Of Horses and Girls...

in 68th Cannes Film Festival

by Müge Turan

After Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or 2014 victory for Winter Sleep, this year there was not much happening in Cannes in terms of Turkish cinema. There was only one feature film running in Directors’ Fortnight: Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut, Mustang. Set in a remote Black Sea village, it is a coming-of-age story of five orphan sisters who give a fight against the social pressure to protect their blossoming female aura. Mustang presents sexual innocence as the source of the dramatic tension. It is a serious and delicate subject, which needs to be treated with sensibility and compassion. The director talked about the oppression of women sexuality, especially how with the growing conservatism in the country, it became a dominant discourse.

How much of you do we find in your characters? Is there a girl you identify with the most?

First of all, the whole opening scene on the beachside where the girls play games in the water is based on my real-life experience. Throughout the film, from small details to dialogues and situations, there are a lot of real things. If it is not my experience, it’s an experience of people who are close to me, or things which I’ve been documenting for the film. For example, the scene at the hospital in the middle of the night, where Selma takes the girl to check her hymen… I learnt that from a local gynaecologist there. He said that they do such virginity tests 50 or 60 times in the wedding season. And also, since I’m the youngest in a family of girls, I share the same point of view. Then there are other personal things. But then, writing the story it got bigger than us. For example, the way the girls and I reacted to certain situations is different. When the mortified grandmother says that sitting on a boy’s shoulders is disgusting, one of the girls responds by saying that the chair she sits on must be evil too, since it touches her asshole. I think their reactions are bigger than life.

Could you say this film in a way is your statement about the conservatism in Turkey?

You can’t start making a film by saying “I am going to make a statement”. But I certainly wanted to touch on the subject of what it is to be a girl or woman in Turkey today. I should say that some things were there before the rise of conservatism in the 90s. Basically Turkey has lived modernity from its early years on, with women granted to vote in the 1930s. There is freedom for women but Turkey is also a patriarchal society with a solid conservative background, which is a bit dominant right now. The actual government is almost always whispering in our ears. They are so vocal in talking on every possible public occasion, so this in a way shapes the society. They set values, which contradict the founding rules of the republic.

How was the scriptwriting process? You collaborated with director and writer Alice Winocour [who also was present in Cannes for her second feature Disorder / Maryland?]

In the beginning I had a storyboard for the film with all the situations and sets. Alice was more like a boxing coach on the side of the ring. She encouraged me a lot and once a week, she read what I wrote. Before that, we both had a project at the Atelier de Cinéfondation in Cannes. And we both worked for years on our first feature projects, which were very big in terms of budget. Just after the workshop, in 2011, she made her film and I got stuck in a bad episode of financing. I had tried everything and was about to give up and say “I’m not gonna make any film ever again”.

She was the one who helped me and said: “Stand up”. She motivated me into writing, put me into this trance where I found myself writing 20 hours a day. I wrote my previous script in three years, and this one was just in two months. So just by talking to her once a week, it came very fast. I wrote all the dialogues. The scene with Yasin belongs to Alice. At that time, I was not in any romantic mood to write anything about flirty relationships.     

How was it to work with girls cast? Did you have difficulties directing children?

We can say there is some kind of unwritten rule about children and non-professionals: you should never take somebody who is not exactly the character, because it might be trouble. But we were free from that mood. I worked with Harika Uygur, a casting director based in Istanbul. She did the auditions of hundreds of scenes with them. That gave us a good idea of who we had in our hands. I was really looking for specific qualities of acting like the way girls listen, their imagination and their drive to act and the level of intensity of what they could propose.

There were scenes to play, very simple things like searching for a lost key in the room – little actions like that. We let them act in front of the camera. We tried all sets of rules and tools to work with. Then it was a question of making a “distribution”. Sometimes, if the girl was great but didn’t quite manage to work with the others, we had to change her. We went through a lot of different combinations. And one day it just clicked, because there are five of them and a lot of diagonal interrelationships play out among themselves. We had three dominant characters. Things had to exist inside the group – a group of five girls.

And then, they also had to be very fluid and we had to create an organic relationship between them. By meeting and talking a lot and then creating trust, you become very intimate. The girls became almost like real-life sisters. They basically became a family. Then we made a workshop before the shooting with the actress Bahar Kerimoglu who also plays in the film. She gave them tips and tricks for acting, and I also showed them a lot films.   

Not only the acting but also the mise-en-scene of the girls has certain choreography in the frame.

You literally look at the frame and compose. There was the notion of one body, five heads, ten arms and ten legs. We had to compose those tableaux one after another. We took our inspiration from hydra, the mythological Greek serpent. It came out strong when the five girls met. Yes, I had written it on paper but when they came together, something else came out. I had to work on different levels and directions. If one girl was coming to the front then the whole scene was changing.

Are you familiar with Sofia Coppola’s film, The Virgin Suicides?

This question was asked several times. I read the book and watched the film years ago. I haven’t been thinking about it while making this film, so hearing that kind of surprised me. Even Alice said that to the press, when she conceptualized the film: “The Virgin Suicides in Turkey”. For me, there are lots of women, hair and femininity, but you don’t know which is which. This could be the common thing in both films.

Could you tell us how it feels like to be in Cannes with your first film?

In the beginning, I thought: “Oh, this is a big honour”. Then it turned into a shower of love. When we showed the film, the reactions were simply crazy. I knew that the audiences in Cannes express themselves during the screening, and it is a bit disconcerting, because a few times people applauded in the middle of the film. But the end was very emotional. It was a big deal. 

Why the title, Mustang?

First of all because the film is all about temper. There is this wildness you can’t tame. Visually, there is also the echo of the hair of the girls, which look like manes of horses. They really look like beautiful, wild horses, and then I thought about that scene from the John Huston’s film The Misfits, where they try to pin the horses to the ground with ropes. Metaphorically, it was very close.

Edited by Richard Mowe