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“Even to this day, if one of us cries or laughs, everyone else does too. We’re huge criers. It just takes one of us to say something”

Crying and laughing through the making of Mustang

We talk to Deniz Gamze Ergüven about her new film and the five teen girls that are blowing audiences away

A story of five sisters effectively under house arrest in rural Turkey, many commentators immediately peg Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, with its willowy, free-spirited, tragically stymied young siblings. That on finishing the screenplay, Ergüven – thirty-eight-years-old, Turkish-born, France-raised – first thought instead of Escape from Alcatraz, is testament to the film’s bracing blend of urgent artistry and indignant social commentary. Ergüven, already highly regarded for her graduation film, launched her feature debut to near-universal plaudits last year and an Oscar nomination.

Given our previous discussion about your Oscar nomination as France’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film, I’m interested if Mustang, set in Turkey, with a Turkish cast, feels like a French film to you? And is it even important how people view it?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: It depends. For example, Ayberk Pekcan, the actor who plays Erol, said to me the first time he saw the movie, “Well it’s a great French movie.” And I didn’t know what he meant exactly. And it’s true that I was told a lot, “Oh, it’s not Turkish”, but that was by people who were antagonized by it. I think it has a singular voice and a specific sense of humour, a specific way of looking at events that’s very personal, so in that sense it’s auteur. There are many things that are French in me, and many things that are Turkish in me, and parts of my heritage that are not defined by any nation. Cinema has no borders.

Yet parts of the world not frequently shown to us can quickly become defined by what we do see. Using Turkey as an example, there was Midnight Express in the late 1970s, set in a Turkish prison, which gave the country a terrible reputation.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: I really hate Midnight Express, because even the people who are in it don’t speak Turkish properly. There’s also a scene in a David Cronenberg movie, Eastern Promises, in a barbershop where they’re supposed to talk in Turkish and it’s wrong, I don’t know why they did it! If you’re Turkish, it takes you out of the movie for good.

Right, and because what you show of the dominant Turkish culture in this isolated rural part of the country here isn’t flattering, I’m interested if there was much resistance to it there?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Well it went even further than that. I had a woman in a screening come up and say, “Even when you show Istanbul, you show all those messy roads and then you show the municipal baths! Why do you show that?” But in the scene it’s dawn, arriving in the outskirts of the city and people are going to work, what’s the matter? It’s almost like this muscular reaction. Of course, what you said is completely right, Turkey is a region that doesn’t have a lot of films coming out widely and then there’s Midnight Express, and people are extremely susceptible. But the national feeling in Turkey is articulated almost like a family feeling, so people feel, like, betrayed. And then they see the uncle abusing members of the family… It’s just tiring because for me, the uncle is not Turkish, he’s human.

But he is also Turkish…

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: But there are things in Turkey we’re contesting, we can’t have a discussion about them? Every time I go back, I feel a form of constriction that surprises me. Everything that has anything to do with femininity is constantly reduced to sexuality. Turkey was one of the first countries to give women the right to vote and now we have to defend basic rights like abortion. It's sad. The other thing is, the faces of these girls, their youth and their liveliness, that’s Turkey too.

 

“I’m very politically vocal. I wouldn’t be able to be this vocal in Turkey right now, and people aren’t. One of the advantages of not being there right now is that I get to have a big mouth” – Deniz Gamze Ergüven:

Is there a more positive reaction with younger Turkish audiences?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: The younger entourage of the girls enjoyed it, but I can’t really tell you a clear-cut line. First of all, Turkish cinema is quite homogenous – we’re not really in that contemplative strand. Mustang is almost like a punk band compared to that. Obviously we get a lot of bashing from people who are politically opposed. And I’m very politically vocal. I wouldn’t be able to be this vocal in Turkey right now, and people aren’t. One of the advantages of not being there right now is that I get to have a big mouth.

Your five lead actresses are utterly believable as sisters, yet only one of them had acted before. How did you help them achieve not just their performances but the incredible group chemistry?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: That was the big subject of this film: the casting and would it work? So for a month I rehearsed the scenes with professional actors and then I prepared everything from the audition to the boot camp, so it was really on track. And in the audition process, I never said a girl is good or bad, I said, “I can’t direct her.”

What was it about them that made you choose those five girls?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Elit İşcan, who plays Ece, was the only one with any acting experience. I wrote the script with her in mind and hoped she wouldn’t outgrow her character before we could shoot. I noticed Tuğba Sunguroğlu, who plays Selma, on an Istanbul-Paris flight while I was still writing the script! Besides her mustang vibe, I glimpsed a huge personality. And Güneş (who plays Lale), Doga (Nur) and Ilayda (Sonay), they all had great listening [ability], great imagination and something singular about them. We did a lot of exercises that were extremely playful. Some things that looked like games – looking into each other’s eyes, or looking into each other’s eyes and then saying something extremely personal and then nothing for long minutes, to generate trust. It feels so playful when you do it, but it’s still like directing actors.

Putting any film together is a big enough challenge, but you found out you were pregnant just before shooting?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: That was eight weeks before we started shooting. Then I was supposed to get married after the shoot and it overlapped and we got married during it… Everything was falling on top of one another and when I think about how much I had suppressed all these things for so long, it wasn’t that much of a surprise that everything exploded all at the same time.

Do you think it affected the film in any way at all?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: It made me super-emotional. I cried and laughed much more easily, so the girls were very empathetic and they did too. Even to this day, if one of us cries or laughs, everyone else does too. We’re huge criers. It just takes one of us to say something. The thing was, I didn’t want it to delay the shooting and I wanted to keep that baby. It was kind of a chaos. I was sick every morning during shooting – in the car on the half-hour journey to the location, a long, winding road on the coast, it was a ritual: just stop and be sick. But I had to find a way and deal with it.

Mustang opens in UK cinemas on May 13.