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is this film the turkish virgin suicides?

Whilst exploring girlhood, Deniz Gamze Erguven's new film Mustang tackles coming-of-age in conservative Turkey.

by Oliver Lunn
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10 May 2016, 11:40am

Deniz Gamze Ergüven's Oscar-nominated drama Mustang tells the story of five sisters navigating the choppy waters of adolescence. Plotline alone, it's no surprise the film has drawn comparisons to The Virgin Suicides. Spending long summer days locked up inside against their will, dreaming of the outside world, of boys, of dancing, of having fun, you could even be forgiven for thinking: Is this a Virgin Suicides remake?

But beyond the lens flare and pastel hues, the similarities end here. For a start Mustang is set in conservative Turkey - a country whose president uttered the actual words "You cannot put women and men on an equal footing." Meaning growing up as a girl there is nothing like growing up as a girl in middle-class suburbia, no matter how fucked up your parents are. The girls are essentially punished for being girls, for splashing in the sea with boys, for wearing clothes that don't cover every inch of their body. If that wasn't enough, one by one they're married off to men they've never met, and in some cases, subjected to 'virginity reports' to certify that they're still 'pure'.

Needless to say this coming-of-ager delivers a punch to your gut - if it doesn't move you, check your pulse. That's credit to first-time filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who had the audacity to tell this personal story about women in her country. We sat down with the sure-footed director to talk about adolescence, arranged marriages, how being pregnant during production helped her make the film, and what she thinks of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

This is clearly a personal story; what made you passionate about telling it?
Well, I was zooming into what it is to be a woman in Turkey, and the main point I felt very strongly: this filter of sexualisation through which women are perceived in Turkey, how it shapes everything they are and everything they do.

It started off with all these anecdotes from my family; for example, the little scandal that the girls trigger at the beginning of the film [when they girls are punished for playing in the sea with boys]. Basically in Turkey there's this age - which starts very early, before you're a teenager - where you're signaled, like, 'okay, your childhood is over'. Yet you're still a child in your mind. I remember being a kid in a supermarket and pushing a cart like crazy, and I jumped on it and rode it through the aisles. Then, because I was bending over, somebody said, 'you can't stand like that with your bottom!'

How old were you then?
Around 12, the same age as the girls. That's when it happens. Yet I was still thinking about pushing that cart as fast as I could [laughs].

Did you hear upsetting stories about young girls and arranged marriages?
When I was a teenager all my family was in Turkey, the film is our experiences and some of my mother's and her sister's. Some real-life people merged into one character, or one real-life person gave birth to two characters, things like that. For example, the girls beaten in order of their age - that was in my mother's generation. My grandmother used to beat my mother's elder sister, then my mother, so they could hear what was happening, what was going to happen to them before it happened.

You had five young female actresses on location; did people's heads turn in the town?
Well, I didn't share the script with anyone. For a year and a half I went to the region where we were going to film, and I was under the radar. I didn't explain anything to anyone. Then one day I went with a little team, and it was a very small town. If you sneezed there everyone would know. But by the time we were about to shoot, people respected what I was doing. There was a natural sense of authority: if you're about to shoot a film then you're holding together the money, the teams, the script.

But it wasn't smooth sailing, was it?
No. A lot had happened. I had been abandoned three weeks before the initial shooting date by a producer, because it was under-financed and they only discovered it days before production began. We were almost left for dead. Plus I had learned that I was pregnant. After a point, nobody would mess with me on small issues. Even if it was a very conservative region where you have family restaurants where women go upstairs to eat and men are downstairs, I just ate downstairs. I couldn't take the gender thing.

Did being pregnant during production add to the challenge?
On the contrary. At the beginning I was frightened, because I remember not being able to drive a car; it was hard to wake up. But then, first of all it allowed me to be very demanding with everyone, like, 'If I can put up with it then you can!' And everyone was like, 'Okay then'. And then you're not allowed to stress at all, and it makes you very cold-blooded.

The so-called "virginity reports", where a family would ask a doctor to certify that their daughter was still a virgin, were shocking. Are they a real thing in Turkey?
That's a real thing. That's something a doctor from a public hospital told me. He said it wasn't something he saw once in his life, it's something he sees 40, 50 times a year. So just like cops here would say, 'okay it's New Year's Eve, we're gonna see plenty of drunkards', he would just know that on Friday and Saturday nights - because people would get married on the weekend - they were gonna see those. He said you'd see guys in their suits, women in dresses with their make up running, their hair all messed up.

It's drawn comparisons to The Virgin Suicides, which was also about five sisters. Is that just a coincidence or were you partly inspired by that?
Of course I've read the book and seen the film, and that has come up. And it's like, we had a structure that was a bit like dominoes: the path of each girl is made almost in opposition to the previous one, so it was structured as five, it had to be. And that's it.

So Sofia Coppola's film didn't have an impact on you?
Not a conscious one, at least. I'm disappointed that people haven't noticed parallels in the film that I've literally been articulating. For example, The Three Sisters by Chekhov.

Lastly, how do you feel about Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?
He's awful. He says it openly - women are not equal - and he's setting the tone for what he would expect from women, and his government are extremely vocal on the subject. It goes from big ideas through to micromanagement of everybody's life. Like, 'Women should have three, four, five children, women should stay at home, women shouldn't be outside when they're pregnant, women shouldn't laugh in public.' It goes on and on and on.

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Text Oliver Lunn