After a long school day, a crew of young girls takes a detour to a nearby beach before heading home. With their uniform skirts and blouses on, they wrap their neckties around their heads like warriors and splash confidently in the sea. They mount the shoulders of their boy classmates for a game of chicken; they wrestle and topple and argue over who really won the hard-fought battle.
Giddy from the game, they stroll home, where punishment for their free-spirited actions awaits. A well-meaning grandmother and socially conservative uncle -- the girls' caretakers after the unexplained death of their parents -- yell, beat and ground the young women for allegedly tempting their male peers. It’s the first in a series of increasingly stifling events that kick off director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Academy Award-nominated film, “Mustang,” a story about five sisters in Eastern Turkey who confront the oppressive gender structures that confine their small town.
The opening scene -- along with other gritty anecdotes from the film -- is plucked directly from Ergüven’s own life in Turkey, before she immigrated to France as a young girl. Of the film’s deeply personal approach, she said plainly in an interview with The Huffington Post, “It wasn’t so creative. It was my point of view.”
Creative or not, Ergüven’s decision to frame the entire movie from the vantage point of a courageous young girl watching her older sisters’ rough stumble into womanhood is unique. Of the 23 feature-length films nominated for Oscars this year -- eight in the Best Picture category, five documentaries, five animated films, and five foreign language films -- “Mustang” is one of two directed by women. (The doc "What Happened, Miss Simone?" is the second.)
“For me, it’s very important to look at the world through the eyes of girls. In cinema history we have always been looking at the world through the eyes of men,” Ergüven said. “For some men, if they don’t have sisters, they really can see women as objects.”
To prepare her crew of young women actresses for the roles they’d play in “Mustang” -- strong, playful, sexually explorative, rebellious women reluctantly allowing their grandmother to marry them off -- Ergüven gave them assignments. They watched Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita,” Benh Zietlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” which the girls found “boring,” aside from a scene where the protagonists witness blunt, unedited sex.
“In Turkey they cut most of the sex scenes, so the girls never saw something like this and all of a sudden I heard them shout 'ahhhh!'” Ergüven said.
Censorship of sex scenes isn’t the only evidence of what Ergüven calls a backwards sort of patriarchy in Turkey. She spoke with me about Turkish men in positions of power whose ideals are ostensibly conservative, but in their conservatism are also sex-obsessed.
“For example, school directors are saying girls and boys should not take the same staircases,” Ergüven said. “Because there’s something so sexual happening at 8 o’clock in the morning when you go to math class, as you know,” she added sarcastically. She was referring to a 2013 incident in which an interim school director in Trabzon, a smaller city in Eastern Turkey, said unsegregated stairways were worrisome. His comment roiled the public, and caused a quick, fiery backlash.
But, Ergüven emphasized, these events aren’t restricted to rural Turkey. Istanbul and the country’s capital, Ankara, have their share of discriminatory norms. One notable scene from the film is culled from the director’s conversations with a doctor in Ankara. In it, the parents of a recently married groom bring the couples’ just-used bedsheets to a hospital, questioning whether it’s possible for the girl to have been a virgin if the sheets aren’t bloody. Ergüven said the occurrence is common during wedding season.
So, while she takes pains to accurately illustrate the realities young Turkish women must face, she also sees it as essential to flip the script, to write women characters who exhibit qualities like strength, courage, intelligence and resilience.
The girls in “Mustang” -- particularly the youngest, Lale -- climb, curse, light furniture on fire, and escape the confines of their prison-like home whenever possible. But they are also unabashedly girlish. They call each other lovingly disparaging names, they giggle about crushes, they laze around in their swimsuits. Ergüven is at her strongest here, bringing to life the intimate moments shared between young women. She says she has her keen memory to thank, for storing away the details that make up the texture of a feminine life.
“It’s so funny the things you say inside of a sisterhood,” Ergüven said. “'Who has one boob that’s bigger than the other? Your ass is fatter.' There’s all that ping-ponging that’s very prevalent. It’s part of my intimate experience.”
These candid, fluid conversations are juxtaposed in the film by strident opinions held by men speaking on TV and the radio -- unwritten laws that all women citizens should abide by, including a ban on public laughter. Ergüven said that, unsurprisingly, much of the debate surrounding her film in Turkey mirrored the language the male authorities use in the film itself.
“People love it or hate it,” she said. “Most of the debate is articulated exactly as the one inside the film. Most people would say, 'yeah, I can’t stand seeing the girls in their bathing suits.'”
To confront decriers, in Turkey and beyond, Ergüven says the best she can do is continue to make films that portray feminine strength. Although hers is among a small minority of Oscar-nominated movies directed by a woman, she says the Academy is not wholly to blame. Awards season, she says, holds a mirror to what’s happening in the industry. For her, boycotting festivals and awards shows that lack diversity or gender equity isn’t an option.
“If you’re nominated you’re part of a minority,” Ergüven said. “Boycotting muzzles yourself.”
Writing and directing a film about young girls’ suppressed sexuality, on the other hand, is a freeing experience and a catalyst for change. And if that film goes on to rack up award nominations in a male-dominated field -- well, that’s even better.
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