An energizing, word-of-mouth upstart that has become not only an Oscar nominee but also the toast of awards shows and festivals around the globe, "Mustang" in many ways feels like the right movie at the right time.
Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven in her feature debut (she also co-wrote the film with Alice Winocour), the film is a bittersweet story of repression and perseverance, told with a style that is both languid and muscular, prison-break propulsive and artfully pensive.
Though a story set in Turkey and in the Turkish language, the film was submitted by France for the foreign-language Academy Award, chosen over previous Oscar nominee Jacques Audiard's "Dheepan," a film that won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. ("Mustang" was eligible because of French financing and producers.)
The film serves as both a specific story about Turkey and also as a broader allegory for challenges faced by young women around the world. In the film, five orphaned sisters live with their uncle and grandmother in a village on the Black Sea. After they are wrongly reported for inappropriate behavior while playing with some boys on a beach, they are made prisoners in their own home, with severe restrictions over what they wear, where they go and what they do. Individually and together, the girls struggle for independence and their own identities, trying to do nothing more than just be themselves.
"Even if it seems like it's telling a story from a little village in Turkey, it's actually a universal issue," said actress Elit Iscan, 22. "I think every woman is facing some kind of inequality in her life, whether once or many times, so I think everyone is finding something from their lives."
The actresses — Iscan, Günes Sensoy, Ilayda Akdogan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu and Tugba Sunguroglu — seem as if they could really all be related, with their ease and apparent closeness with one another. (Only Iscan had acted in a film before.) Ergüven, 37, comes across among them as a mix of surrogate mother, cool aunt and amused older sister.
Ergüven and her five actresses were seated around a conference room table overlooking West Hollywood. As the filmmaker talked through some of the production difficulties faced in making the film — "the metaphor I use often is it felt like a river I didn't know. So I didn't know what would come up after the next turn" — one of the girls discovered the lever that adjusted her seat.
Soon all five girls were working their chairs up and down, and a racket of mechanisms hissing and popping and the girls' barely contained giggling erupted.
Ergüven maintained her focus, seeming unfazed by the playful chaos sparking around her that revealed the steely resolve beneath her placid reserve. It's the same strength and polite intensity that allowed her to hold the film together when a producer dropped out just weeks before production began. Ergüven also was shooting the film while in the middle of a pregnancy
The girls, who ranged in age during shooting from 13 to 21, enter a room as a tumble of flowing hair and long limbs. Talking among themselves in a mixture of Turkish, French and English, they give off an air equal parts conference and conspiracy.
Which was, in some way, Ergüven's hope all along, as she described her original conception of the movie as "one character with five heads."
"From very early on I always said it's a monster of femininity, with 10 arms and 10 legs," said Ergüven. "They are intertwined, they are extremely familiar with one another. Sometimes I said they react to one another's bodies as if they are extensions of their own body.
"I remember describing that to a potential [cinematographer] and him looking at me as if I was crazy," she added. "And then I look at the film and it's so much there, it's so much one character. All the choices we made to shoot the film with that idea in mind. When the girls came together, they were all having a riot of their own."
Though the Holocaust-set Hungarian film "Son of Saul" has long been assumed to be the front-runner for the foreign-language Oscar, "Mustang" has increasingly looked like a viable dark horse, seeming to gain momentum and attention with its female-created story of female struggle and liberation and the in-the-room charms of Ergüven and her cast.
"Mustang" has not yet broken $1 million at the U.S. box office, a tough milestone of late for many foreign-language films, but it has picked up some notable fans, including two Oscar winners. Reese Witherspoon posted a photo from the film online with a note that read: "This movie blew me away. Sisterhood has never been more powerful than in this film." Marion Cotillard also wrote online about the film, saying, "We can be very proud that France and French production is represented this year at the Academy Awards by such an amazing film … full of humanity, light and love."
"Mustang" premiered at the Directors Fortnight independent sidebar at Cannes last year, where it picked up the first of what would be many prizes. Besides nominations at the Oscars, Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards, the film won an audience award at L.A.'s AFI Fest.
At the Lumiere Awards — often referred to as France's Golden Globes — the film recently picked up three prizes: best film, best first film and a shared award among the five actresses. It won a discovery prize at the European Film Awards. The film also picked up an impressive nine nominations from the upcoming Cesar awards — France's Oscars — including best film, director, first film and screenplay.
Being the only female director of a fiction feature nominated for an Oscar this year is not lost on Ergüven.
"There's still in film specific qualities attached to women, and it probably doesn't resemble what we experience of womanhood most of the time," she said. "So all of the values of courage, intelligence, resilience, all those things are never attached to women."
The film's distinction of perspective is also, Ergüven surmises, likely why it has been picking up such notable and enthusiastic support.
"People can relate to these girls. Or even aspire to be closer to these girls," said Ergüven. "There's also something jubilatory in the film, the actions of the characters are always the things you dreamt you would have said. As a little girl you, are taught your survival strategy is to go by the rules, be quiet and obedient. And these girls are just breaking all those things.
"This is probably the most exciting thing for the audience," she added. "It's a movie about breaking free, and those themes of freedom resonate with anyone."
For the girls, the experience has been one surprise and inspiration after another, opening up the world for each of them.
"It's all an adventure we started on and now we are on the road to Oscar," said Akdogan, 17. "It's really incredible, we can't forget this."
"When people ask if we had difficulties, I don't remember," said Sunguroglu, 16. "I just remember laughing."
"Even when I try to remember the bad things, I still laugh," added Sensoy, 14. "We did that, and now we're here. So it's possible."
Doguslu, who had been mostly silent, speaks in Turkish to Iscan, who translates for her.
"I knew that we could give a good message to everyone," said Doguslu, 15, "but I wasn't expecting it to go this far in the world."
As the girls bound off for a photo and their collective energy leaves the room, Ergüven pauses to watch them go. She noted that it only recently hit her that their time of being so close and together so often would soon come to an end.
With the wistful sigh, Ergüven beamed, "They're my mustangs."