Brothers. Among my curiouser influences, there is Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom in terms of the way Pasolini tells the story of society grappling with fascism through the prism of a rather sordid tale. I was seeking a similar disconnect between style and substance. I often left the DVD on play while I was writing the script.
I also watched a lot of escape movies, such as A Man Escaped or Escape From Alcatraz. Although the story is set in the familiar domestic framework of a family home, the dramatic register is that of a prison tale.
Before the shoot, I showed the actresses one DVD a day—Bergman’s Summer with Monika, Fish Tank, Germany Year Zero, the Dardennes brothers’ The Child, lots of different things—for a very precise reason every time. There were also prescriptions made to measure for each character. For example, Ilayda Akdoğan, who plays Sonay, got to see Wild at Heart by David Lynch and lots of Marilyn Monroe movies for the blurred lines between innocence and outrageous sexualization.
The choice of the remote Black Sea village of Inebolu, 600 kilometers from Istanbul, is not innocent. It participates in the sense of oppression the audience feels…
Yes, the location accentuates the sense of being at world’s end. Principally, it was an artistic choice, for the fairytale landscapes with winding coast roads and unnerving forests. It’s a hard place to get to. A few months before my first visit, there was no airport and no films had ever been shot there. I had a real sense of isolation. In the most remote villages, not only does news arrive only through official channels but also, in every house, there are sacks of coal—gifts from the Prime Minister of the time, who is now President. People have a sense of closeness, an almost family feel, to the regime, which whispers into their ears through the media. There were very few places that didn’t have a TV on with the country’s higher-ups speechifying. Since the shoot, an airport has opened 90 kilometers away from our location, with one flight a day. I felt like a breach had been made. A little fresh air was blowing in.
You were pregnant when you made the movie. Was the shoot a real adventure?
It was a commando operation. I was exactly halfway through my pregnancy when we wrapped, and we were shooting twelve hours a day, six days a week. It put me in the same position of fragility as the girls, which wasn’t a bad thing since it meant we were all in the same boat. Three weeks before principal photography, with everything ready, the initial producer withdrew from the project. It was like the pilot of a plane bailing out in mid-flight. The film was shafted. The crew began to fall apart. Everything I had put in place was going up in smoke. We got things back on track with another producer, but being moments away from losing everything only heightened my motivation. It was so dramatic that it simply made everybody want to transcend themselves to save the picture. Every shot had become a matter of life or death with everything depending on it. People have exceptional reactions in times of crisis. We were literally building what we were going to shoot the same day—sets, effects, stunts. It was an extremely intense adventure where everything was on the razor’s edge. A kind of constant miracle.
Why produce the movie in France?
Cinematically, my family is French. I studied at La Fémis film school, where I met people that were decisive in shaping my career. Olivier Assayas, for example, who was chairman of the jury the year I started and who, from near or afar, has always been there, looking out for me. The same goes for David Chizallet, my director of photography, who was camera operator on my capstone project, Unegoutted’eau. David has a wonderful eye and a special energy and appetite in the way he accompanies the actors. He has a catlike presence around them. He is also infused with incredible jubilation about making movies. He had three at Cannes this year and it’s no less than he deserves.
Alice Winocour also studied at La Fémis, but not at the same time as me. We met in 2011 at the Festival’s Cinéfondation workshop. We were the only two women to be selected and we both had pretty colossal projects for a debut feature—in Alice’s case Augustine, which she made in the end, and in my case Kings, which I’ve put to one side for the time being. I was on the point of throwing in the towel when Alice suggested that I start with a smaller project that wouldn’t scare anyone. I sent her an initial treatment for MUSTANG and we started writing the script together. She was my rock, like a trainer for a boxer.
You asked Warren Ellis, of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, to compose the music.
Warren Ellis’ music has intrinsic narrative power. When Warren plays violin, you feel like you are hearing a voice telling a story. And his arrangements are mind-blowing. Artistically, it was a natural fit, with perfect coherence between the film’s locations—the big wooden house, the Black Sea scenery—and his choice of instruments. Before I even met him, I had laid his music over the pictures and it just seemed so right. Our first meeting was incredibly powerful, but he wasn’t available. I had to snare him, prowl around him. What I really appreciate in our alliance and our curiosity for each other is that it is an intersection between our cultures and countries, which are as far removed as Australia and Turkey.
Through its selection for Directors’ Fortnight, MUSTANG received worldwide exposure. What reactions are you hoping for?
It’s an honor for me to have screened this film at Cannes. When I sent my script to men in Turkey, I was sometimes witness to very vivid reactions because my female take on their society was very new for them. I imagine that it will be as exotic for them as for people who live around the world. I’m looking forward to those reactions. I’d like the film to be shared, to give people pause, and to open little doors in Turkey and elsewhere.
The important thing for me is to provoke empathy for these women. For them to be allowed to speak and for their voices to be heard.