Mustang, directed by Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, is an incredibly powerful story about the hardships and oppressions of femalehood in a small conservative town in Turkey. However, the theme is universal, with women across the world lauding Gamze Ergüven’s ability to encapsulate what it feels like to try to come into your own as a young girl. It is this affinity to translate truth into image that has earned the writer-director prestige, even receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in the upcoming Oscar Ceremony. Gamze Ergüven spoke to us about solidarity amongst women, portraying truth despite its polemic, and where the problem of representation in mainstream media really begins.
NeueJournal: Is the type of lifestyle that is portrayed in the film still prevalent in parts of Turkey now?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: The film is really told as a tale, but the situations at the base of each scene are real; it’s very much anchored in Turkey’s social reality. I was just as the main character; the youngest in a family of lots of women on two generations, and there was something which was very striking to me, which is this filter of sexualization through which women and everything they do are perceived – and that really allows people to articulate a very specific and limited place in society for women.
NJ: What is very smart and honest about the film is that you portray some of the different stages of womanhood. What audience are you trying to speak to?
DGE: There’s something about a patriarchy that is questioned very little in the societies that live with it and deal with it, so articulating that idea and making the world as seen through the eyes of the girls who live through all those situations was important for me to show. I think the movie will be exotic to the male counterparts of the girls, just as the people who are on the other side of the world. And hopefully it’ll be one of those things where you can trigger a little bit of change and open a little bit of breach to discussion and thinking.
Ilayda Akdogan and Tuba Sunguroglu with Elit Iscan facing away from camera, Gunes Sensoy laying across, Doga Zeynep Doguslu shoulder in lower left corner. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
NJ: Absolutely, even though the film is anchored in one town in Turkey the theme is so universal.
DGE: Yeah. I’ve shown the film in so many different places and I’m always surprised by the fact that women from cultures with no intersection with Turkey – whether cultural, historical, or religious – have said, “This is so much of a mirror held to my own society.” Women from China, South Korea, Africa…even from the United States find things that resonate very strongly with their experience. There is something about a patriarchy and things we know across the board, like how virginity has been so important. Of course the scale of that issue is not the same in every country and culture, but it’s still very much of an issue in many places.
NJ: What is your personal relationship to the women who are closest to you?
DGE: I’ve been going in and out of Turkey and there I have this family bond but with this film it was the opportunity to question some of the prevalent values. I’m very supportive of the close people around me, like my co-writer is a woman. There is something about lifting each other up as much as we can.
Clockwise starting with actress in red sash: Tuba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, and Gunes Sensoy in MUSTANG. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
NJ: There’s an undeniable irony in the fact that this film is so incredibly, powerfully, feminine and yet you are one of only two female directors to be nominated for an Academy Award for a feature length film. What do you think it is about these mainstream institutions that have such a hard time accepting diversity?
DGE: Well, first of all it’s nothing new under the sun. Anywhere I’ve been, from film school to every single program of development of film I’ve been at odds. At the Atelier Cinéfondation we were two women out of 15 filmmakers, at film school there were only two of us, and at the Golden Globes I was the only girl. So it feels lonely, but it’s always been like this.
The one thing which is great is that we are discussing diversity this year, but for me the debate is not exactly in the right spot. The Academy is where the discussion started, but the problem is not there, the problem starts in production. You have to make films – that’s the only place where you can be proactive. The nominations are just holding a mirror to the state of production, so you have to put strong characters of different minorities and genders that go against the expectation of the audience.
I wrote a script that took place in South Central L.A. and had a lot of Afro-American characters, and I remember speaking with producers in Los Angeles and them telling me, “We can’t sell a film with Afro-American actors to Japan or to a German television.” It was very surprising; for me African American people are the most glamorous in the world, and for them it’s urban films, for a more narrow audience. So it’s true, there’s a problem, but it goes as far as audience members on the other side of the world, and we have to go against what they expect and glamorize people if we have to. That’s where you force things to happen.
Tugba Sunguroglu, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan, and Gunes Sensoy in MUSTANG. Photog courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
NJ: Is your film polemic in Turkey?
DGE: Yeah, completely. It’s been embraced quite warmly everywhere, but in Turkey the discussions are very close to the conflict inside the film. So people would say, “I can’t stand seeing these girls in front of a camera with bathing suits” and someone would answer on social media, “If you looked at them as if they were children maybe you would have a better time doing so.” And there are things that surprise me. Turkish people are, of course, extremely susceptible about the way the country is represented – territories where you have a small number of films going abroad are often like that.
For example, for decades if you said you were Turkish, people would say, “Oh I’ve seen Midnight Express, and it felt like a truck load of bird shit because it’s the worst representation ever. It felt unfair because it didn’t feel right. So in Turkey they always say, “You are not showing the country in a good light” because people would rather have a postcard type movie like Roman Holiday, or with a hero saving people’s lives who represents the Turkish man. It’s pride, and at the same time it’s a bit self-centered because that really isn’t the object of the discussion. We are holding light to darker places of humanity. If we are talking about what happens inside this family it’s a human story, not a Turkish story.
NJ: What is the first film you remember having an impact on you?
DGE: Amadeus by Miloš Forman. I saw it very young and it was a huge shock. My family was very sensible to arts, but film was considered as the sort of underdog of art. The day we went to see Amadeus it was a big deal because my father was so much into music, so Mozart was a huge figure. I love the actor Tom Hulce. It’s so sad he had a short career, but then again this was one of the biggest roles in cinema history.
NJ: Which living person do you most admire?
DGE: Can Dündar. He’s the chief editor of the Turkish Newspaper, Cumhuriyet and he’s been in jail for two months in Turkey. He is the most courageous and strongest man, with a hell of an attitude.
NJ: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
DGE: I am picturing myself a decade or two away from now in Turkey and I’m thinking these days will be over. That’s my happiness.
Portrait Photography: Mitchell McLennan for NeueJournal
Hair & Make-up: Campbell Ritchie @ Art Department