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'Mustang' filmmaker challenges patriarchy and gets an Oscar nomination

Deniz Gamze Ergüven used her debut film,
Deniz Gamze Ergüven used her debut film, "Mustang," to explore the sexualization of girls and women in Turkey.
Courtesy of Cohen Media Group
Deniz Gamze Ergüven used her debut film,
Five sisters are at the center of the story in the film, "Mustang."
photo courtesy Cohen Media Group

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The Oscar-nominated French film, "Mustang," tells the story of five sisters who live in a society where they have few individual freedoms, including the choice of whom they marry, what to wear, and how to act. The movie takes place in Turkey and was directed and co-written by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. She was born in Turkey but has split her time between her homeland and France.  

“Mustang” opens with the girls and their male classmates getting out of school for the summer. On their walk home, they frolick on the beach and, at one point, the girls play in the water while sitting on the boys’ shoulders. Someone who sees them believes the girls are acting out sexually, and the sisters are placed on what soon becomes exceedingly restrictive house arrest.

When Ergüven recently joined us at The Frame, she talked about the patriarchal society in Turkey that views girls as sexual beings from an early age, gender equity in filmmaking, and why she decided to name her debut movie after free-roaming horses.

Interview Highlights:

I want to ask a little bit about the title of the film, "Mustang," even though it's about a group of five sisters. When I think about mustangs, I think about their wild hair when they're running. Could you talk a little bit about the hair and how it relates to "Mustang"?

[laughs] Well, in the beginning I wanted a word that would encapsulate the temper of these girls, which was untamable, extremely free. And there's a strength and a wildness about them. And yes, there's a visual rhyme between the long hair of these girls and the horses — they run around the village, and they almost look like a little pack of wild horses racing.

Also, one of my cousin's names literally means little wild horse in Turkish, so there were so many signals pointing to this as the title of the film. 

You were at the Oscar nominees' lunch this year — did you see yourself as the mustang at the lunch?

Yes, but it's a good thing that we're talking about these diversity issues. Sometimes I have the impression that the debate isn't always at the right spots, but it's fundamental that the more films get diverse, the more the audience's perspective on the world gets broader, smarter and more articulate.

I entered film school in 2002 and have always been in environments where I was either the only girl, or maybe there were two of us. It was like that in film school, it was like that in every film workshop, but I have the impression that we're going somewhere with all this debate.

One of the topics the film raises is the idea of sexual identity. These are young women, they're becoming sexual people, and yet the way in which the people around them see their sexuality is through the men's eyes. That's the society and the culture they live in. Can you talk a bit about that dynamic, how these women are evolving and the way they're seen sexually through a male perspective?

For me, that was really the heart of the film. What I found really striking during the experience of [living] in Turkey was that women and girls are perceived through a filter of sexualization, and it starts at a very early age.

In the opening scene, they're accused of having done something disgusting because they've played a game where they sit on shoulders of some boys, and that triggers a little scandal. That's a situation that I've lived, which said, Okay, from this moment on, everything you do is sexual. So watch yourself and behave in a very specific way.

I can't agree with the idea that 100 percent of our lives is sexual — sometimes you're just literally boiling an egg. But I had to film the bodies of these girls in possibly every angle, wearing swimming suits or not very dressed, just to say that we can look at these girls' bodies without thinking there's something sexual about them.

A girl could be boiling an egg, but for the uncle with whom these girls live, boiling an egg could be a sexual act. He's imposing a worldview on them.

Yeah, and that's something that's very strong in the conservatism which is very strong in Turkey today. For example, there are school directors that have decided that girls and boys shouldn't take the same staircase when they go to class.

They built different staircases for girls and boys, and it's a way of saying that, when you go to math class at eight o'clock in the morning, there's still something sexual happening.

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