'Mustang' is a stirring tale of girlhood

Fresh from its nomination at the Oscars, ‘Mustang’ opens the Cork French Film festival, writes Helen Barlow

'Mustang' is a stirring tale of girlhood

AFTER her stunning directing debut Mustang in Cannes last year, Deniz Gamze Ergüven was hailed as the Turkish Sofia Coppola. While the 37-year-old might share a certain youthfulness and beauty with the American director, and a talent for directing young women, the comparison is not quite right.

Where Coppola’s sisters in her 1999 film The Virgin Suicides were depressed and doomed, Ergüven — in the opening offering of the Cork French Film Festival — presents five self-possessed siblings who fight against the restrictions that have been enforced upon them after innocently playing with boys on a beach in contemporary Turkey.

They have their mobile phones and computers confiscated, they are locked in a house that is boarded up and one by one they are forced into arranged marriages. In many ways, Mustang, named after the wild horses with long manes like the girls themselves, is a jailbreak drama.

“The thing the girls want is very simple,” explains Ergüven, “it’s freedom. When you see them in the film it’s difficult not to have empathy with them and I guess even people who find problems with this film can find empathy.”

Needless to say, Ergüven has been bombarded with women telling of similar repression, arranged marriages and sexual abuse, from around the world, from Korea to Sweden.

“The film is more universal than I would have thought,” she admits, and the film was among those nominated for the best foreign language Oscar on Sunday.

That the film should achieve such success as a French production when it was shot in Turkish, in a Turkish Black Sea village near where Ergüven’s paternal grandmother was born, and with a Turkish cast, may seem a little odd.

Yet the film was developed, produced, and financed in France.

“Mustang has been completely embraced by France,” Ergüven explained more recently. “It’s a way of them embracing me as French with different origins, accepting the complexity of my culture and my identity.”

The daughter of a diplomat, Ergüven had moved to Paris as a baby and had only spent a few years in Turkey between the ages of nine and ten with her family before she returned to France with her mum.

She was educated at international schools and studied for a master’s degree in South Africa. Only realising her passion for movie-making at the age of 20, she went on to study at the prestigious French film school, La Fémis.

She became determined to make an American film, spending more than three years in Los Angeles developing a film called Kings about the LA riots, though failed to get it off the ground. Instead, she proceeded with Mustang.

She had written a treatment and co-wrote the screenplay with Alice Winocour, who would go on to make her own film, 2012’s Augustine, in which Ergüven would appear. Ultimately Ergüven was given the go-ahead for Mustang.

“It reassured people because unlike Kings, which was about five days in LA without laws, the characters are so close to me and they thought that I knew what I was doing.”

A scene from ‘Mustang’.
A scene from ‘Mustang’.

How did she cast the girls? “It took months. I saw hundreds and hundreds of actresses and it was really about having the right combination. Then one day it just clicked and the group started living and breathing like one body.

“I always thought about the film in a way that the five girls were like one body with five heads. In some ways, it’s like this little monster with ten arms and ten legs.”

It was important to have humour in there too. “I really didn’t want to portray the girls as victims. It was very important for me to have powerful female figures. They had to be solid, full of life and joy, and even if this contests things in Turkish society, they had to be figures of youth, who others could aspire to. I think about them as being like James Dean.

“He was a figure opposing the status quo and bought this image of youth and beauty and strength that people could identify with.”

Afraid to say too much about herself because of the sensitive nature of her film, Ergüven today does not reveal her religion or the nationality of her husband, though she is admittedly content as the mother of a bouncey boy.

Ergüven had been the youngest in her family and appreciates that the youngest can learn from their siblings and lash out more, as Lale does in the film. “She is building from their experience. She is the hope for the future, I think.”

Turkey has not always been as conservative as it is now, Ergüven notes. “There have really been some very modern peaks. Women voted as early as the 1930s but at the same time it’s always been very patriarchal and quite conservative. Nowadays it’s becoming more and more conservative.

“While you have very free women in Turkey, you also have women who are very much victims of honour crimes and arranged weddings and have all sorts of limitations to their freedom.”

Mustang opens the Cork French Film Festival on Sunday at the Gate

Other highlights of the Cork French Film Festival


Gate Cinema, Monday, 9pm

Nicolas Saada will be in Cork to introduce his take on the terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal, Mumbai, as told from the perspective of a teenage girl trapped in the hotel. The French director will also present a masterclass at University College Cork on Wednesday, March 9.


English Market, Wednesday, March 9

The culinary classic from 1987 features French woman Babette who spends her lottery winning on ingredients for a feast in a rural Danish community after the 1871 revolution. It will be accompanied by a three-course supper and a French accordionist. €38


Ballymaloe Grainstore, Thursday, March 10

More foodie fare here as the latest film from Helen Mirren, right, is accompanied by a four-course candlelit supper inspired by cuisine from the movie. (€55 for supper and screening/€10 for screening only).


Gate Cinema, Saturday, 9pm

Last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes tells the story of a veteran Tamil Tiger trying to return to civilian life as an immigrant in the suburbs of Paris. Director Jacques Audiard has also impressed with previous festival favourite, A Prophet.

See www.corkfrenchfilmfestival.com

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