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?