Deniz Gamze Ergüven on Women in Film and Her Oscar-Nominated Debut Feature, Mustang

If a first feature is meant to be one’s calling card, Deniz Gamze Ergüven is a name the world won’t soon forget. Her debut, Mustang, premiered at Cannes and won the Europa Cinemas Label Award and, just this week, was nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film for the 88th-annual Academy Awards. The film, set in a remote Turkish village, tells the story of five young orphaned sisters who, while growing up in a conservative society, are put under house arrest for simply playing at the beach with boys.

New Times spoke with the writer-director over Skype about her feature, women in cinema, and comparisons to other works of art. 

New Times: There was a quote of yours in French where you said that you felt like cinema was full of the masculine and that the true feminine was something that hadn’t really been filmed yet, and that’s something you wanted to do with your work in cinema.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Yeah. There was something, a metaphor I used in French, which was when we arrive — when you're not from the U.S. — and you arrive to New York for the first time, you've seen New York in so many films, it's so familiar. The sidewalks, the architecture, the cab drivers, the mood of the people. It's as if you had grown up there. That, for me, is a bit like the metaphor of masculinity in cinema. We know there. We know that place really, really well. Womanhood is more... something like a place, the little village on top of a mountain behind trees.

It's true that every step of the way of a woman's life, I’m thinking, Wow, nobody told me about this. Nobody ever showed this. It's like, last year, I had a baby, my son. I was thinking, I never saw breastfeeding in cinema. I saw it once. It was in a movie of Bergman’s, like in the Middle Ages among people who were completely miserable. You have one woman breastfeeding.

It's uncovered, it's not seen. When you think about it, like in movies, like in L'Apollonide of Bertrand Bonello, at the turn of the century, women are literally these creatures with whom men never establish any form of empathy or compassion. It's just like this shell on which there are so many projections, but the truthful explanation is not so much out there.

Yeah, and it’s very much because mostly men have been the ones telling women’s stories for so many years. I don’t want to say, “Now it’s different,” but it seems like there’s a slow shift happening.
Yes! It’s such a leap, actually. There is a leap, even in the last decade. Everywhere that I’ve been going as a female young director — from film school to all the labs where we were — I was either the only girl or one of the two only girls. Always! Now, even at a time when women are starting to make a lot of films, I think I’m the only woman director in the Golden Globes.

And the only one on the shortlist for the Oscars.

Yeah, the other day we were all together and it was like... a lot of alpha males. But it’s going to change. I know that even ten years ago it was different for me. People literally, because I have a tiny voice and I don't have the body attitude of an alpha male, would not necessarily take me seriously, you know? Even in this decade, things have changed already.

That defiance kind of masculinity and the norm kind of shines through in the movie. You show the girls in such an interesting way and present how they find ways to enjoy themselves - and be themselves - indoors, even though they’re trapped: sunbathing, pretending to swim in the pool. How did this stuff come about?
There was really something in them, which was almost like arrogance, a type of “You’re not going to get me” attitude. The best thing you can do if you're caged because you're a woman was to sit there in a bikini. The world is telling you don't be sensual. That's maybe like a natural temper thing. I love the idea that these girls had so many resources. Even if you put them in a closet, within a few minutes they would find the resources to be completely free.

And one of the films you’ve been compared to a lot is The Virgin Suicides, but I feel like there’s such a difference in the way they’re presented. That film has to be told through other people’s perspectives, but Mustang isn’t.
The comparison has been coming a lot since the first day. It was disturbing after a while, because I read the book and I have seen the film, and I have like ten people telling me, “Yeah, so are you inspired by The Virgin Suicides?” The shot where they’re all intertwined — yeah, it looks like it, of course. When they’re in the room just before they start playing again, that I understand.

There are things in the book and the film, for example, that encapsulate really what sisterhood is — like when we travel together with the girls, and they're teenagers. The fact that if anybody gets their period while we're together, it's always a huge subject. It's like that in the book of Jeffrey Eugenides. It just happens to be truthful, both of them, to sisterhood.

And an interesting comparison, I guess, would be that the youngest girl sees the older girls being married off to men as society requests as a death of some sort.
I perceive the girls as one character with five heads. That character loses an arm and a leg along the way. In the beginning, they don't know how to flee, they don't know how to fight, nobody knows how to drive. Lale, the first time she leaves, she leaves in slippers. They're not ready for the antagonist that they have. Then, at the end, even if it's a glorious ending, and the girls win in the craziest way possible, it feels very melancholy. I think that's because it's shadowed with the way of the loss they had.

Yeah, the whole movie echoes that sentiment of melancholy and heartbreak.
But that’s what happens when you think about it. We're all heiresses of losses and the trials of people before us — of our families, of our elder brother's and sisters. It's true.

Opens Friday, January 15, at Bill Cosford Cinema, Miami Beach Cinematheque, O Cinema Wynwood, and Tower Theater.

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Juan Antonio Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. Barquin aspires to be Bridget Jones.