Deniz Gamze Ergüven felt a sense of urgency in making "Mustang," a harrowing drama opening Friday about five high-spirited teenage sisters living in an isolated village in Turkey. Their lives take a dark turn when their conservative family overreacts after they are observed having innocent fun on the beach with their male classmates.
All "instruments of corruption" — including cellphones and computers —are removed from the house and the girls are literally kept prisoner in the home while they are taught how to cook and keep house in preparation for marriage.
"A lot of those stories [in the movie] are from my childhood, the childhood of my mother and her sisters," said Ergüven during a recent visit to Los Angeles to screen "Mustang" at the AFI Fest. "We triggered a little scandal when we sat on the shoulders of the boys."
Even though that incident took place in the 1990s, "it resonates with Turkey today," she said.
Born in Ankara, Ergüven, 37, moved to France when she was 6 months old. Though they briefly moved back to Turkey when she was 9, Paris has been her home. Every time she travels back to visit family in Turkey she's been disturbed at how things have changed.
"Turkey is a very dynamic country," she said. "It was quite revolutionary. Turkey has had peaks of modernity. Women have been voting since 1930. The laws of the country protect women."
In the last few years, though, Turkey has taken an extremely conservative turn. AKP, the country's ruling party, Ergüven said, "in the beginning represented themselves as a safe political bet. But since 2011, their rhetoric started to change. The question of women is always taking central part of their discord: What should [women] do? Have three children or four children? How should you give birth? They manage to whisper things in the ear of the entire society. After a while it's like a poison. It changes the shape and the path of society."
The changes in Turkey were a driving force behind her desire to make "Mustang."
"I had to articulate something and let these girls express their desires, hopes and dreams and take center stage," Ergüven said.
Though "Mustang" is in Turkish, the drama is France's entry in the foreign-language film Oscar derby. And the country's choice to select her film is France's way of embracing the country's diversity, she believes. [The interview with Ergüven, as well as France's choice of "Mustang" as its Oscar competition submission, took place before the terrorist shootings and bombings in Paris.] "It is who we are today," said Ergüven. "It is a very modern and radical choice."
A month before she started shooting, the married filmmaker learned she was pregnant. A week later, the film's main French producer bailed. "It was crazy," she recalled. "The film was dead."
But not for long. Ergüven called people she knew to find a producer. "Eventually, the first producer I gave the script to two years before, who was in a company that was not doing first feature films, had created his own company. He said yes."
Only one of the five girls, Elit Iscan, who plays Ece, had acted before. Ergüven saw the two films Iscan made with Turkish director Reha Erdem. She was so impressed she wrote Ece with her in mind. "I went to see her after I finished the first draft and praying for her not to have grown too much," said Ergüven.
Iscan said that Ergüven "made me real confident. She was so open. I never felt pressured. She is having a great effect on my life. I think I became stronger and more courageous. Even if I don't have a chance to work with her again, I am sure our friendship is always going to be there."