In her first feature film, Mustang, director Deniz Gamze Erguven beautifully demonstrates how living in a closed totalitarian society impacts young Turkish women since everything is reduced to their sexuality and every act is defined through that filter. Taking place in a remote village in Turkey, the film depicts the story of five sisters whose very traditional family slowly demonizes their natural sexual inclinations in order to make them ‘suitable wives’. It is very difficult to watch this movie and not think about the current rise of religious conservatism in Turkey. The movie is powerful with a feminist message, but it doesn’t hit you over the head. In order to show the absurdity of living in such a society and to provide its feminist take, the director decided to push everything to the limit in the hope that such a strategy could better inspire the audience to reflect.
Below is an interview with the director following the US release of Mustang.
Is this movie a reaction to the rise of religiously-motivated conservatism in Turkey?
Well, I decided to raise questions about what it’s like to be a girl and a woman in modern-day Turkey, a country where the condition of women is more than ever a major public issue. I hoped to call into question the conception of society that reduces women to baby-making machines who are only good for housework. It is surprising that Turkey was one of the first countries to give women the right to vote in the 1930s but now we have to defend basic rights such as abortion. It’s sad.
You live in France, so you are a little bit of an outsider in connection with what happens in Turkey. Given this, how have local critics and audiences in Turkey reacted to the movie?
I should say that the majority of my family still lives in Turkey and I travel there frequently. I feel totally connected with the stories that happen in Turkey; the country is extremely productive in terms of creating interesting things to narrate. For example, in the opening scenes, the minor scandal that the girls provoke by climbing onto the boys’ shoulders before being violently reprimanded really happened to me when I was a teen.
On the other hand, living abroad gives you more perspective, and you need that. It is like going back and forth between the two countries and you know what kind of experience it is to be a woman elsewhere. Of course, when I live in two countries you will find people who say that I’m not Turkish but actually a French person. To come back to your question, the response was very diverse, with some people accusing me of telling lies about Turkey and labeling me an enemy of the nation while I also received very positive feedback from others.
In a previous interview you talked about the influence of Pasolini and escape movies. Can you say more about your cinematic sources of inspiration?
What I like about Salò was in terms of distance, the distance that I wanted the films to have from their subjects. Furthermore, I like the way that Pasolini tells the story of a society confronting fascism; he used a very inspiring sordid tale for this. I hoped to achieve a similar disconnect between substance and style. I was also inspired by escape movies like A Man Escaped (1956) or Escape from Alcatraz (1979). We could feel here the dramatic register of a prison tale.
The content of your movie exemplifies some of the values dear to the feminist movement, but in terms of aesthetics I think it is still a very male-oriented and conventional movie. The camera tries to eroticize and sexualize the body to a great degree. I think that the camera’s gaze is masculine.
Well, that’s really not the case. Actually, this is a way of showing the girls in the most intimate way in every possible position when they’re fooling around and playing around. And this is literally a way of saying that they are not sexual. Once in a while spectators say that the film is very erotic and I would say that it is actually in your eyes. I’m thinking that the most striking thing about the film is to let the audience think about the filter through which women are perceived in Turkey, which starts at a very early age. We live in a society that is trying to say that every part of the skin is sexual and it starts out of the concerns of the characters in the film that they are trying to preach about what a good woman should do. That is exactly the situation that happened to me, to the girls of my family, and many others. It appears to me that at some point I’m doing something which is completely innocent and people would perceive something sexual in it. This happened a lot in Turkey. I remember the stories of school principals who prohibited girls and boys from using the same stairs to enter the classroom so they built separate staircases. This give a huge erotic charge to the most ordinary things, such as climbing the stairs. This beautifully shows the absurdity of such conservatism: everything is sexual. Yes, there is sexuality here but this is a small part of your life and the rest of it is absolutely not sexual. So in the film we have a very intimate relationship with the main character; we are emotionally into her but the movie is definitely not trying to sexualize her.
I have a question about your choice to set the film in a remote village that is about 200 kilometers from Istanbul. Did you want to compare urban and rural life?
No, because in Turkey you can’t say that city life is necessarily modern. Of course, people who live in more remote areas can’t have more access to modern values but that doesn’t mean that this situation shapes their decisions. There are some customs in the city that are very traditional and I could say that the cities of the Turkey are just like giant villages. You have a lot of different things that happen in the rural areas such as, for example, the scene were the girl is taken to the hospital in the middle of the night after her wedding so they can see blood, which is something that a gynecologist from the capital could only do and is quite modern.
So, what made you interested in shooting there?
There is a fairy tale quality to the Black Sea village of Inebolu, which is partially due to the drama and terrible choices presented in the film. I loved the sense of isolation in this area where the news arrives only through official channels and in every house there are sacks of coal. People feel close to each other and are almost like a family. Furthermore, the architecture in that region was perfect. We needed that house because it has a personality and we had other construction which look like that, like the house we have eventually filmed. So yes, it was very much a hysterical choice to shoot there.
Okay, I don’t know if it was by choice or not, but there is a close connection here between having access to a car and having sense of freedom. Apparently mobility is a means of emancipation for your characters.
Well, I didn’t think about it as a concept while working on this one. I know that when I was younger, I often drove without a license and I started dreaming that I drove with a license. I was obsessed with being able to drive a car and my father showed me how to do this when I was twelve years old. It was a way for me to enjoy my fate.
The story is about five sisters. Did you consider that they might have brothers with a different reaction to the circumstances of their lives?
No, there was never a brother so it never came to me. There was not a brother involved; it’s all about the sisters.
And the movie shows that female solidarity is very important for the question of feminism or any issues related to women. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Yes, it was important. It’s a funny thing because we talked a lot about solidarity inside the group. We discussed that issue every day and the five girls are like one creature with five heads but they needed to be like one single body. I see it as a fairy tale with mythological motifs, such as the Minotaur, the labyrinth, the Lernaean Hydra — the five-headed body of the girls and this issue of solidarity are important in Turkish values.
The movie places a lot of value on education. Do you see education as very important tool for emancipation?
Of course I do. I think that the movie expressed this better than me. It expresses things much more sensitively and powerfully than I ever could.
You also collaborated with Alice Winocour on this movie. What impact did this collaboration have on the project?
Alice was very much like a boxing coach. She put me in a state where she would say things like that I needed to know the script idea or else I was going to die and I was writing for hours a day under her guidance.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.