Q&A

'Mustang' director Deniz Gamze Ergüven on Turkish film, L.A. riots and 'Escape From Alcatraz'

It starts off as an innocent game: Five exuberant young girls, playing with boys on a beach, piling on top of one another's shoulders to wrestle. Gossipy villagers construe the play as something sexual — and word gets back to the girls' family. Suddenly, these spirited young women find themselves punished, trapped by their family and the strict gender mores of their remote Turkish village — a condition they do their best to escape in increasingly elaborate ways.

"Mustang," the debut feature film from French-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, has captivated audiences around the world with its dreamy style, its charismatic cast and its thorny subject matter, the latter of which gets at an ongoing social divide in Turkey, in which rests the issue of the place of women.

The film has also catapulted its 37-year-old director into the international limelight. "Mustang" was part of the Official Selection at Cannes, where it won the Europa Cinemas prize, it made the shortlist for the Academy Award for foreign film, and it nabbed a Golden Globes nomination in the same category. 

The story, interestingly, is all based on an incident that Ergüven experienced as a girl in Turkey. (The director was born in Turkey but has lived in France for most of her life — traveling between the two countries regularly.) She and family members played a game riding on boys' shoulders, an action that was similarly misconstrued by local villagers. "The discussion was less violent than in the movie, but the point was the same," she says. "You're called to strict rules very brutally."

The director was attending the Palm Springs International Film Festival this week to present the movie, which screened on Saturday and Monday, and will screen again Tuesday evening. In this lightly edited conversation, she discusses the hybrid cultural place her film occupies, the ways in which it secretly pays tribute to a popular Hollywood escape film and the Los Angeles-related project she may be working on next.

Your film — a Turkish-language film set in Turkey — is the official French selection for the Academy Awards. At a time in France in which right-wing politicians have made statements against immigrants, has it led to any blowback for you? How has the film community treated the selection?

It’s the second time I’m running for France with a Turkish-speaking movie, since I also ran at Cannes. The film is considered French. As soon as we came out of postproduction we were embraced by Unifrance [which promotes French films abroad] and the Ministry of Culture. There was no distinction between "Mustang" and any other movie. I’m French [but Turkish]. Most of the team was French.

It was a very modern choice and a very radical choice. There is a lot of right-wing ideas in Europe these days. But what I love the most about France is that there is curiosity of looking at the world through film. French producers are very invested in different directors from the four corners of the world. And in Paris you have an audience that watches film in its original language. What’s happening in Europe, it’s more like a muscular reaction.

But the highest ideals of France and its respect for culture is in making a choice like this and saying, "No. We are curious we are open. We are diverse rich and complex and this is what 2015 looks like."

What about in Turkey? I understand that you have received criticism that the film is not Turkish enough.

The thing is that Turkey right now is extremely polarized — and I take positions very openly, which most people in Turkey don’t do anymore. So, already, 50% of people will be antagonized by what I’m saying. There are a lot of people who really love the film. There are people who really bash it and they say, "She’s not one us." I find that disturbing.

There are comments which I feel are intellectually dishonest. If you have a troll saying anything negative about the film, when you look at their profile, the first thing you generally see is that they're from AKP [a socially conservative political party]. They're not saying, "I disagree with you and the film" or "I think it’s boring." They're not talking about it in terms of cinema.

But, for me, in cinema, there are no frontiers. 

You gave your film a very Western name — a distinctly American name in fact. Why?

I wanted one word which would encapsulate the spirit of the girls — which was untameable, wild, free. There is a strength, there is the visual rhyme of their hair, when they’re running around the village, they’re like little wild horses. I looked for different names of wild horses around the world, and this one generated the most in terms of imagery. Then we made the word ours. Now when I see a little girl running freely, I think "mustang."

How common is it in Turkey to set a film entirely around the intimate lives of women or girls? 

There are movies about women. But there’s something very specific to "Mustang." Maybe that’s the reason why it generated a bit of rejection. In social life I’m extremely polite, but my inner self is closer to [novelist Charles] Bukowski. [Laughs.] There is some of that in the movie. There is a scene in the beginning, where the aunt says these crude words. And I have the impression that things like that are breaking through limits. People are disturbed by it. It's so much further along than what you can say in Turkey.

But, also, in Turkish cinema, the stories are very codified and the acting is very codified and there are things that are unexportable because they are specific to Turkish culture. With "Mustang," the story is told through movement. It's almost like a little action movie. It's probably closer to American cinema on that level. 

The film has generated frequent comparisons to "The Virgin Suicides" in the U.S. press — because of the story of five girls held captive by their family. But I understand you have grown tired of this comparison. Why?

I was asked about it over and over again. There’s this one shot when the girls are in the room tangled together, which is a reference for most people. I’d seen ["Virgin Suicides"] and read the book. The book and the film encapsulate what it means to be sisters. But I feel that there are so many other references that don’t come up in my own movie. I think of "The Three Sisters" from Anton Chekhov. We spoke about that all the time — the idea of dreaming of a city. "Lolita" never comes up. Or for me, a very obvious reference: "Escape From Alcatraz." Why don’t I get that question?

It is interesting, the references in "Mustang" are more to films I’ve seen as a kid than films I’ve seen as a growing filmmaker. It comes from my childhood.

What are you working on now?

I have three different things on the table. There's one that takes place in Turkey. There is one that is based on a news fact. And there is a feature film that I had written before "Mustang." It takes place in the frame of the Los Angeles riots [of 1992].

Why the L.A. Riots? How did these inspire you? 

It’s about being French-Turkish. When the riots happened, I wasn’t French yet. I didn’t have French nationality. It was a big deal. And I felt a very strong resonance with the heartbreak of the people who rioted in L.A. These are people who are in a country they didn’t choose to be in, who love the country deeply, but they feel rejected by it. It felt familiar. And in terms of cinema, it felt like a treasure. It’s five days in Los Angeles without laws in which everything can happen and did happen. There was tragedy and there were absurd and funny situations.

I've spent  a lot of time in Los Angeles for the script, roaming around the city. I have developed a very deep love for the city. You have this impression of Los Angeles, that everybody lives apart, in their own community. But when you arrive as a foreigner, people are extremely welcoming and open — from gang members to the LAPD. The LAPD let me do everything. I went on a helicopter patrol with a Super 8 camera. I did great shots of Los Angeles from the sky. I now also have very good friends who are gang members. Everyday people too. 

When I was there, if I was dry [struggling with writing], I would just go hang out with some people. Someone will throw out a gold nugget. Someone will say, “Someone stole my toilet last night!” And then you have great scene.

"Mustang" goes on view at the Palm Springs International Film Festival at 7 Tuesday. Camelot Theatres, 2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs, psfilmfest.orgIn Los Angeles, it is screening at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, laemmle.com.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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