Set in a remote Northern Turkish village on the cusp of fairy tale, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang explores the suffocating world of five teenage sisters put under house arrest after an indiscretion threatens their chastity in the eyes of the local patriarchy. Co-written with collaborator Alice Winocour (Augustine, Disorder), it’s an impressive debut feature for the Turkish-born, French-raised Ergüven, who drew upon her personal experiences to both critique the archaic sexism of Turkish culture and highlight the repression of teenage female desire that strikes a universal chord. The film’s imprisoned sisters and occasional formal touches have drawn inevitable (and flattering) comparisons to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, but Mustang had some more unlikely inspiration— as we discovered when we met with Ergüven in Los Angeles recently.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: [sniffling] I apologize, I have a cold. I don’t normally speak like E.T. [laughs]
Movie Mezzanine: Well if you start croaking I’ll understand. Thank you for chatting. I just saw the movie, and it’s really great.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Oh, thank you!
Movie Mezzanine: I wouldn’t tell you if i didn’t like it, of course.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: [laughs]
Movie Mezzanine: But I did really like it. One of the things you were saying earlier was that you were watching Pasolini’s Salò on loop while you were writing this script. That’s fascinating, because Mustang does have something of a suffocating cult feel. Why Salò?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Well actually it was more for the distance between the subject matter and the way we were going to treat it. It seems crazy to even speak about that film, but no, there was something specific about the way Pasolini addresses fascism in this form which is so surreal, and in some way we are as far from naturalism as Salò is. Probably. I mean, not that far. [laughs] But I wanted it to be, really. The first time I wrote the treatment it was so close to reality, so close to my secrets and the secrets of people around me, that I was, like, embarrassed to even to do a film about this. Plus there were politically sensitive things in the film, so I needed to have layers and layers of abstraction. Light abstraction.
Movie Mezzanine: So the character of Lale, the youngest of the sisters in the family, was loosely drawn from some of your experience?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Well, the thing is I’m at exactly the same spot as her. I came from a family where there were a lot of girls and women, across two generations, and I’m the youngest. So I had the same point of view. That was something I hadn’t outgrown at the time that I was writing the script. So it was a bit my point of view, and yeah, there were a lot of things about the situations at the base of each scene that were real. The little scandal that the girls trigger at the beginning of the film, that’s something we did in our family. The girls being beaten in order of their age, that was my mother’s generation. And the scene where Sonay is sent out to the hospital in the middle of the night [for the “virginity test”], that was documented for the needs of the script.
Movie Mezzanine: You were born in Turkey. How old were you when you moved to France?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: I was very very young. I was six months. I lived in Turkey between nine and 11 years old. We were always a little capsule of Turkey in some way, because the family was Turkish. In terms of culture and how I grew up, it’s very French, but the family’s story was Turkish—until I had my own husband and baby, who are both French. I went back and forth a lot. We went back to see our parents all the time.
Movie Mezzanine: I was wondering about your experience of the kind of rural town that we see in the film, and its archaic attitude toward girls and women. Is this disdain for female desire a widespread phenomenon in Turkey, or is it limited to outlying areas?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: [The film is] more of a kaleidoscopic reflection. For example, the countryside in Turkey is very empty. The people pack in to cities, so you would have cities with people leading extremely modern lives, and then you would have people living more traditional lives in the country, and living by very traditional rules. [pauses to take a tissue] This is so embarrassing. I hope my nose won’t fall off.
Movie Mezzanine: I dunno, that would be great for the interview though.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: [laughs] But then, for example the fact that they’re in a village, it had two reasons to it. First of all, it had to be, in terms of drama, it had to look like the edge of the world. It had to be 1000 kilometers away. There’s the sense that that ultimate wall in the story was that it was 1000 km to the city. And visually, that’s what I desired. Where we were, you had a few old men in the centre of the village; the streets were empty, the schools were empty, it was quite abandoned. For example, the story that I told you, when Sonay is taken to the hospital in the middle of the night, that’s something a doctor told me as being accurate. That’s not something he saw once and thought was extremely extravagant, that’s something he sees 50 times a year in the season of weddings, like spring and summer. Like how on Saturday nights and New Year’s Eves a policeman would say, “Okay I’m going to see plenty of drunkards.” So you have very very free people, and modern people, and others who live very different lives. But then you have the code of honor that is distilled throughout the entire society; whether it’s on a big or small scale, it’s there. And all of the things that are in the film are there.
Movie Mezzanine: Was the abstracting process you referred to a reaction to the politically sensitive climate?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Well, you can genuinely ask yourself about what’s happening to freedom in Turkey in these last few years, and the film is saying that literally the walls are becoming higher. It says it in a very poetical, metaphorical way, but it says it. Since 2012 and 2013 there has been a tight curve in losing democracy in Turkey. All those things that are in the beginning of the film, those things that were confiscated from the girls, when we shot it it was after 2013, so all those things had a different resonance. For example, there’s the picture of Delacroix, the painter, that gets taken away, and that was taken away from school books in Turkey because you see a boob. And a lot of things that you see [in the film] that have been confiscated, it’s like life in Turkey right now. The girls’ t-shirts are taken out of the political slogans of the riots of 2013: each time they open the wardrobe you see them written. And of course you have that scene where their computer is confiscated, which has a completely different echo now that you’re in a country where each time they want they cut Twitter and they threaten to cut Facebook. For us, Twitter and Facebook are really a means of communication. And yeah, when there was this terror attack a few weeks ago, [the government] just almost stopped the Internet. They slowed it down to a crawl to reduce people’s ability to exchange images about it and discuss it. So it has a different resonance when you shoot a scene where the computer is taken away in that Turkey.
Movie Mezzanine: The movie’s very much about the suppression of female sexuality, and specifically female teen sexuality, which is a universal element across cultures. Even the supposedly-liberated West indulges in this sort of thing, like fathers trying to control their daughters or society insisting girls adhere to certain feminine modes of behavior, for example. Do you think this suppression of desire exists in, say France, or America, albeit in a less extreme fashion?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: [blows nose]
Movie Mezzanine: [laughs] Good answer!
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: [laughs] I’m so embarrassed!
Movie Mezzanine: No, such a long-winded question deserves it!
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Well the thing is, in art history, in cinema history, women have always been objects and rarely subjects of desire—any kind of desire. So it’s true that that, in many ways. The scale is absolutely not the same, but I was surprised at how many women [in the U.S.] relate to the film. Or women everywhere. When we showed the film for the first time, I was shocked that there were people coming from cultures that had no cultural intersection with Turkey who were touched by the film, who said, “This tells my story,” for this reason or another. So yeah, of course the scale can be extremely different, and the subject of the film can feel extremely exotic, but I do recognize a lot of things. Even in cinema everywhere, you simply just don’t have figures that you recognize yourself in. Like, these girls [in Mustang] are figures of intelligence, courage and perseverance, and all those things, and they’re not always values that are attributed to women in stories and films.
Movie Mezzanine: So you don’t recognize your story, or versions of your story, in other films that you see?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Rarely. Well, now we’re starting to have films with female figures like that.
Movie Mezzanine: How sick are you of talking about Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: [laughs] Go on, shoot.
Movie Mezzanine: I’m not gonna ask you about it. Going back to Salò and films about enclosed cult spaces, though, I was curious to ask you about your acting in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s The Capsule (2012). What did you take away from that experience?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Athina’s extremely inspiring. She has this way of mixing completely crazy things, like the crazy walks of Monty Python and things you would see in the films of John Carpenter, and mythological references and literature—things that have nothing to do with each other. I don’t remember the book, but there was this author in the 19th century from Germany who had this crazy school for girls, where they were taught to walk on their hands and stuff like that. The convergence of all those very, very different influences is crazy, and they’re visually so strong; almost like paintings that she creates. I remember that I was sitting next to her when she was shooting that scene when the bed started to breathe and then all of a sudden gave birth to a girl, and that just blew my mind. It was so crazy. It looked like a horror film. So yeah, it’s a way of mixing completely unmixable things. I adore her.
Movie Mezzanine: Okay we’re outta time. You survived without sounding like E.T.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: [laughs] Thank you!
Published at Movie Mezzanine