Interview: “Mustang” director Deniz Gamze Erguven talks tensions in Turkey and bonding with her actresses

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Deniz Gamze Erguven’s directorial debut Mustang, about five sisters oppressed by their uncle and grandmother who desire nothing but freedom, won the Label Europa Cinemas prize at the Cannes Film Festival and has since been submitted to the Academy Awards by France despite the film being about Turks, made by Turks and set in Turkey. Erguven spoke to me recently about being entrusted by France, what inspired the film and how she bonded with her young set of actresses.

How does it feel to be selected by France as opposed to Turkey for Oscar submission?

It’s a very modern and radical choice France has made. It’s a way of saying we embrace you with your different origins and it’s a way of stating the diversity of the face of French cinema this year. As a filmmaker, I owe everything to France and I grew up in front of their eyes. There are moments that are life-changing and after the joy of such an announcement you immediately get a sense of responsibility and really want to be the best effort you can for the people who entrusted you with this mission.

How has the film been received in Turkey?

The film usually generates love everywhere we’ve been going. In Turkey, it was as polarized as the country is today and there was nothing which was not extreme. The positive reactions were extreme with some important journalists calling it a ‘masterpiece’ and then the people who hate it really bashed it, like really bashed it. They antagonised it a lot, I think I heard like ‘enemy of the nation.’ It had the two edges of the spectrum.

Is that more passionate for both sides than any other country or festival?

I think there’s a few reasons to that. First of all, in depicting Turkey historically you have very little films that have emerged and travelled around the world, so each time there’s a film that comes out it feels like we’re opening a rare window on the country. Turkey has a bad precedent because of Alan Parker’s film Midnight Express which was pure racism depicting Turks as rapists and so on, and for years the only image people ever had of the country looked like a nightmare. I’m sensible to questions about representation, but this time I was the one to not represent Turks in a good way.

What sparked the idea for Mustang?

I was exactly in the same spot as Lale, as the youngest in a family made of girls, so there were things that were very close and intimate to me in the film. I was interested in the question of what it is to be a woman and that was a question that so many social questions are articulated about in Turkey today.

So is it autobiographical or mostly fiction?

What’s true are the situations. The girls who trigger the scandal when they sit on the shoulders of the boys and then having the girls beaten in the order of their age is something that I have lived through. The girl being taken to the hospital on her wedding night because she hasn’t bled after consummation is something I was told by a doctor that happens 40-50 times a year. However, I never ever reacted as the characters did. I never had the courage to say what they did, those were the kind of things that were stuck in my throat. For me, these girls are complete superheroes and bigger than life, so the line between reality and fiction is there.

To make the characters bigger than life, myself and co-writer Alice Winocour were conscious that it was heading in the direction of a fairytale. It was everywhere, like the football game was the ball where the girl dreams of going, or the biscuits the girl ate symbolised a kind of poisonous food that would kill her. It started contaminating aesthetic choices. Even in doing some of the location scouting I needed a place that felt as if it was drawn with a hand and we needed landscapes which said like endless roads that you can’t escape from.

What were the primary film influences? Do you consider yourself more influenced by French or Turkish cinema?

In terms of structure, this film looks as close as it can to the Escape From Alcatraz, a bit like a prison escape movie. If I really need to define the identities, I would there’s something very French in the values and it’s very Turkish in the primary material and the height of tension we have in the country. I don’t look at films in terms of borders though, I’ve been eating everything from all around the world.

I can imagine it’s thoroughly difficult to find five actors who click like your principal cast. How did you find the girls? And then how did you get them to bond so closely?

I didn’t have any preconceived ideas of girls who should have acted or not and only one of the eventual cast had acted before. The casting director showed me hundreds of girls with a specific thing I had prepared for the auditions which allowed us to see innate acting qualities among girls who had never acted before. We could see how well they listened, their engagement level, their drive to act, and the scope of their imagination – all of those things that are so precious in actresses. We could also see their temper and color and what specific traits they would have. Once that was done, we took pictures of the girls and grouped them up looking at different combinations for hours and hours.

We gathered the five that ultimately became the one we kept and something magic happened. We engaged with making them act for the first time which was extremely playful, but the first time one of the girls acted I thought she was going to have a heart attack. It was demanding from them to be making a lot of eye contact and making a lot of physical contact. In the film, they had a very strong antagonist and the girls were packed like a hydra; attacking, withdrawing, fighting among each other, attacking again. We had an exercise in rehearsal where we had to say very personal things and I was saying personal things too so everybody could open up and be in a safe space. We immediately had a pact that everything that’s said here is sealed in the room. After that, it was an environment of trust.