Interview with ‘Mustang’ director Deniz Gamze Ergüven

Dear readers,

Today we are very excited to be publishing our first interview ever.

We had the chance to talk with Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang’s director. As you probably understood last week, we loved this film (it’s coming out tomorrow – if you missed our review, it’s here) so we were thrilled to spend some time with Deniz.

In this interview, she talks about Mustang’s incredible journey (from indie first-movie to the Cannes Film Festival… to the Oscars), how living between France and Turkey gives her perspective on women’s condition here, the difficulty of talking about sex in Turkey, female characters in cinema and much more.

Mustang director Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Joseph Donyo

Canım Istanbul: Hi Deniz! We’re very happy to talk with you today. First let’s talk about Mustang’s life in the past few months. The film was well received in Cannes, then 450.000 people saw it in France, currently Mustang is being shown at film festivals around the world and now it is perhaps on the road to the Oscars… I guess you weren’t expecting all of this when you made the film. How does it feel?

Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Well, things actually got started in Cannes. It felt like something was brewing there. During Cannes, the film attracted attention from various agents and was bought by many distributors all around the world. We got the first signals from the Americans that we could potentially imagine the path towards the Oscars then. At every subsequent festival, it garnered the same kind of interest. That’s when a film, like a child, starts to live its own life. It’s absolutely great.

Mustang crew at Cannes Film Festival

CI: What’s your state of mind today?

DGE: It’s like a very strong wave. The whole journey has been very intense. Three weeks before the shooting started, our main producer dropped out and we had to find another producer in no time. Also, while we were filming, I was pregnant. Two days after giving birth, I was back at work. So there’s been a level of intensity that has not decreased since the shooting.

During Cannes I was telling this joke: Tuesday we’ll show the movie, Wednesday we’ll talk to the press, Thursday we’ll be old news. But that Thursday never came! We’re still Wednesday and it’s just getting more intense. Now the film is coming out in Turkey, in the US (on November 20th), so it’s a particularly busy time. It’s like having 17 pots on the fire at the same time.

What’s beautiful for me is that this is prolonging the life of the film’s family. We’re always together, living this adventure all together. That’s a big luxury and it makes us all stronger over time.

Mustang's five sisters

CI: How do you explain Mustang’s success? It could have just been a “confidential” independent Turkish film. Why do you think it resonates among so many people?

DGE: First I think there’s something new in the fact that we see the story through the five girls’ eyes, which is not so common. Most films are made through a man’s lens so most of the worldview we get with cinema is quite unbalanced; usually looking at women as an alien body and where women are often objectified. There’s also something emotional and jubilatory in the film; more jubilatory than life itself because these girls are very brave. The scene where the girls play on the boys’ shoulders which causes this big scandal, for example, is from my own personal life. But at that time I looked down, I blushed, I felt ashamed of myself… It’s only years later that I wanted to react. So in the film, I let that little voice in my head that had been silenced express itself.

CI: You wrote Mustang with a French co-author. How did the writing process work?

DGE: All the film’s material came from me and I did all of the actual writing. Alice, my French co-author, would read the script once a week and we’d discuss it. She was more like a boxing coach for me. I would write 20 hours a day without asking myself too many questions and she would help channel all my energy and make sense of certain things, refine characters, etc.

Mustang illustration

CI: You have been living between Turkey and France for most of your life. Do you think it gives you a freer, more objective look on women’s condition in Turkey?

DGE: I think it mostly widens my reference base. The fact that I’m not always in Turkey allows me to see how it is to be a woman elsewhere and not to take the women’s condition in Turkey for granted. The coming and going gives me have more perspective on the situation in Turkey and articulate it better. It also works the other way around: regarding the current Syrian refugee crisis, knowing what it’s like for Turkey to have over 2 million refugees on its soil, I get a different view from most Europeans when I hear their governments’ discussions of perhaps allowing in a few thousand refugees.

I don’t feel disconnected from Turkey but sometimes I do feel like I’m missing out on the country’s collective experience. For example, when something like Gezi happens, it takes me a week to get organized and come here. But in the end, I’m here.

 One of the sisters dancing

CI: Do you think it’s possible today in Turkey to have a dialog between generations? Can there be a compromise between young Turkish girls, their elders and certain family traditions?

I don’t know. It’s not necessarily a conflict between generations. I’m sure there are young girls who will reproduce what they see today later in their life…

CI: …like the grandmother in the film…

DGE: …yes, precisely. We (women) have a tendency to internalize very sexist values and “macho” behaviors towards women. Somehow, feminism is not glamorous and not every woman feels concerned or questions the model in which they live. So it’s not just a generational issue, I think it goes deeper than this. We are so molded by certain codes, raised as either little boys or little girls, which even in our generation there are things we will never overcome. I, for example, could never stop putting on makeup or wearing heels! That’s what I mean when I say the roots of the problem go deep.

CI: Why do you think it’s so hard to talk about sex and desire in Turkey?

Mustang posterDGE: I disagree: Everyone talks about sex in Turkey!  First of all, anytime a conservative man says something to supposedly “preserve the purity”, I hear something totally different. For example, the school director who wants boys and girls to use different staircases… What’s that about exactly? Is there really something erotic in the air at 8am on the way to the mathematics class of 13 year-old kids?? To me there’s a constant sexual projection on everything in Turkey. We’ve reached a point here where we can only view certain normal gestures as something sexual. When Bulent Arınç says something like “a woman should not be inviting in her attitudes”, the invitation is in his eyes. A woman who opens a door or scratches her nose is not inviting, it’s his look that carries the problem. To me, there’s something funny when I see the ev yemek lokantaları where traditional housewife-type women prepare the food while watching TV. Some of these women are covered and the TV plays music videos of half-naked girls dancing. To me, these two types of women say the exact same thing: I’m a sexual object. I find it so obvious and striking, but it surprises me every time.

CI: Do you think the film could help change things a bit in Turkey?

DGE: I’m slightly afraid that the film will go unnoticed. I would like for Turkey to embrace it fully. The discussion around “is this a Turkish film or not?” went too far and shocked me. In Cannes, there was a Turkish producer who was writing a blog about the festival. Here we have a film in Turkish, with Turkish actors, shot in Turkey… and she didn’t even mention it. When we started talking about the film in Turkey, we had to explain to people that it’s a Turkish film but they would reply “No, it’s a French film”.

CI: Why is that? Is it just because it was financed in France? Or because you are between the two countries?

DGE: There’s that, but also the fact that France decided to embrace it from day one. Clearly, it’s a French project and I couldn’t have made it in Turkey. But strangely enough, in France I was never told that it’s not a French film. To me what matters is the artistic point of view, which cannot be limited by a certain nationality. I mean, David Lynch could have been Danish, right? Who cares? Somehow, in Turkey, this sort of discussion gets easily touchy.

Deniz Gamze Erguven

CI: I heard in one of your first interviews that you were a bit worried about the film coming out in Turkey. Is it still the case? With the film’s success, are you feeling more relaxed or stronger?

DGE: Maybe, I don’t know… Recently I was a bit worried going to the Turkish Consulate in Paris, thinking I might have upset some people who wouldn’t like what the film said, but actually the people at the Consulate loved it and were very warm with me. I think some people might have been turned off by the story of arranged marriage, it’s something they already know, but it seems like they change their minds after watching it. I think it depends how the film is portrayed when it comes out here.

CI: So now you started the path to the Oscars, as France’s official movie for Best Foreign Language Film. Would you have preferred Mustang to represent Turkey instead of France? Or do you not care?

DGE: I do care, but I accept the film’s life the way it happens. I’m extremely touched that France chose it. I think there’s something very modern and radical in this choice. It’s a way for France to embrace the movie and to claim its values abroad. I’m really shaken by it and I feel a great sense of responsibility now. After jumping to the roof when I heard the news, I quickly became very aware of this responsibility. Now we have to be very good in this race. There are still 81 films in the pre-selection so we’re a long way…

One of the sisters cutting her hair

CI: Any last words you’d like to share with Canim Istanbul’s readers?

DGE: I just want to say that, while the main stage in Turkey is dominated by masculine and not very cheerful figures who speak in the name of women in a sometimes brutal way, I’m very happy to put in the spotlight figures that resemble Turkey’s youth. We witnessed this youth’s strength, intelligence and humor during Gezi. I’m also happy to present female characters that are uncommon, funny, resourceful and smart. Usually the values of courage, intelligence and perseverance are not associated with women in cinema. It’s annoying for women to be portrayed as bimbos, still today, so I think the film fills a gap. I really hope people will see it in Turkey because I believe it could spark little things in people’s lives.

 CI: Thank you very much Deniz!

Leave a Reply