"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.