“Sometimes someone comes along and says, oh, but it’s so erotic!” filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven told Brooklyn Magazine in a recent interview about her debut feature, Mustang, which opened in local theaters this past weekend. A film about the systematic lockdown of five longhaired sisters in Turkey, Mustang certainly portrays girlhood with a keen eye towards beauty (the film has drawn comparisons to The Virgin Suicides both for its themes and its gauzy, dream-like visuals), but imposing erotic meaning onto the female body is precisely the problem the film seeks to tackle. “There’s this culture of sexuality through which women are perceived in Turkey,” Ergüven continued, “all their actions, every inch of skin… it’s very reductive.”
Mustang begins just as school is letting out for the summer in a small village on the edge of the Black Sea, and the five orphaned sisters at the film’s center head straight for the ocean. Sitting atop the shoulders of some of the boys from their class for a series of chicken fights, the girls may be soaking wet in their school uniforms, but this is far from a “sexy” Aerosmith video. Rather, Ergüven manages to capture a kind of purity of fun and freedom that can only really exist amongst the young and blissfully unaware.
The girls’ behavior is nevertheless deemed disgusting, twisted into some kind of masturbatory display by a nosy neighbor, and they’re immediately put under house arrest by their uncle and grandmother. All outside poisons—TV, cell phones, makeup—are removed from the equation as their home is turned into a highly efficient “wife factory”: dolma-making lessons ensue, hymens are examined, and marriages are arranged. Eschewing a clear sense of temporality in favor of fable-like repetition, this localized story takes on wider implications as one girl is married off after the next, in a seemingly unbreakable pattern.
The sisters don’t go down without a fight: the film’s title is an overt reference to their untamable spirits and indeed, they’re not afraid to raise their voices against the hypocrisy that surrounds them. After the initial scandal, they go about smashing every chair in the house to prove a point: “These chairs touched our arseholes, isn’t that disgusting?!” they shriek. As the walls of seclusion close in around them, the girls continue to stage small acts of rebellion—whether escaping to watch a football game, or actually marrying for love—until Lale, the littlest one, with the most fire of all, devises a plan to get them out.
Effortlessly energetic and melancholy in equal measure, Mustang has been riding a wave of critical success since its premiere in Cannes, most recently taking home the New Auteurs Audience Award at AFI and beating out Jaqeus Audiard’s Deephan to become France’s official Oscar entry. (Although Ergüven is Turkish-born and the film features an all-Turkish cast, it was financed with French money). Brooklyn Magazine sat down with the soft-spoken Ergüven to delve into the backstories of her characters and talk about what it was like to shoot a feature while pregnant.
One of the main visual tropes in this film is the girls’ long, wild hair. This of course ties into the film’s title—the idea of being wild and free and untamable—but it’s also a reminder of the cultural expectation in their world that a woman’s hair is something inherently sexual that should be covered. Did you have a clear idea of what the girls would look like from the outset of the writing process?
Well in Turkey it’s not like everyone has to cover their hair, you have a lot of completely free women—I would never, for example. But yes, it was on paper from the beginning of the project. I call them [the sisters] the little monster of femininity with five heads, with this long, long hair. I had an image of Elit [Escan], the third one, who plays Ece. She was shopping for her mother and we saw her from the back and she had this very very long hair—I had exactly the same at that age. I identified with her character a lot and thought about her during the writing process. But yes, it was the visual spine with the wild horses and everything it meant: their untamable temper.
In films or stories that feature sisters, you often to find characterizations that rely heavily on stereotypes to differentiate individuals amongst the group: the tomboy, the feminine one, etc. Your film doesn’t do that, in fact, the girls are almost more important as a whole entity.
They don’t have a caricature labels to them, it’s true, but for me all them have a very different personality.
I guess I’m curious about your writing process and whether or not you had fleshed out backstories for each of the girls as individuals.
Well the story had a kind of clockwork structure. It was like a tale, so this happens to the first one, and then to the second, and then the third. But I remember in discussions about production, if someone wanted to cut some of the budget they would suggest cutting an actress or a character—it would literally not work at all for this film, because every character holds the story together. In the script there’s actually a lot [of information] about them, sometimes you just need to dig out what’s already there. For example, Sonay [Ilayda Akdogan] refusing to get married, and having this drive for this guy. She’s the only one in the film that we suggest an intimate life and a love story. Ece has a big secret—she’s kind of a mystery for us. There’s also things to be picked up from group relations: some of the girls could be the underdog within a pair, for example, and that says something about their dynamic, so you just needed to dig out coherently what’s underneath the story.
The first draft of the script was written in one breath and it was a script that really resisted changes in structure: it was just there I could only dig in deeper. So you start pulling out the backstory: ok, where are the parents? What happened? And then you start writing that and telling that to the actors. Their parents died ten years ago: who was at what age? You realize Sonay was seven and you think, oh wow, seven, so she knows so much about the city and she grew up with completely different values than the ones who spent more time in the village. The youngest was three, for example, so that gives you an idea of so many details. And then you understand why they’re so emotionally intertwined and don’t have anything else.
The girls really do feel like sisters—they’re very natural together. Was it difficult to create that kind of intimacy on set?
Not really—it progressed, of course, but it happened quite fast. For long months I had auditioned so many girls and the ones we chose had real acting qualities, even the four who had never acted before. I auditioned all the girls for all the parts, even if it was obvious which one they would play—just to be sure, and to see how far you could push in either direction and to find out the scope of every single one of them. And then it was about bringing them together to create something visual: they had to really look like sisters: one body with five heads. We started off by doing exercises where they would hold eye contact, or physical contact—very private things. And then it was laughter. They had scenes with very strong antagonists so they became extremely solidary—much more than on paper. There was one thing which was different in the script, Lale [Günes Sensoy] was different from the other girls, she was really the only rebellious one. But the girls brought something different, they were all like that, so they became even more of a Hydra. Their presence changed the temper of the film.
I’m curious about the character of the grandmother. She seemed conflicted: she raised these girls in to be quite free in some ways and now she’s suddenly being pressured to clamp down towards extremism.
For me she’s a woman touched by tragedy—the fact that she’s lost her children and after that she was overwhelmed by five girls. So it’s not so much that she raised them freely, it’s more like when you have children or a family touched by such tragedy they have a status of exception within the community. It was clear to me that [the girls] would have played outside after dark after the other kids, and they had been set wild and free more than normal—because they’re not normal. Plus, they’re foreigners to the village. So for me she was overwhelmed and then she’s trying to do what she thinks is best in her own mind: marrying them off because she can’t handle them. [Eventually] she understands that she has the same agenda as Lale, who wants to move to get out of the house, but she does it on her own terms.
This is the most backstory-focused interview ever. [Laughs].
Sorry! I’m interested in this stuff.
You see a lot of women reproduce the codes of patriarchy often without even realizing it. In most countries you can’t even say feminism. It sounds ugly.
Another thing that comes up a lot is the extent to which women’s private lives are part of a public conversation, which of course isn’t necessarily unique to Turkey. But you have these clips of conversations from the TV drifting into the story from outside the frame, like when the girl’s are sitting kitchen, you can hear men talking about how women should behave.
That’s the one thing that’s completely documentary in the film. Wherever you go in Turkey you have radios and TVs with these voices. We’ve had a political party in power since 2002 that’s extremely conservative and religious. The AKP are very vocal about a kind of society which has a very specific place for women and they reiterate that all the time. So they go on and on about how women should be mothers and only mothers—that’s the role they’ve been given by religion. A woman should not laugh in public. They say things like that all the time, micromanaging until they decided boys and girls can’t be roommates.
The climactic scene happens when a voice on the radio is saying women can’t laugh in public. The girls can’t stop giggling and then something terrible happens. The way that was filmed feels like a shift in style from wide shots to coming in very close to faces.
Yesterday somebody thought that was from the point of view of Erol, which it’s not. The film is like a memory—we tell things through the memory of Lale. That’s how I remember peopl, like parts of skin, or their face: we have a picture precisely in our minds. So it’s shot as that—a moment of trying to get back the picture of someone.
You were pregnant while shooting, which must have brought a fair share of logistical challenges.
Well, it wasn’t part of a plan to start with but we just had to embrace it. It was a beautiful surprise but of course there was a bit of a freakout of “Will this be possible?” I had to have my doctors’ approval. I mean, most women have easy pregnancies but you have also very difficult ones. One thing was that it gave me a lot of cold blood, because you’re just not allowed to stress ever. That’s a rule—you don’t want to pass that onto the baby, so that was that.
But a week after I found out, the main producer dropped the film. When she left, she listed all the reasons why I made this film impossible to do, and one of them was because I was pregnant. She said this to the co-producers, who didn’t know yet.
She was a woman. And then a male producer came on board and just asked me after a few days how are you, physically? And that was it. That was the only discussion about the pregnancy.
And you got it done.
I got it done and managed to re-finance the gaps.
That’s quite a huge feat. I also wanted to talk about the visual style of the film; almost every reviewer has brought up the comparison to The Virgin Suicides, which is an easy comparison to make.
Well there’s this one shot—it’s that Hydra shot where they’re all intertwined. But it’s just things about sisterhood—you can look at books and films about sisterhood and you see codes and resonances. Like when you have love stories and two different films you have two different people kissing, for example. For me it’s the relationships that brings the visuals—images of situations which are close to one another. So yeah—I’m tired of that question [Laughs].
You’re also drawing heavily on the tradition of fairy tales. The trope of a woman being trapped in a castle, the mythology of orphans. I’ve heard you speak about other influences—Bergman, for example.
Bergman I always talk about The Seventh Seal, the breastfeeding scene, and Monika was one of the films the girls got to see in prep. She’s a very strong female character, even if she’s completely selfish. But we had to distance ourselves from reality and use cinematic resources to do that. In terms of the drama, the situations at the base of each scene are real: the thing that triggers the little scandal in the film when they sit on the shoulders of the boys, that’s something I had done. When Selma is taken to the hospital because she didn’t bleed [on her wedding night], that’s something that was told to me by a gynecologist.
Then we made it larger than life. The characters had reactions that I, for instance, never dared to have. When we were accused of being disgusting I was completely mortified and I didn’t say anything, and the girls start off by breaking the chairs in the house. So you create superheroes at that moment and when you pull the strings it goes into a lot of different directions. Like the tropes of the fairy tale, as soon as we realized it, it was literally coming out from every possible… hole. And also in terms of mythology, like the first forming this one Hydra, it all being a kind of Minotaur, many things and places where you could project a reference or see it. Everything about the film goes in that direction, from the lights, which also had to be bigger than life… it’s like the glorious liveliness of these girls in the beginning and the music too, it was going into territory that was completely its own. We were at a crossroads between the Black Sea and Turkey; it has its own geography. So those were all the resources we had to move from reality and dive into its own aesthetic.
You’ve spoken a lot about the problem of making the innocent behavior of girls grotesquely sexualized. The result is really a loss of childhood—the solution being to force womanhood onto them through marriage so that they can lose their virginity in the “proper” manner.
That’s really the heart of the problem. For me, there’s really this culture of sexuality through which women are perceived in Turkey, like all their actions, every inch of skin and it starts at a very early age. I have a few anecdotes [like the opening scene in the ocean]—this was the richest in terms of cinema. We have the school directors who decide that girls and boys can’t take the same staircases anymore and that’s a way of saying that there’s something so sexual that’s happening when you go up the stairs to math class at eight o’clock in the morning. They try to put women in this little box and everything becomes centered around this problem: the inability to perceive women as anything other than sexual. And it’s such a reductive thing. Either woman are just sexual, or appropriately in a box of a family. Most of the time it’s not like that. It’s not sexual. The film tries to film them in that way. We see them from every possible angle, and none of those moments are sexual. Sometimes someone comes along and says, oh but it’s so erotic, but no, that’s just their eye, you know?