Ahead of the prestigious event we speak to Deniz Gamze Ergüven about how a lack of female perspectives is just making us more stupid
Only two women are nominated for directing their films at this year’s Oscars: documentarian Liz Garbus, for What Happened, Miss Simone?; and Deniz Gamze Ergüven, the 37-year-old Turkish-French filmmaker whose debut feature Mustang, about five orphaned sisters struggling against conservative Turkish village society, is France’s nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film. Ahead of Sunday’s awards ceremony, we took the opportunity to get her take on #OscarsSoMale and the depressingly familiar topic of lack of female representation in cinema.
As there are only two women directors nominated at the Oscars this year, I imagine by default you end up assuming a sort of spokesperson role about gender inequality. Is that a role or a pressure you embrace?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: First of all, the figure of two girls is nothing exceptional. Ever since I’ve been in film school, every festival, every program or lab to develop your feature film, either there was one girl or two girls. At film school we were two girls. At the Cannes Cinefondation where I was with [Mustang co-writer] Alice [Winocour], there were two girls out of fifteen directors. At the equivalent of the Sundance Lab it was just me and the year after that there was none. At the Golden Globes I was on my own. It’s nothing new under the sun for me, it’s so familiar.
So it’s a case of same old, same old?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: The thing is, I still get the impression that things are changing. If not in figures yet, people are talking about it a lot. And even if the discussion started being about awards season, which is really just the reflection of what’s happening beforehand, it’s there – people talk about it. And in terms of diversity, it’s really not a question of OK, let’s be cool about numbers, that’s really not the end of the story. The reasons why women don’t make films are very obvious to me. It’s not a question of having lesser capabilities or anything like that. There’s a thing of triggering trust, which is very difficult for women, which is almost something very animal in perception.
What do you mean, that men are resistant to trusting women?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: No, a team on a film is almost military-like. It’s very hierarchical, you have codes of conduct and then the director is really the boss. And basically, people seem to trust an alpha male with the right body language. It taps into their animal instinct. And I don’t have the alpha male attitude at all. It’s like when people get into a plane and you see a female pilot and you feel like, [shudders]…
Really?! You think people do that?
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: I think a lot of people have these preconceived ideas that make you not trust women in key positions. And so then the consequence is, there are centuries of art history and cinema history with so little perspective from women. A lot of cultures are missing out on the point of view of women completely. Last year when I had a baby, I was thinking, when did I last see a woman breastfeed in a film? And we figured out one movie, which was [Ingmar] Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which takes place in the Middle Ages! So it feels strange. At every step of the way, you’re like, “this is not told, and this is not told, and this is not told…” And so we’re not used to seeing the world through the eyes of women and in a lot of art history and film, women are objects. So it just makes all of us more stupid, taking these perspectives away from us.
And the same goes for directors from minorities and things like that, you literally feel in our time that we have travelled much more and we know so much human nature because of our relation to cinema, through literature too, of course, but cinema is really the meta-language where you see the world through the eyes of someone else. Even two years ago, a producer I know had spoken with an agent in LA who told him, “I don’t represent women directors, they don’t make money.” The quote was so cynical. And then when I was working on my first [unrealised] feature film project, which took place in south-central LA with a lot of African-Americans, I remember quite blunt discussions with producers that if I have African-American people in the film I can’t sell it to Japan. It’s there, this residual thing. You still have a lot of idiots out there.