"It's like The Virgin Suicides, but Turkish" is what I first heard about Mustang, Deniz Gamze Ergüven's awe-inspiring debut feature about five orphaned sisters in Turkey. The five girls are caught innocently horsing around at the beach with boys. Because of a neighborhood gossip who tells their uncle and grandmother that they were behaving in some kind of sexually improper way, they are forced to spend their days locked inside their house, training to be good wives and waiting to get married off to suitors.
The comparison to Virgin Suicides is well-meaning — who doesn't love that movie? And it is about five sisters — but it seems almost offensive once you've seen the film. In Suicides, the Sofia Coppola movie about five Midwestern sisters who kill themselves, we learn of the girls through the memories and stories of the boys in their neighborhood. The movie is all one beautifully pastel-hued male gaze. In Mustang, we live with the girls, we are part of their secret, experiencing their heartbreaks and their triumphs at the same time as they are. When the movie ended, I was in tears, destroyed, but a good kind of destroyed, the kind of emotional wreckage that shakes your core a little and refigures the ways you see the world. It's simply a superb film.
One of the most thrilling aspects of Mustang, beyond its nuanced story line, is the cast that Deniz put together. The group of five girls, most of them first-time actors, are so believable you could be tempted to lose a lot of money betting they were sisters in real life. In scenes, their bodies spill atop each other, arms and legs intertwined, an intimacy that would almost be uncomfortable if it weren't so beautiful.
But the sisters are still very much their own women, choosing their own destiny as much as they can within their circumstances. As Gunes Sensoy, who plays Laleh, the youngest sister, said when we spoke over the phone last month, "I think that's what makes it great, because the five girls have different personalities, but when they're together they're stronger." She added, "That's what Mustang is: together they're one spirit that is really strong and tries to fight for the things that matter."
I spoke with Deniz about creating this movie, the ways we accidentally endorse the patriarchy, and the ultimate escape fantasy (it involves ice cream).
Laia Garcia: This is your first movie. Can you tell me about how you came up with the story and why this was the first story that you wanted to tell?
Denis Gamze Ergüven: Actually, it was my second script. I had developed first a feature-film project which didn't see the [light of] day (yet, at least). I know that at the bottom of each project there is a deep movement going toward what's most important for me and the world I live in at the time of the film. Two years before I even had the idea of this script, I was starting to read, question, [trying] to encounter people who could tell me things about what it is to be a woman. I knew it was going in that direction, and then it was going closer into what it means to be a woman in Turkey, where the experience was more acute, in a way.
I'm French-Turkish. I grew up between the two countries, and there's something very specific in Turkey, or very strongly felt in Turkey, and it's the filter of sexualization with which women are perceived, and that was the thing I wanted to explore.
LG: I found it surprising that all the girls were punished equally, even Laleh and Nur, the youngest characters. They still seemed like children to me.
DGE: It's around 12, and, exactly like Laleh, I was in a family where I was the youngest, so maybe it came earlier. But it wasn't even the group thing. Sometimes I was in singled-out situations where I had to deal with [being sexualized] even before I was really a teenager.
LG: Were any of the girls' stories based on stories you knew in real life?
DGE: There were a lot of things that were from our family, just little fragments; the scandal that the girls trigger at the beginning of the film, the girls' getting beaten in order of their age — that was something that happened in my mom's generation — and after that the moment of fiction kicks in. Of course, no one in our life reacted as the characters in the film. Like when we were told that we had done something disgusting, we just looked down and tried not to say anything, avoided making eye contact. The fiction is the girls breaking the chairs and saying, "These guys are assholes."
LG: What was the process of making this film like, from when you first envisioned it to when it was released? Was there ever a point when the movie wasn't going to take place in Turkey?
DGE: I wrote a treatment, quite fast, by the end of 2011, which was very close to real-life events, and I was disturbed by that. It told secrets that were not only mine, so I put it in a jar and left it there for a very long time. And when I took it back out, I had to distance it as much as I could from the real-life events so that it would look like a tale. Part of the process was getting away from reality, but still always in Turkey.
At that time, I was still working on a previous film project which hit a wall by the beginning of 2012, and I was like, "OK, I'm done with cinema. I am going to Australia and sell some ice cream." That was my life plan.
LG: That's a great plan!
DGE: That was really my life's plan! And then my co-writer [Alice Winocour] was like, "Get up, come on, stop being like this." I had told her about the scenes in the treatment, and she was the mastermind in the beginning.
We wrote it in one summer. She was saying very influential things to me, like, "If you don't have a first script by the end of the summer, you're gonna die." [Laughs.] And it worked! So I am beating my keyboard for the entire summer and I did have a screenplay at the end. I wanted to shoot in the summer of 2013, and it wasn't possible — in terms of financing — which didn't turn out to be a bad thing, because 2013 was extremely violent in Turkey. There was an uprising. We had our minds in other places.
LG: What got you initially interested in filmmaking?
DGE: I grew up in France and Turkey, mostly in France, and we had a life which was made of always going back and forth. My mother remarried a few times, and our family changed shape a lot — like, we were a modern family, and all of a sudden we were a more conservative family, things like that. The one thing that we had was that I always went back to France. From the moment that I was a teenager, we were living without parents in France (my mother had gone to Turkey), so I knew each time I went to Turkey, I went by the rules or I pretended I did. [Laughs.] We actually did go out through the windows and snuck out, but I never admitted I had a boyfriend until very, very late. I had a very free life in France, but I didn't go crazy because I had that freedom.
LG: You had nothing to rebel against?
DGE: Yeah! And I remember my other friends rebelling and doing very specific things that I really didn't feel the need to do, and then it was very free! My sister and I had love stories that looked like adult love stories at that age. I wanted to make films after a very specific event when I was 20. For the first time, I wanted to tell a story, and it was through the form of film. Before that, I know I spent a lot of time in movie theaters. Even as a child, we went to the movies all the time, and I was very much a cinephile, but I never thought that's what I wanted to do.
LG: Switching gears a bit: one thing that I really loved about the film is that the girls all had a different destiny.
DGE: You know, there was something about exploring the different possible routes that you can have. I considered the girls to be one character with five heads, so there was something about that character, through the history, losing an arm, losing a leg, recomposing, healing the wounds — by the end of the film, she's a bit diminished, but she makes it.
There's really something very strong [about these women]. I love the grandmother too, and there's something, which is very obvious, in the way that women take part in reproducing patriarchal society. In a way, it's like not questioning a society which also gives you a lot of great things. Turkish society is very caring; the community is more important than the individual, and, of course, that applies a lot of social pressure. But there's something very nurturing, which can be completely poisonous at the same time. [The grandmother is] trying to do her best, given the means she has.
LG: The grandmother is such a great character. You can tell that she's coming from a loving place and that she cares to protect the girls. I want to know about the casting process. Many of the girls were first-time actors, but they all seemed so at ease together, like a real group of sisters. They really did feel like a creature with five heads.
DGE: I couldn't start giving the parts away before I had all five of them, so I saw some of them a lot, and it was always about making eye contact, saying things to one another, engaging in physical contact, things like that. There were boot camps. We did this thing where you put something on their eyes and you make them discover each other without their eyes, you know, like smelling each other, so it's quite intimate. The first boot camp was about giving them tools, literally acting tools. The second boot camp was on location with the script and [having them] getting more and more into the characters.
LG: Did the parents have any qualms with the script at any point?
DGE: Yes. The girls always respond "No" to that question, but there was. I rebuked some things, and there were other things that I really didn't want to make a compromise on, that I needed in the film, and the parents were against them, and there was a lot of discussion. A lot. We had to really emphasize what the film is, like the importance of the film. It was not as easy as the girls make it seem.
LG: They just had to trust your vision, which I'm sure maybe wasn't so easy for their parents. Are you thinking about your next project? Do you think the success of will facilitate the process?
DGE: It's my first free hours in I don't know how many months. I just returned home after a long time in the U.S., and since I'm back it's been a blitzkrieg. We started working on something about democracy in Turkey. There's a few things on the table, and, as usual, I think one of them will just start running, and we'll run after it.
Even the first day the film was out there, it changed everything. Maybe a year and a half ago, I could still go on begging anyone to put me on their film, and it's very, very different now. I know that one thing which was difficult in the very beginning was to trigger trust. As a woman director, there's a little bit of [a problem with] that. It's a bit like when you see a female pilot in the cockpit: You're like, "Uh-oh!" [Laughs.] You don't want to feel that way, but you do! You're just a product of your time, you know. It's sort of the same with women directors, so now just the very existence of this film gives me a lot of strength for the next steps. It won't take years to fight for the next film.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Laia Garcia is Lenny's associate editor.