The Turkish language film “Mustang” didn’t win a Golden Globe last night, but it was nominated for Best Foreign Language film, and an Oscar nod could be in the film’s future – it’s on the Academy shortlist for nominees.
“Mustang” centers around five teenage sisters living in an isolated seaside town in Turkey. On the last day of school, they play on the beach with several local boys and a firestorm of trouble ensues. The girls are accused by their relatives of lewd behavior and are shut up in the house, where they are schooled for marriage. The girls comply and rebel with varying degrees of success.
Here & Now’s Robin Young discusses the film with Deniz Gamze Ergüven, co-writer and director of “Mustang.”
Interview Highlights: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Is this film a typical depiction of life in Turkey?
“The situations at the base of each scene are real. The little scandal that the girls trigger at the beginning of the film is something that I have lived; the girls beaten in the order of their age was something that was happening in my mother’s generation, and a lot has been documented for the needs of the script. But the reactions of characters in very familiar situations are, to me, completely different from reality. For example, the first scene where they are accused of having rubbed themselves against the back of the boys’ necks, they are breaking the chairs in the kitchen, and saying the chairs touched their bottoms and that’s disgusting… They have a way of responding which is extremely heroic and bigger than life, but yes the situations are anchored in Turkey’s social reality.”
Was this different from how you reacted when you were accused of the same thing?
“Yes, my sisters and I just looked at our shoes and tried to avoid eye contact. We were mortified. There was something about the huge unfairness of the situation, and the prevailing feeling was shame.”
Are you, in a way, having your characters be who you couldn’t be, or is this actually how girls react in certain, more conservative parts of Turkey?
“Well the characters are bigger than life. I never came across a story of this type of girls, and for me they are almost superheroes.”
Keeping with the horse metaphor, they are like mustangs; bucking and trying to resist because slowly but surely they are imprisoned within their own home. Does this happen in rural, or less modern cities like Istanbul?
“The cut between country life and the city is not as clear in Turkey. The big cities are very heterogeneous and you would have people living extremely modern and free lives in the cities, as well as people living by very conservative codes. For example, the scene where Selma who’s packed back in her wedding dress on the night of her wedding in the middle of the night because she hasn’t bled is something that a doctor told me was accurate, not an exceptional case that he has seen once, but rather comes across over and over again.”
We go back and forth in this movie between moments of absolute joy and utter tragedy. What is this depiction meant to convey to the viewer about the country?
“Turkey is a paradoxal country. Women have been voting for a long time and the laws of the country have protected women. But at the same time it is a very patriarchal society and it’s true that there is a government in place since 2002 that is very conservative and going backwards. What I wanted to tackle, what was very striking to me is that there is a filter of sexualization through which women are perceived in every action that they undertake. Every inch of their skin is also seen through that, and you have school directors who decide girls and boys cannot take the same stairs when they go to math class at 8 in the morning and so they construct two separate sets of staircases. And it’s a way of saying that when they climb the stairs to math class at 8 in the morning and their eyes are barely open, it is perceived as something extremely sexual going on, which is for me completely wrong. That was what I wanted to tackle and it’s part of the reflection and the discussion that is going on.”
The film was nominated by France for an Academy Award, but Turkey did not want to submit it and there have been critics of the film. The New Yorker and various Turkish critics liken it to a ‘fairy tale’ but it sounds as if you want this to feel like a fairy tale. They are locked in a tower, metaphorically letting their hair down to get out.
“It’s true. It was the intention. I really wanted to get as far as possible from reality as I could. When I first did a treatment, I put in a drawer and I said ‘It’s too much, it’s too dark, it’s too true.’ And then when I took it back out I used every possible resource of cinemas to take it as far from reality as I could, so even if the situations were real, the characters act as complete heroes. Every aesthetic choice, from the set of the house to the choice of the music, everything is getting us further and further away from naturalism. The motives from fairy tales started coming out the more we worked on the script, even mythological aspects came into play. For example, the girls are really one creature with five heads and I consider them to be a hydra, which is very badly attacked, takes some wounds, but stands back on it’s feet and strikes back again. There was an article which had this reading of the film, as a five-headed creature that comes out of the sea and people try to constrain it and I loved that way of looking at the film.”
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