Academy Screenings: Writer-director Deniz Gamze Erguven discusses making ‘Mustang’

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
'Mustang' will play Wednesday at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Mustang’ at Academy Screenings

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Wednesday, Dec. 30, 5:30 p.m.

How much: $20/GA; $15 Aspen Film members; Free/AMPAS, BFTA, guild members

Tickets: Harris Concert Hall and Wheeler Opera House box offices;

Five sisters in a seaside Turkish town are confined to their grandmother’s house in “Mustang,” the phenomenal feature-film debut by director Deniz Gamze Erguven.

In the film, the girls unwittingly break the society’s conservative code of conduct for young women by playing in the water with a group of boys and riding on their shoulders. They’re quickly locked down at home, given virginity tests and prepared for marriage in what becomes a “wife factory.”

The incident on the beach was adapted from a similar one in the filmmaker’s life. Erguven, who now lives in France, co-wrote the script based on her own experiences as a young woman in Turkey.

“I wanted to say what it is to be a woman in Turkey,” she said in a recent phone interview. “What I wanted to tackle was the permanent sexualization of women, which happens at a very early age, exactly as it does with the characters in the film.”

“Mustang,” which plays today at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings, has been nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and is one of nine on the shortlist for the Oscar prize.

“There’s a moment where everything, every action, every piece of exposed skin, is perceived as something sexual,” Erguven said. “And for me, that was the key point which articulated the place of women in Turkish society, and that needed to be questioned and discussed.”

The film premiered at Cannes earlier this year and has earned widespread global acclaim. While the circumstances of “Mustang” may be specific to Turkey and to Erguven’s experience, repression of women is nearly a cultural universal. The young director was surprised at the reach of “Mustang” beyond Turkey.

“The first day we showed it at Cannes, there were women from countries with no geographical, cultural, political intersection with Turkey saying, ‘Yes, this is exactly what we experience in South Korea, in Israel, in many other countries,’” she said.

The five sisters — played by Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan and Gunes Sensoy — operate like a single being in much of the film. Despite their harsh home environment, they’re effervescent with the irrepressible spirit of youth. Their buoyant performances help bring light into a story that could otherwise have become a grim slog. Erguven’s sometimes playful style accentuates this — a scene where the girls sneak away to attend a soccer match is one of the most joyful things you’ll see on screen this year. The story often plays out, visually and storywise, like a fairy tale.

Casting the sisters (only one of whom had previous acting experience) took several months of trying out actresses in various quintets and trying to find the right chemistry between them, Erguven said.

“I always saw the girls as one character with five heads,” she explained. “We saw thousands of girls. It was impossible to cast without having a combination that worked perfectly together.”