Watching Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s feature directorial debut, “Mustang,” at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival was the sort of experience moviegoers yearn to have every time they step foot in a theater. I was wrapped in such sublimely excruciating suspense that I ended up holding my breath for much of the final act, aside from a key moment that had me bursting into spontaneous applause. The film centers on five Turkish sisters—Lale (Günes Sensoy), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan)—held hostage in their house and forced into arranged marriages by their repressive parents. How these young women gradually begin to revolt against their imprisonment is exhilarating to behold. The multiple accolades the picture has collected, including the Audience Choice Award at CIFF, are a testament to its crowd-pleasing appeal.
Ergüven spoke with Indie Outlook via Skype about working with first-time actors, the influence of “Psycho” on “Mustang,” and avoiding exploitation when portraying sexuality onscreen.
How do you approach the art of crafting suspense?
It’s as if you have an engine running in your film. Sometimes it runs very slowly but there’s always momentum behind the engine once your machine is on its track. Suspense can also be a bit musical as well. When we were talking about the script, my continuity girl would say things like, “You can’t have a small interlude after you’ve sent in the trumpet.” For example, in the scene where Lale is calling her friend, Yasin, to ask him for help, she makes a joke, and I debated whether I should allow this little moment of air to occur at this time. That was really the one exception. There’s something very emotional and musical in the way that I conceive drama.
The film’s opening titles reminded me of Saul Bass’s famous designs for “Psycho,” a film that also dealt with the destructive repercussions of sexual shame.
“Psycho” was definitely a film that I had on my mind while making “Mustang.” I also thought about the [Bates] house, and how it became a character in the movie. It wasn’t a direct reference, but I certainly thought about the film while figuring out how to dramatize the conflict inside a family. For the title sequence, we wanted to reflect the characters’ feeling of being caught in a tighter and tighter spot.
What draws you to exploring issues of female sexual stigmatization?
It’s so intertwined within the mores of Turkish society that it’s rarely ever questioned. It’s considered the proper way of doing things. Women who grow up in a patriarchal society end up reproducing its rules even though they are detrimental to themselves. There was something very specific that I wanted to address in “Mustang,” which is the filter of sexualization through which women are perceived in their everyday lives. Every single action they make and every inch of their skin is sexualized, such as during the film’s opening scene when the girls sit on the shoulders of the boys. This causes them to live with a sense of guilt and they will end up being restrained. I wanted to question this notion of sexuality as an ever-present threat. Of course it is a part of life, but it’s not 100 percent of it. Yet these conservative people in Turkey are continuously vocal about what women should and should not do. Now you have schools deciding that girls and boys should take different staircases. It’s a way of saying that when you go to Math class at eight o’clock in the morning, there is something very sexual happening. To me, there’s nothing sexual going on. You’re half awake when you go to Math in the morning.
How did you go about portraying the young women’s sexuality without exploiting it?
It’s all in the way that you look at them. In the discussions I had with the cinematographer, we would figure out how to frame the shots in a way that would make the actresses comfortable in front of the camera, and the camera comfortable with them. There are scenes where we show the girls in bikinis or underwear and the camera displays them from every possible angle in a way that is so innocent. Their relation to their own bodies is so simple and comfortable and intimate. You can tell from the first shot of a movie how filmmakers look at their actors and actresses. I remember seeing a film by a French director, Jean-Jacques Beineix, where the first shot showed a woman walking naked in high heels, and the way that it was shot was very disturbing in its [voyeurism]. Once in a while, I’ll get a comment like, “That opening scene when the girls are in the water is so erotic,” and I’ll say, “That’s really in the eye of the one who’s looking.” That scene was shot in as innocent a way as possible.
The performances you elicited from these young women are truly remarkable.
Four of them have never acted before, and I wanted the film to feel like an invitation to come and play. It had to feel very alive. Our collaboration began with me creating a relation made of trust, a safe haven, a place where the actresses could just try things and take risks. I had worked the scenes with professionally trained actors, so I knew the material extremely well prior to shooting. There were a lot of discussions beforehand about the script, the backstory and things like that. During the shooting, you can’t load the actors with much more new information. As a director, you have to use very few words, and they have to be the perfect ones. You spring them into it so they’re alive, rather than pressuring them into the ground.
Günes Sensoy is particularly revelatory, since she has to anchor much of the film.
We had a nine-month casting process where the casting director saw thousands of girls and I saw hundreds of auditions. Günes was a bit younger than Lale was on paper, so the script was readapted a bit for her. There’s something so moving about her because at the beginning of the film, we have essentially one character with five heads that gets crippled and crippled until we only have Lale’s little self at the end of the story. Günes wasn’t exactly like her character off-camera. She was a very polite girl, but she was also very witty and when you pushed her, she became arrogant in a good way. What she has most in common with her character is the fact that she’s super-smart.
I was struck by the number of films by female directors last year that dealt frankly with their identities and the forces in society designed to suppress them. Do you feel we are collectively reaching a cultural tipping point that will enable more people to embrace these stories?
Yes I do. I recently sat with the other directors on the Oscar shortlist, and we got along greatly, but they are all alpha males with a very strong, dominant attitude. I was the only one sitting without my legs super-spread, and they all had a very powerful demeanor, whereas I had a tiny voice and frail [physicality]. There is an instinctive sense that I can’t pick a fight and that I wouldn’t possess the qualities required to direct a film. Moral strength, courage and intelligence are qualities that aren’t necessarily written on your face. We are also products of our time, and we all feel uneasy when we see that the pilot of a plane is a woman. But it’s true that these prejudices are slowly beginning to disappear. Just ten years ago, no one would take me seriously, and now things have changed dramatically. It’s so fundamental that these attitudes change, since they have caused us to lack respect for half of humanity.
You also have some acting credits under your belt. Would that be among your future pursuits as well?
Acting is definitely something that I adore, but I know my limits. I acted in all of my friends’ films in school, and I enjoy “living” very strong situations in front of the camera. Remember what Björk said about when she was acting [in “Dancer in the Dark”], “You’re living something very strongly but you can’t really act.” [laughs] I live things strongly and I can be very intense, but in a narrow scope. It’s not impossible that with time, I could direct theatre too. I saw a play directed by Arnaud Desplechin called “The Father” at the Comédie-Française in Paris just a few weeks ago, and it was an absolute miracle. But my main objectives as an artist are storytelling, working with actors and cinema.
“Mustang” opens at the Music Box in Chicago on Friday, January 15th. For tickets and showtimes, click here.