Interview: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
The Film Society of Lincoln Center will present a special screening of Mustang on Monday, November 16.
Like Miguel Gomes’s six-hour comprehensive portrait of Portugal also showing in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature Mustang draws attention to cinema’s duty to document life, by capturing Turkey in all its harsh reality. Taking its title from the wild horses that gallop on the endless prairies of North America, the film takes place in a Black Sea town and tells the story of five sisters—from youngest to oldest: Lale, Nur, Ece, Selma, and Sonay—who move carefree with their long hair and liberated bodies on their way to becoming women. But when an innocent game they play on the seaside with boys is interpreted as an indecent act by the townspeople, the sisters’ lives are upended by familial pressure and a conservative mindset focused on marrying them off as soon as possible. Determined to refuse the archaic rules set forth by the adults, these united mustangs do everything in their power to be free again—whatever they can do in a house that is literally transformed into a prison through the addition of bars on the windows. But Ergüven never lets us forget that the girls’ rebellion occurs within an unjust and often cruel society which is likely to chew them up fast.
Following the premiere of Mustang in Cannes—before it went on to win the Europa Cinemas prize for best European film in Directors’ Fortnight—FILM COMMENT spoke with Ergüven about being a woman in Turkey and the wild horses of her film.
Mustang begins with Lale’s saying in the voiceover: “Everything changed in the blink of an eye. First there was comfort, and then suddenly everything went up the creek.” I think the word “suddenly” is crucial here, because one of the most striking aspects of the film is that an innocent playful event quickly turns into a tragedy. This is a state of affairs that we often encounter in Turkey, when an everyday, trivial situation leads to unexpectedly violent consequences. Could you talk a bit about how you departed from that event—which is, if I’m not mistaken, a childhood memory—to construct the story?
One of the things that bothers me the most in Turkey is the constant and hideous sexualization of women. And I know this starts at a very young age—girls are treated this way when they are only children, before they even become women. Like the character of Lale in the movie, I was the youngest of all my sisters, so I became aware of these matters when I was a little girl. But that scene you see in the film is not the only instance of this. There were many events of that sort, but that was probably the one that left the biggest impact on me. But I also put many other stories that I heard in Turkey into the film, like schoolmasters forbidding girls from going up the stairs with boys. I have a hard time believing that these sorts of moral lessons can be seen as calls to purity, because I think that, on the contrary, they are a way of seeing sexuality everywhere. The same attitude also sees the veiled woman from the perspective of gender and sexuality.
In a larger context, the abrupt and brutal transition that occurs in the life of your characters reflects the unpredictable and turbulent fate of Turkish women, the fact that women are under a constant threat in Turkey. You leave home in the morning to go to school or to work and you are killed in the afternoon. You never know what can happen to you. When watching the film, I thought of what Özgecan Aslan’s father had said after her death: “We grew up with fairy tales. Once upon a time… Once upon a time there was an Özge. And then there wasn’t any.”
[Her eyes tear up.] Özgecan was killed the day I gave birth to my son… It was a very long and difficult delivery, and I found out what happened to Özgecan right after, so I was quite shaken up by the overlap, the way the whole country was shaken up, of course. In Turkey there is a permanent discourse to weaken the place of women. Afterward, however, Özgecan’s murderer was a complete freak, he was not the average citizen. But the worst thing is that people we might call average or ordinary are not that different either. And obviously Turkey has grown very tired faced with this sort of unacceptable behavior.
The uncle says something very harsh when quarreling with his mother: “If these girls turn out to be spoilt, you’ll be responsible for it!” Obviously the word “spoilt” has a very degrading connotation here, because the girls are referred to literally as spoilt milk. We witness the crudest face of this macho understanding in the traditional marriage proposal scenes. The grandmother says: “Verdim gitti!” [“I gave it and now it’s yours!” as if something is being sold]. The girls are delivered to the groom’s family like a pack of goods delivered to their buyer at the marketplace or at an auction.
Yes… For instance, the scene in which Selma is taken to the hospital on her nuptial night, is real. Someone who works in a public hospital in Ankara told it to me. It was a situation that he encountered often during wedding seasons, in the spring and summertime, like police stops. Suspicious families would come and check their bride’s virginity. Speaking of the tradition scenes, I wanted to move away from the journalistic models that are published in the newspaper everyday or things like virginity surveys that we see all the time. I’ve always wondered who writes those and with what authority. And I tried to discover what lies under the surface by asking people I knew were knowledgeable about these matters. But what was essential for me was to be able to film those girls in different poses, so to show that we could also look at them without associating their bodies with sexuality.
How did you decide to present the story like a fairy tale and to make Lale’s innocence its center of gravity?
At the beginning, I felt the need to move away from true stories and from the naturalism that is so dominant in today’s cinema, because this is after all a very dark subject matter. So I felt like I needed to bring in some kind of light. But of course the girls’ situation is so real that I didn’t want to imprison the characters in that reality. And there was also the desire to depict these girls as heroines, like when Nur breaks the chairs after being accused of doing something disgusting and screams: “Then these chairs are also disgusting, because they touched our asses!” The wish to adopt a fable-like style became all the more apparent when we got together with the actresses. I wanted to portray these girls like a five-headed monster. They were like supernatural, otherworldly creatures for me with their long hair, which was reminiscent of a horse’s mane.
The camera films the characters with an innocence equal to theirs—that is to say, the film’s form embodies this innocence, as if the girls were observing their own bodies and getting to know them. And as you’ve said, the subtle balance between tragedy and comedy gives the film the lightness of a feather.
I think you can find the essence of someone’s gaze in the way they use the camera. I remember the first few shots of Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Secret Things. There, for instance, I immediately sensed a worrisome gaze in his way of filming those women. But the opposite was true in my case. I wanted to capture the freely moving bodies of these girls from as close as I could. I wanted the camera to have the same freedom and to film them as they were, a group of carefree and innocent children.
Mustang performs cinema’s duty to remind and remember—the urgency of which is more than ever apparent today—by confronting a grim reality of Turkey. In this respect, I assume it is a priority for you that the film reaches Turkish audiences, right?
I am worried of course by the increasing censorship in Turkey. But after receiving warm reactions from a few people here whose responses I was fearing the most, I felt like there could still be a sane mentality in the country. Let’s say the worst happens and the film is banned—which I don’t think will happen—it would still be impossible to prevent it from being watched, because as we know, films travel to all sorts of places thanks to the Internet today. I believe that no matter what happens, the film will continue to live, and a sane fraction of Turkey will embrace it. The film reflects a human reality and you can’t run away from that reality no matter how much you close your eyes. I remember a tweet during [the] Gezi [Park protests]: “We are so right!” And that’s also true of the girls in the film. They are so right that it’s impossible to say they aren’t.