Mustang Filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven on Women in Film and Her Oscar-Nominated Feminist Escape Movie

Deniz Gamze Erguven Photo: Cohen Media Group

In the beautiful and bracing film Mustang, the trouble begins with a chicken fight. Five teen- and tweenage Turkish sisters take the long way home after the last day of school, goof off with some male classmates against the spectacular cerulean backdrop of the Black Sea, and eventually end up in the water indulging in that childhood pool game, sitting atop the boys’ shoulders and trying to knock one another off. By the time the girls get home, a nosy neighbor has already told their grandmother about it, and she interprets their game as an act of sexual deviance. “My granddaughters!” she cries, “Pleasuring themselves on boys’ necks!”

So she locks them up. She takes them out of school, gives them a uniform of frumpy, “shit-colored” dresses, and turns the house into what the youngest and most spirited sister, Lale, calls “a wife factory.” The plan is to marry them off one by one, to once again convince the neighborhood that they are Good, Respectable Girls — but naturally, the sisters have other plans. Mustang is at once feisty, poetic, hilarious, and gut-wrenching. It’s like a feminist 400 Blows, or if the punk teens from We Are the Best! were cast in a remake of The Great Escape.

It’s also cleaning up during awards season. The day before I get 37-year-old director Deniz Gamze Ergüven on the phone, it’s announced that Mustang has received a pack-leading nine nominations for the César Awards (French film’s highest honor), and that’s not to mention its Golden Globe nod or its Oscar nomination in the hotly competitive Best Foreign Film category. Mustang is one of only two female-directed films nominated for an Oscar this year (the other is Liz Garbus’s documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?), and, true to the spirit of her film, Ergüven had plenty to say about the state of women in the film industry. We also talked about the movie’s controversial reception in Turkey, the Oscars’ diversity problem, and, of course, that time the Mustang sisters met George Clooney.

First of all, congratulations on the film’s success. It’s been great to see the attention it’s getting here in the States. The first time I went to see it here — and this was before the Oscar nomination — it was so popular that I had to go back another day. How has the whole awards-season experience been for you?
Wonderful. Really, the best scenario you could dream of for a first feature. And it’s been quite dynamic because in the beginning, after the release in Turkey, people said “I love it” or “I hate it,” but there was no debate about it. The opinions were very polarized, but they were about exactly what’s at stake in the film — you’d have people saying, “I hate seeing girls wiggling in front of the camera for an hour and a half. It makes me sick to my stomach.” But now it’s shaking up a little bit more public debate. It’s extremely exciting that Mustang speaks emotionally to people in very different cultures. It means that we’re touching a very delicate point about something wrong in our societies today regarding the place of women.

You shot the film in Turkey, with Turkish actresses, but it’s a French co-production and now France’s entry in the Oscars’ foreign-language category — most people are calling it a French film. Do you think that has anything to do with the polarized reaction in Turkey?
Actually, Turkey right now is terribly polarized. The country is going through a very particular time, politically. We have more journalists in jail than any other country in the world. [Ed. note: This statistic refers to a 2013 study; Turkey is now the country with the fifth-most jailed journalists.] You really can question what’s happening with democracy. There are literally two camps in Turkish society about a lot of things. The question of the place of women is very central in these debates — it's a choice between two different possible societies.

Can you speak more about your take on the political climate in Turkey right now, particularly as it relates to women?
Turkey is a society where women have been voting ever since the 20s, very early on. The laws of the country and the institutions of the country protect women. Women were free there, and now we’re taking a few steps backwards.

It’s there every day. Not long ago, there was a rape in a very well-known place in Istanbul, and it happened at three in the morning. And people came out saying, “What the hell was this girl doing out in the street at three in the morning?” which was not something you could say in Turkey ten, 15 years ago. Generally, in Istanbul, after it’s dark, you just don’t see women without headscarves out in the streets. There’s a conservative vision of society, which is that girls are at home.

The members of the government are always very vocal, they speak almost every single day, and they say things about the place of women in society. The vision of conservatives in Turkey sexualizes everything that girls are and do, and that’s what the film is tackling. The very first scene of the film, when the girls sit on the shoulders of the boys and they’re accused of doing something sexual when they’re not — that’s exactly the central debate of the place of women. Which is extremely sad because, as I told you, it’s a country which has seen very luminous periods of freedom and democracy.

The actresses are all so natural onscreen and give such powerful performances. They're all Turkish, right? And I think I read that only one of them had acted on film before?
Yes. It was a very long process of auditioning and then working with them, engaging them in an environment of trust and warmth and a very playful way of acting. They expected a director to be someone like a schoolteacher who would shout at them and wave a stick. But it was the opposite; it was a very safe haven, and very playful.

That comes through in the film — it’s part of what so many people are responding to. There’s also something about the way that you film their bodies that feels very matter-of-fact. Neither denying them their sexualities nor wholly defining them by that.
Yes, that was absolutely central. The fact of looking at them, showing them at every possible angle — even when they’re, like, dressed in bathing suits or bikinis — in a completely neutral way. Which, as I told you before, they start being seen as sexual and nothing else from pre-teenager years onwards.

We tend to talk about the “male gaze” and “female gaze” in abstract and theoretical terms, but when you’re directing and you’re trying to get that more feminine perspective across, what sorts of decisions are you making, in terms of framing and camera placement?
It’s something you see even in the way someone holds the camera. For example, there was this shot when Sonay [the oldest sister] was cleaning the window and she’s looking at her boyfriend, and my [cameraperson] was a man. When I thought the shot was lingering a little too long someplace, [laughs] I would just say, “This is looking at her through the eyes of little sisters.” Whether it’s a look lingering too long on one spot, or even just the length of the shot, you feel the point of view.

You co-wrote the script with the French filmmaker Alice Winocour. You went to film school together, and I read that she was your only female classmate. I’m curious about how the experience of being one of the only women in a male-dominated space affects your perspective as a filmmaker.
Well, there’s this huge debate about diversity right now. We’re coming from societies where women had much lower positions than men, and we’re coming from societies with racism. We’re moving towards something that is more equal — we’re on the way, but right now there are still repercussions.

I started film school in 2002, and Alice and I were always the only girls, both at school and in every development program for first-time filmmakers. Filmmaking is very much like a little military structure, and because of that, you’re really responding to preconceived ideas of who’s powerful and authoritarian. I even remember girls saying that when you’re too powerful as a woman, it’s not very pretty. I remember preconceived ideas like that. Now it’s more central in the debate, and it’s changing, but we’re not anywhere close to equality just yet.

There’s something about cinema that literally shapes the world we live in, and the fact is that in its history, cinema has been mostly made by men. We have been used to seeing the world through the eyes of men, and that makes us miss out on the perspective of half of humanity. As a woman, I’ve sometimes felt like, “Oh, nobody told me this specific part of the experience.” You know, breast-feeding, for instance. I started thinking about that when I had a baby: I’ve never seen any breast-feeding scenes.

Because of all this, women are considered objects, and very rarely subjects. That’s really confusing because in some societies, men will conceive of women as a complete mystery, or it can lead to a misunderstanding about many things. Even in Turkey, when people react to the film badly, it’s a good thing that they’ve been sitting there, seeing the world through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl. It generates compassion, empathy — it opens a breach into a new point of view.

A lot of people have compared the film to The Virgin Suicides, but you’ve said you feel like it’s closer to a prison-escape movie.
I wrote the script really in one breath, and then when I looked at it, the closest script I could think of was Escape From Alcatraz. From then on, I was watching escape movies. Maybe you have those thousands of references of films, books, people’s lives around you, and when you write or when you make a film with actors, it’s all there, available. So you just tap into it. Only afterwards I was thinking, Oh yeah, it looks like the action movies I saw when I was a kid.

Have you been following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy? What’s your take on that?
I have. Before Mustang, I wrote a script that took place in South Central Los Angeles, with mostly African-American characters. I remember, when I spoke with producers, people very candidly said that a film with African-Americans is an urban film, and that’s a more restricted audience. It went way further than just the frontiers of the U.S.! I remember a producer telling me, “I can’t sell a film with African-Americans to Japan or German television.” I remember exactly those sentences.

Where really proactive steps must be taken is in the beginning, at production. That’s where you have real power to change things, and that’s where you can choose to have women in parts that aren’t generally perceived as women parts, or members of minorities. There are so many wrong things in the perceptions we have of women and different minorities, but that’s where you can change it, in production. But I don't think the solution is to boycott, because if people suffer from limited visibility, boycotting is almost unfair. Oscar diversity is an echo of something that was already problematic way, way, way before.

How have the girls dealt with the success of the film?
It’s like a dream. We’ve been together a lot accompanying this film around, and they’re even more like a litter of kittens. They really became like sisters — and they take it as a responsibility as well. I feel responsible towards France right now, and they feel responsible, mostly, towards the girls who live lives close to the ones pictured in the film.

They’re just so conscious of so many things. Even when they were on Hollywood Boulevard, they always took their leftover food and gave it to the homeless. Turkey puts them in contact with poverty and problems with war, so they’re very young and free, enjoying their youth, but at the same time, they’re very conscious of the world they live in.

Sometimes they also redo scenes from the film. When we were in New York, they were in a car with the top open, and of course they had to redo the bus scene.

Sounds like they’re getting a lot out of the experience. I saw a picture of them with George Clooney …
That was so funny. It was at the Toronto Film Festival, and at some point they heard screams and they were like, “Can we go, can we go?” They left, and when they came back, they were like … you know the scene [in Mustang] when they run to the football game? It was exactly like that scene. They were so excited, shouting. Just the vision of them running like that towards me, I thought I was going to faint of laughter. They had their picture, and they couldn’t even speak.

Are they going to the Oscars?
Unfortunately, no. They’ll be in Los Angeles, just next door to us. I’m doing my best, but it’s not possible. We say that our character has five heads, but there’s a very precise amount of Oscar tickets for each film, and they decided to all be together.