“I wanted to portray these girls like a five-headed monster. They were like supernatural, otherworldly creatures for me with their long hair, which was reminiscent of a horse’s mane.”1
Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Mustang is the debut feature of writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Most frequently/lazily compared to another debut, The Virgin Suicides (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2000), Ergüven’s film revolves around five sisters (all but one played by non-professional actors), from eldest Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), to the football-loving youngest, Lale (Günes Sensoy). Beyond that, the comparison isn’t particularly instructive, since Coppola’s film is concerned with languor, torpor and primarily the fuzzy myopia of the male gaze. In its form and content, in the story of its production and its lasting impact, Mustang is intrinsically a film of feminine agency, the very existence of which is a provocation. Ergüven synthesises autobiography, social commentary and a kind of cathartic wish fulfillment into a fable of female empowerment.
Ergüven shares co-writing credit on Mustang with Alice Winocour, writer-director of Disorder (2015). The two met while taking part in Cannes’ Cinéfondation Workshop, where they found themselves the lone female participants. Winocour encouraged Ergüven to abandon one project (Kings, about the LA riots) that was struggling to gain traction in order to develop Mustang. The choice to veer towards more personal territory was, according to Ergüven, “a deliberate choice of me saying, ‘OK, I’m not going to freak people out any more. I’m going to do something with girls who look like me and speak like me and everyone will easily understand it.'”2 Ergüven has spoken of writing Mustang, with Winocour’s encouragement, “in a trance…beating the shit out of my keyboard,”3 in just a few weeks’ worth of 20-hour days. The original treatment and subsequent hard graft was Ergüven’s, with Winocour “more like a boxing coach… she would help channel all my energy and make sense of certain things, refine characters, etc.”4
The Turkish-born Ergüven, raised between France and Turkey, drew upon her own experiences to produce Mustang’s script. “For example,” the director told Vogue, “the little scandal the girls trigger when they sit on the shoulders of the boys is something that me and the girls of my family had done.”5 From the point at which the girls rebel, mocking the sexualisation of their innocent activities by smashing chairs that have been in equally close proximity to their asses as any boys’ shoulders, Mustang diverges from real life. “We didn’t say anything. The characters in the film voiced the courage that we wished we had.”6
From then, Ergüven has explained, “it’s a film told as a fairytale and it’s quite condensed. Nobody can say it is the exact life of this person. There are reflections with real-life characters and a lot of real events, but it’s fragmentary. Being emotionally truthful is very important to me.”7 The director also drew from the experiences of family, friends, “and I tried to discover what lies under the surface by asking people I knew were knowledgeable about these matters,”8 which led her to the testimony of hospital workers who had witnessed scenes similar to those depicted in the film. Despite her focus on Turkish social realities, for the director, “knowing how it was to be a woman in other places” was “constitutive to the way I articulated the question in the film.”9
Having completed the script and carefully assembled her cast around professional actor Elit İşcan (Ece), Ergüven’s original producer almost derailed the production, having departed the project after allegedly botching the budget. According to Ergüven, to make matters worse, the female producer then “wrote letters to the other producers saying things, among which, ‘Deniz is pregnant.’ She listed all these reasons the film was impossible to make.”10 Those producers then began cancelling carefully cultivated location shoots, leading to the near collapse of the entire project. Luckily, new producers stepped in to save the day. Today, Ergüven is admirably philosophical about the sabotage she experienced. “It’s like me, when I see a woman pilot, I’m ashamed for myself. We are just a product of our time.”11
Mustang was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars. Since it screened in the Director’s Fortnight section at Cannes last year, it’s been a magnet for awards nominations, and a fair few wins too, including the 2015 Lux Prize. And yet, fundamental to the success of the film for the director was how the very performance of it impacted on the lives of her cast. “For them, being courageous, fighting for your rights, being a bit insular when you need to be – all those things – have become normal. They become more and more like the characters.”12
Mustang doesn’t simply represent catharsis, or at worst the wishful rewriting of the director’s past. Its lines are a little more indelible, its influence a little less ephemeral than fashion spread aesthetics. As Ergüven has explained, “what was essential for me was to be able to film those girls in different poses, so to show that we could also look at them without associating their bodies with sexuality.”13 Therefore the simple act of watching is subtly transformative: “When you look at the world through the eyes of women, cinema is an extremely powerful meta-language…even people who hate the film, who feel antagonized by it, even they, for an hour and a half, have seen the world through Lale’s eyes.”14
Sean Welsh, May 2016
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.
1. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, interviewed by Yonca Talu
2. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, interviewed by Despina Ladi, ‘Wild At Heart’, Sight & Sound, June 2016 Volume 26 Issue 6 p29
3. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, ‘Deniz Gamze Ergüven on Her Stunning New Movie, Mustang‘ by Julia Felsenthal
4. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, ‘Interview with Mustang director Deniz Gamze Ergüven‘
5. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Felsenthal, ibid.
7. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Ladi, Ibid.
8. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Talu, Ibid.
9. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Ladi, Ibid.
10. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Felsenthal, Ibid.
11. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Ladi, Ibid.
13. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Talu, Ibid.
14. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Ladi, Ibid.