Deniz Gamze Ergüven on Mustang

Deniz Gamze Ergüven ruffles feathers with her spiky coming-of-age tale following five young girls who are demonised in a remote Turkish village. She discusses the controversy

Feature by Philip Concannon | 26 Feb 2016

At the start of Mustang, a group of schoolchildren celebrate the freedom of the summer holidays by heading to the beach and playing in the sea. They are a picture of joy, exuberance and innocence, but not everybody sees it that way. When they return home, five sisters are admonished for their disgraceful behaviour: frolicking with boys in what has been perceived by adult onlookers as an overtly sexual manner. They find themselves under lock and key, their ‘provocative’ clothing replaced with drab, shapeless dresses, and their futures narrowed to one single possibility. They are to learn how to be good housewives, and they aren’t going anywhere until husbands are arranged for them.

“In Turkey, there's this filter of sexualisation that women are perceived through”

This reaction might seem absurdly draconian but it is a reality for many young women in Turkey. Deniz Gamze Ergüven has spent much of her life in France, and she feels it has given her a fresh perspective on her native country. “There's this thing that I feel strongly when I get into Turkey, it's this physical thing you feel on your body, this filter of sexualisation that women are perceived through, so everything they do and everything they are is perceived as sexual,” she tells The Skinny. “I guess the fact of being in France maybe made me feel that strongly, whereas if I was in Turkey the entire time I would have felt too familiar with it and it would have been too much part of the background.”

Even after having long discussions with her director of photography about the most neutral way to shoot these scenes, Ergüven has been faced with questions by male interviewers about the film’s sensual atmosphere. “It happened once in France when a journalist told me on television that the film is very erotic, and I was like, 'Oh my God.' It's in his look, the film is so not erotic. And in Turkey I get that a lot, from the first scene with the wet clothes. I mean, come on.”

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Unsurprisingly, Mustang has divided opinion in Turkey, and instead of representing the country at the Oscars, the film was nominated as France’s official entry. “We were told it wasn’t Turkish enough,” the director shrugs. “Our film is more personal and intimate and not like the usual mainstream Turkish films, which are almost like the Commedia dell'arte style of acting.” Still, the film’s reach to date has far exceeded any expectations that Ergüven and her talented young ensemble may have had, and she takes great pride in the fact that her film is presenting a more authentic depiction of Turkey than we have seen before, in films such as Alan Parker’s Midnight Express. “That film was a big pile of bird shit dumped on my country,” she says with some conviction when Parker’s name comes up.

But Mustang's biggest achievement is to connect Ergüven with so many women from around the world who have been emboldened by the film to share their stories. “What surprised me the most was when people from countries with no historical, geographical or even religious intersection with Turkey said, ‘I completely relate to your story.’ In America there are women who come and discuss the sexual abuse thing and relate to it – it's crazy, the amount of people who have come spontaneously to say that. Even in my entourage it's striking. I knew it was huge, but I didn't know it was this huge,” she says. “Women from South Korea, China, Africa, so many different places. I showed the film in a women's prison with women from all over the world and they were responsive to even virginity being a huge issue in so many cultures today – and the virginity tests, a lot of women had done that.”

Of course, perhaps there was another reason why Mustang was such a hit at that prison screening. “For me, after the first draft of the script, the very obvious cousin for Mustang was Escape From Alcatraz,” Ergüven adds with a laugh. “I did think it was a little strange to show that movie in prison!”

Mustang screens in Glasgow Film Festival:  27, GFT, 8.30pm | 28, GFT, 11am

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