Image: a still from the movie Mustang. Image Source.
Turkish born – French raised Director, Deniz Gamize Erguven‘s incredibly moving debut feature, Mustang – winner of the Audience Award at the Sydney Film Festival – chronicles the loss of innocence (or as the narrative voice tells us, when ‘everything turned to shit,’) of 5 orphaned sisters in a Turkish village by the Black Sea. It’s a film which explores the policing of girls’ bodies and society’s desire to contain young women’s independence and sexuality.
Largely acted by a cast of unknowns, Mustang chronicles the lives of Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur, and Lale as they are raised by their grandmother and misogynistic uncle, whose main concern is the state of the girls’ hymens. The catalyst scene, an autobiographical event of Erguven’s childhood, occurs on the last day of school when, fully clothed, they boisterously frolic in the sea with their male peers, sitting on their shoulders enthralled in a game of ‘chicken’. True to small town stereotypes, the girls’ whereabouts has travelled to their grandmother and upon their return home are accused of ‘pleasuring themselves on the shoulders of the boys.’
Intimately, you live with the girls through the eyes of Lale, the youngest and most spirited of the group whose narrative voice tracks the results of the drastic consequences of their actions. It’s a first feature so accomplished and remarkable that its accolades include an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film.
I chatted to Erguven about the repression of female sexuality, working with Warren Ellis on the soundtrack and wanting to move to Australia to sell ice cream.
Jessica: Hi Deniz!
Deniz: Hello how are you?
Jessica: I’m so good, I just saw Mustang for the second time last night and I just have to say congratulations, especially the Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. How are you feeling?
Deniz: It was a wonderful journey for a first feature film; I didn’t expect it to happen. I’m so sorry about my voice, I’m a little bit sick right now.
Jessica: No worries. Why did you feel it was important to make this film?
Deniz: Well I wanted to tackle a subject matter, which is very central in Turkey today. There’s something which was very striking to me, specific to me in Turkey which was a permanent sexualisation of women and the fact that every one of their actions and everything that they were was always considered sexual and it starts at an early age, exactly at the age of the characters. In the scene where they sit on the shoulders of the boys, they’re accused of having done something very sexual but they were completely playing an innocent game.
Jessica: If I can ask your thoughts on why globally, not just in Turkey, why do you feel that the innate sexuality of teen girls has been so continually repressed?
Deniz: Maybe first of all it’s a projection; it’s a way of not being able to see girls in any other way, on a big scale or smaller scale depending on the culture. And you know there’s something about wanting to control sexuality, probably wanting to control parenthood. But it’s been like that culturally, universally, and everywhere. Like the question of virginity, so many have been anchored in every single big religion. It’s always been a subject.
Jessica: I read there have been mixed reactions in Turkey and that someone online was documenting your every appearance in quite a threatening manner. Do you think the film has opened up much discussion in Turkey about the treatment of women?
Deniz: It wasn’t seen so massively in Turkey, I know that it’s been seen online but not in movie theatres. I know that half the messages I was reading were extremely positive and half were negative and people who feel contested by the film in one way or another or are criticized by the film can be defensive. But I think it’s an exercise for people to look at the world through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl. It’s something that people are not used to in cinema.
Jessica: Yeah definitely and I loved the way the film was shot. The film tackles issues of the sexualisation of girls but the way you’ve shot them is so neutral, was this a conscious decision?
Deniz: Very strong, yes. Not only in the way we shot them but in the acting and for example the scene where they are playing with boys it was very important that everything was extremely innocent. Every single line of dialogue is about the game and about cheating and accusing one another and being extremely childish. Yes it was a very important angle to always film them in every possible way, in underwear, in swimwear and sure it can be non-sexual. Once in a while I will have a comment, someone who said something like ‘the beach scene with the girls in the water is extremely erotic’ and it shocked me. I thought it was really in the eye of the person who was looking. But it was very deliberately made to be not sexual. It’s a way of saying you know like most of our lives we’re cooking eggs, reading books and walking around like all these things are non-sexual.
Jessica: Yes, that scene for me reflected an age of innocence, it was very playful. Were any of the scenes in the film a direct result of your own childhood experiences?
Deniz: Each scene in a way or another is true. For example the little scandal that the girls trigger at the beginning of the film is something I had lived. They were beaten in order of their age was something that happened in my mother’s generation. There’s always a fragment of truth. Either it’s my experience documented for the film or for example, the wedding night of Selma when she is taken to the hospital because she hadn’t bled was something that was told to me by a gynecologist of being an accurate event of where he worked. The way the characters act in those situations is completely fiction but the base of the scenes are true, yes.
Jessica: How did you prepare the girls for filming because 4 of the 5 girls had not acted before this film?
Deniz: Yeah we had done two boot camps. It was about creating similarity, playing a lot of games and creating, most importantly a safe haven around the girls, which is supposed to be very playful. We gave them a few rules for acting in the first weekend and I made them watch a lot of movies at that time. Then the last boot camp, at the rehearsals we were going through the script together, playing around the scenes, discussing a lot together about the backstory, the world they were playing in was real to them.
Jessica: Is it true that you showed one of the girls Wild At Heart by David Lynch preparation for the film?
Deniz: Yes it was for Sonay. I showed her also a lot of movies with Marilyn Munroe and Lolita from Schiff. Because her character had specifically a scene in it which was like that.
Jessica: You’re a big fan of David Lynch?
Deniz: Completely, I’m crazy about him.
Jessica: He’s so good. The soundtrack is incredibly beautiful and the minimalism in the music is perfect. How did you come to work with Warren Ellis and what was your direction for the music?
Deniz: Well with Warren, initially I had thought about using another composer, but then each time I put their music on the images of the film, but when I was editing it felt as if I was disguising the film in something else. Then it came with the parading scene when the girls are in the middle of the village with the shit coloured dresses and it really looked like a Western. With this heavy light and slow travelling, the people watching the girls behind a curtain. So I thought about the music that Warren had done for Jesse James with Nick Cave and it was very obvious. So I started putting his music on the images and other parts of the film and it was very obvious that it was that! Then I chased Warren for a while before he accepted to do the film.
There was something about the texture of the film, the materials that you see, the big wooden house, and the fact that we’re in the countryside. So there’s probably a lot of music that the film could not accept, of course you can’t put any kind of electro or anything like that. And Warren’s music uses the same materials and he’s extremely narrative and emotionally very impactful. So as soon as we started working together it was completely organic and also felt like we were creating some kind of cross road between Australia and The Black Sea which allowed us to have a completely fictional world and anchor the film further in it’s own world. Warren’s a genius.
Jessica: And I heard you nearly moved to Australia to sell ice cream?
Deniz: [laughs] I wanted to move to Australia to sell ice cream which was my life plan. It’s true.
Jessica: You mentioned that was your plan after you’d been working for 5 years on a film called Kings before Mustang but it fell through. Will you revisit Kings now that you’ve got more support behind you?
Deniz: Well actually we’re going to shoot Kings this Fall.
Jesscia: Oh wow! Really?
Deniz: It’s like really the fairy tale. It’s wonderful.
Jessica: Lastly, what will you be working on next? I suppose after Kings?
Deniz: Actually there’s this huge project we’re discussing but it’s too early to properly talk about. Right now I have one month before we head back to Los Angeles. I am putting preparation together for the next film but it’s too soon to talk about it publicly.
Jessica: Well I can’t wait to watch all your follow-ups. Congratulations so much on this film.
Deniz: Thank you very much! Are you Australia right now?
Jessica: Yes I am, I’m in a small little country town right now actually.
Deniz: Nice, so say hello to Australia for me. I’ve never been.
Jessica: You’ll have to come for ice-cream one day.
Deniz: I will! Thank you very much.
Check out the trailer below, and catch the film nationally from 23 June:
Please note that, for clarity, this interview has been edited in parts.
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