'Mustang': A Feminist Fairy Tale Sticks It to the Turkish Patriarchy

Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven on critiquing oppression—and shooting a subversive film on the run.
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In Mustang, five girls rebel against their caretakers' attempts to marry them off. (Photo: Cohen Media Group)

In Mustang, five girls rebel against their caretakers' attempts to marry them off. (Photo: Cohen Media Group)

In 1930, Turkey became one of the first countries to grant women universal suffrage—and yet, in recent years, the country has failed to uphold some of the most basic of women's rights. Loopholes in Turkish law still allow judges to reduce sentences on male murderers of women if it is proved that women "provoked" the men or put the mens' dignity at risk. Almost one-third of all marriages in Turkey involve child brides, according to woman's rights activist and lawyer Nuriye Kadan. In 2015, the country was ranked 130 out of 145 nations in the World Economic Forum's annual Gender Gap Index. The country's own prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has stated gender equality is "against nature."

Mustang, a brash new movie from Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, imagines a world where Turkish girls fight oppressive norms. The film begins when one older woman spots five young girls (played by Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, and Ilayda Akdogan) sitting on the shoulders of a few local boys as they play around in the ocean. After the old woman confronts the sisters' grandmother about this "obscene" behavior, the girls are incarcerated in their own home and taught how to make dolma and keep house instead of going to school. The home becomes a "wife factory," to quote one character, and as the grandmother arranges marriages with local men, the close-knit sisters begin to rebel in increasingly bold ways.

Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival last spring, Mustang, a Turkish and French co-production, has been nominated for nine César Awards and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Ergüven, who took time to speak with us during a screening of Mustang at the Santa Barbara Film Festival last weekend, explained why she chose to tell the story as a fairy tale, how she avoided getting in trouble while shooting in Turkey, and why she thinks it's an important year for diversity in cinema.

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I understand this is a personal project for you.

A few years ago, all my curiosity was focused vaguely on what it means to be a woman, particularly what it means to be a woman in Turkey. The first idea was that there's this filter of sexualization through which women are perceived in everything that they are, and everything that they do. That was something I felt from the pre-teen ages onwards, exactly like the girl characters in the opening of the film, when they sit on the shoulders of boys and trigger a scandal. I lived that moment with girls in my family. I remember there was this little signal in me that said, "OK, your childhood years are over." I remember starting to feel this guilt-building, always-blaming quality of being a woman.

In 2011 I wrote a first treatment for the film. But it looked too much like real-life events and real-life characters, so I put it in a drawer. A year later I took the project out again, and with the layers and layers of everything that cinema can offer you, I tried to distance myself from the real-life events, and also from naturalism. Eventually I looked at it again and found that the story was still as personal as it was in the beginning—but was hidden behind layers of storytelling which were close to a fairy tale. From the moment [I] realized it was a fairy tale, that style spread to every aesthetic choice in the film, from the locations, which visually look like drawings, to costumes and choice of music. We were building a universe of our own.

What does a fairy tale bring to a story of what it's like to be a woman in Turkey that a documentary wouldn't?

I needed to stay as truthful as possible to the emotion more than [real events]. You know the beginning scene, when the girls are accused of rubbing themselves against the village boys' necks? What [the girls in my family] did in the same situation was act ashamed—we avoided eye contact with each other, we didn't speak about it, we just looked at our shoes. But when I was writing the film, the first thing that came to me was that Nul should start to break chairs in her house. She would tell her grandmother, "These chairs touched our assholes, isn't that disgusting?" Now that this girl was acting so courageous and bold, I couldn't punish her—I had to make her win in the most glorious way possible.

What these girls do is what I dreamt I would have [done]. The choice conflates courage and hope—it's a film that treats a gloomy reality, but with hope and strength. There's something about the resilience of these girls. Even if I feel like I would not have had their strength in the same circumstances, it's a power that I recognize among us. It gives a body to the inner strength we have.

From the very beginning, the film depicts how older women can be just as conservative and oppressive as patriarchs. To what extent do women play a role in the oppression of women in Turkey and elsewhere?

In Turkish society—and not only in Turkish society—women have a hard time questioning whatever they have grown up in. Many do not have the perspective to think, "Well, maybe this is wrong." Feminism can be ridden with guilt as well. In some places—like France, for example—it's almost a bad thing to be feminist, it's very uncool. There are a lot of women, major public figures and actresses in France, who reject the term because negative things like hairy armpits stick to the concept. If you compare women to any group that aspires to more equality—for example the Civil Rights Movement—it's sometimes as if we're saying "OK, I'm fine at the back of the bus."

You shot this film in Turkey despite the fact that it has a strong societal-criticism element. Did that create any particular challenges for you?

It was like playing a chess game. When I made the film I felt like the hit man of the film, you know, like I was doing whatever needed to be done. While making the film in Turkey, I couldn't share the script with everyone, or I shared bits and parts of the script with some people. It became really absurd because when you do a co-production, eventually there's a step where all the partners get together. Because everybody didn't have the same script, I was bracing for impact—luckily, [the impact] didn't happen because people don't share the same language. For a lot of things, it felt just, like, take the money and run—or shoot your scene and run.

There was one scene that stressed out the Turkish team a lot, when the character Ece [Elit Iscan] was making love in front of a bank. In real life we were in a very conservative area, literally shooting under the windows of a court house. The shots of the people from the windows were real. At some point, the shooting was going quite fast, and Ece was taking off her tee shirt, and there was somebody walking by. He stopped in his tracks and the team almost died right there. That night the location manager was so upset with me. He was saying things like, "Nothing happened today, but there will be rumors, and we're going to get a good beating."

France chose this as its foreign language film nominee for the Academy Awards, which is an interesting choice in the midst of a massive influx of migrants into Europe from Turkey. As a Turkish-French woman, what does that mean to you?

The film has been embraced by France ever since its beginning. Ever since the film was out of post-production, there was no distinction between our film and the Jacques Audiard movie that won the Palme d'Or this year [Dheepan]. It's become the face of a movement [in cinema] which is embracing France's identity in all its diversity, which is great, and I find kind of avant garde. It's a great year for France in terms of showing this diversity.

It's a big deal for me because I'm like the adopted child. The Foreign Language Oscar goes to a country, so it feels like I've been entrusted with such a mission and a responsibility. After the first moment of jumping to the ceiling with happiness, though, I was like, "OK, we need to be really, really good at this." I feel like a certain amount of pressure because I want to give back what my country gave to me.

What has the reception been like in Turkey?

In Turkey, very polarized. At the beginning, it was a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. But the more the film had a life abroad, and the more people talked about it on social media, the more the nature of the conflict came to be articulated. Now that I've seen the content of people's thoughts, I've noticed it's very close to the content of the film. There are some people who are saying "When the girls swim, there's nothing erotic in that." And then there are some people who are saying, "Yeah, when they swim it makes me sick to my stomach, they shouldn't do that in front of the camera."

I didn't have to live with it until recently. I get a lot of bad messages really often now, through social media most of the time, and I hate it. Right now Turkey is having a really bad time in terms of democracy. It's a hard thing to live in a country that has been a democracy where women got the vote extremely early, and now we're taking steps backwards. It's extremely painful.

People are paying a lot of attention to up-and-coming women directors these days because there are so few making big-budget movies. How do you feel about the label "female filmmaker"?

It's great there are all these discussions about diversity because cinema is so powerful in terms of the way we think and the way we shape our societies. This lack of perspective—the fact that we're missing out on half of humanity's perspective—makes us dumber, simple as that. It's the difference between speaking one language and two languages—your perspectives grow [if you incorporate another]. Through art history and through cinema history we're used to looking at the world through the eyes of men, and there are so many things about the female experience that we're missing out on. I believe that very strongly.

This film is probably as exotic to the male counterparts of the girls in Turkey as people on the other side of the world. Seeing the world through the eyes of these girls and putting the audience in their [shoes] is, for me, such a great thing. [It's about] generating compassion, understanding, and empathy toward them, and girls in similar situations. That's a big deal.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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