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An FP Conversation: Love, Sex, and Growing Up in a Regressive Turkey

Foreign Policy spoke with Deniz Gamze Erguven, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker whose movie Mustang explores the lives of five teenage sisters in Turkey.

attends The Hollywood Reporter's 4th Annual Nominees Night at Spago on February 8, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.
attends The Hollywood Reporter's 4th Annual Nominees Night at Spago on February 8, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.

It’s the last day of the school year in northern Turkey, and five orphaned adolescent sisters decide to walk home along the beach instead of taking the bus. But when their old, conservative neighbor sees them playing in the ocean with their male classmates, she tells their grandmother and uncle they were being lewd — an interpretation of their innocent game that quickly redefines their existence in the shared family home.

That opening scene in Mustang, France’s foreign film submission to the Oscars, is — like much of the 97-minute movie — based on director Deniz Gamze Erguven’s childhood experiences. Erguven, 37, grew up between France and Turkey, navigating the intricacies of a conservative Turkish family alongside her sister and a group of tight-knit female cousins.

Her first-hand experience is tangible in the film’s characters, who are repeatedly restricted, forced to dress conservatively, and ultimately become confined to their grandmother’s home, where the elder ones are sexually abused by their uncle. Fences are built, windows are locked, and their small tastes of freedom earn them further punishment when they’re caught trying to sneak out. Their loving grandmother, trapped between a desire to advocate for their freedom but also keep them pure and protect them from their uncle, sees only one option: to marry them off.

The film, which is set between 2013 and 2014, is much more than a beautifully shot reflection on love, sex, adolescence, and bonds between sisters. It’s a glimpse into modern Turkey, and the changing role of women in a society that many fear is regressing under conservative rule.

Mustang is one of five finalists for the foreign film category at the Academy Awards, which will be presented in Hollywood, California on Feb. 28.

FP spoke with Erguven by phone this month. Read the condensed interview below:

Some of what the girls experienced in the film was based on experiences you had yourself, or witnessed as a child. How did those anecdotes change on screen?

A lot of it is really something that we, the girls and sisters and cousins of my family, had lived with. One big difference was that our reaction was of course not to say anything, to look at our shoes. So in the film, to start by breaking down that behavior meant there was something very heroic in the way the characters went through very familiar situations to me. It transcended some situations which were truthful and we tried to instill a lot of courage in quite a gloomy context.

This is the French foreign film submission, but it really is in so many ways a Turkish film. What do Turkish viewers think about it?

The film was very much attacked and polarized in Turkey, and that criticism articulates itself very closely to the content of the film. People are seeing the bodies of these girls and asking how we could expose them so much. The answer is that if you looked at them as though they were children then maybe you wouldn’t see things like that.

Again and again, the youngest sister, Lale, has to take on the role of an adult in the family, even if she doesn’t quite understand what’s happening. And the other sisters seem to really respect her too — they don’t just push her away. What inspired that strength in such a young character?

I’m the youngest in a family which has girls and women of two generations. I almost had the same point of view as her, and there’s something very emotive that came over and over again in how the five move together. She’s the one who has the point of view of seeing the dead-end roads that can happen and who manages each time to recompose the other ones so they can refine their strategy.

Considering this was in some ways based on experiences in your family, what was their reaction when they saw the film?

Well, the thing is, I lost my father, so the people who saw the movie were mainly the women of the family. They were very moved by it and specifically the ones closest to the story. It changed our relations in a way.  The houses were similarly strict, and the film allowed them to see the world through the eyes of someone else. We share the same reality, the same very close lines, and to see someone so close to yourself is very moving, I think.

The husband of my sister, for example, he immediately recognized his wife because the eldest character is a mixture of my elder sister and my mother’s elder sister, so my brother-in-law had read the script and he knew that was his wife.

There is a lot of concern that in recent years Turkey has walked back on freedom and regressed on women’s rights. Has the Turkish government responded to the film, and how its characters challenge some traditional values President Erdogan seems eager to reinstate?

We actually haven’t really been on their radar. It’s a very troubled time right now. Democracy is completely waning, and it’s very stressful. We have a government that is using a lot of intimidation toward any kind of opposition with so many journalists in prison; it seems like anybody who says anything can get in trouble. It’s really dark times and people talk less and less, and having a film like this that has a such a strong signal is important.

You’re living mainly in France. Does that mean you don’t have to deal with those repercussions as much?

Not being in Turkey makes me a kind of tribune, in that I feel obliged to be vocal. Someone I know from the Turkish Embassy in Paris was telling me ‘You’re always talking badly about the country,’ but in my mind, it’s not a question of talking badly. It’s like this national feeling, a feeling of being inside this family, and if you question anything or say anything about a political figure, it’s like saying a bad thing about your father. But for me it’s very, very important right now to speak up, because really we are losing freedom. It spotlights such an important subject at a moment when Turkey is going through such difficult times. It’s a huge responsibility.

Photo Credit: Mike Windle/Getty Images

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