'Mustang' Director on How France's Turkish-Language Oscar Submission Straddles Two Cultures

France: 'Mustang,' Deniz Gamze Erguven
Cohen Media Group

Like the wild horses of the title, five Turkish sisters fight for their independence against a repressive society that wants to tame them into traditional female roles. A surprise choice for France, Mustang comes with strong word of mouth and a string of awards, including Cannes' Label Europa Cinema honor. 

Deniz Gamze Erguven's drama about five sisters got the Cannes seal of approval and defied categorization, as its Turkish-French helmer also resisted being pigeonholed. "I was so tired [of] the object of discussion being my identity."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Mustang is France's submission for the best foreign-language film Oscar, but it's a Turkish-language film that required subtitles in its home country. A coming-of-age drama directed Deniz Gamze Erguven, it didn't lose anything in the translation, though. It claimed the top prize in Directors' Fortnight at Cannes as well a European Film Award along with prizes across Germany, Russia and Bosnia.

The film on Jan. 14 was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar.

The Turkish-French director's first feature, which revolves around five Turkish sisters who increasingly are isolated by their family as they near womanhood, also has managed to avoid the controversy that surrounded French director Jean-Jacques Annaud's Wolf Totem, which was disqualified as China's submission because of its top-heavy French team. Though Mustang was shot in Turkey, the country ponied up just a fraction of the French-German-Turkish co-production's $1.4 million budget. And because Academy rules don't require a film to be in the language of the sub­mitting country, it became eligible for Oscar consideration.

"France has embraced this film from the very first hour," says Erguven, noting that since she is a graduate of the famed La Femis film school, the powers that be in the French film community have watched her grow up. "In terms of who is responsible for the film — France is. The movie wouldn't have existed at all, it wouldn't have been possible [without French support]."

On the other hand, critics in Turkey have complained that Erguven, who spent much of her childhood shuttling back and forth between the two countries while her father worked for the government, is insufficiently Turkish. The film does not adhere to the Turkish telenovela-drama style or its values, say critics, which has resulted in threats on Twitter.

But the 36-year-old filmmaker has not backed down. "I was so tired about the object of discussion not being cinema but my identity. I was like, 'OK guys, I'm foreign.' Some people say I'm not Turkish, and [some say] I'm not French. After a few weeks, I figured it was impossible." She says she never has felt separated from either culture and now simply ignores the question by identifying as a filmmaker with her own worldview and visual language that straddles the two.

"To be in and out and not always feel the constraints you would as a woman in Turkey, it allows me to be able to articulate something about their everyday lives, which is in some ways more emotional," she says.

The title of the film, a nod to the horses that roam the plains of the Western U.S., was inspired by a line in the first draft of the script that compared youngest sister Lale to a wild animal. "As soon as we appropriated the word, it meant something to us," says Erguven of her work with co-writer Alice Winocour. "It became ours, and it became a specific temperament of the girls, a wildness and untamable quality."

The script was written in 2012, before the Turkish government cracked down on freedom of the press and banned Twitter during political protests in 2013. "The film started to resonate completely differently, like [a scene in which] the computers are confiscated obviously had a very different resonance," she says.

While Erguven and her critics "didn't fall into each other's arms and say how much we love each other," she says she has heard from many in Turkey who have taken notice of the rare film that doesn't treat women like objects.

One commenter said the film forced him to notice the predominance of male-oriented stories on Turkish screens for the first time and called that "embarrassing for us." Adds Erguven, "It's been an interesting debate."

Jan 14, 7 a.m. Updated with the news of the film’s nomination for the 2016 Oscars.