Oscars 2016: The Only Nominated Female Director Talks

Deniz Gamze Ergüven, the director of Mustang, on being the only female director up for an award for a narrative film.


For a long time, it seemed like Mustang was a film that would never be made. Set in a lush Turkish village on the Black Sea, the five youthful, wild sisters at its heart have as much of a hold on the local boys as the Lisbon girls do in The Virgin Suicides. And, though it is no fault of their own, their allure becomes the sisters’ downfall in their conservative Muslim society. The controversial story and its message of freedom made it even harder for first-time filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, a woman director working in Turkey, to pull off. Partly raised in Paris, Ergüven learned today that Mustang was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, as France’s entry.

Congratulations! Are you in Paris right now? Yes.

So you didn’t get to wake up to good news, only to anxiety. No, I didn’t. I’ve only had like 16 heart attacks since last night. I’ve been completely awake. It’s an absolute honor, and the nomination gives us resonance that is extremely powerful. The reception of the film is very … muscular in its homeland, Turkey. There is this strategy to undermine our legitimacy by depicting us as just six girls talking lightly about freedom. This nomination gives us some backup power and strength.

Have you talked to your five stars yet? Yes. [laughs] We have this messaging group that is just continuous. So we were just sending each other pictures; I don’t know how may good luck charms I got. And this time, unlike the Globes, when we were the fourth film announced in our category—which to be honest my heart is weaker for—this time we were second. So it came quite fast. Now I am completely unaware of the other films on the list. [laughs]

The film came out here in the U.S. almost immediately following the Paris bombings in November. Considering the year France has had, it seems a very strong choice as their Oscars entry not just artistically but politically. Yes. Well, the thing is since October there have also been bombings in Ankara, in Paris, in Beirut. There was another bombing in Istanbul just yesterday. [There was also an assault on Jakarta today.] I don’t yet have an articulate point of view other than just being appalled and frightened and in despair at these events. In Turkey, where they are trying to sign a petition for peace, you are told that to express yourself is to make a mistake.

You’ve said that the election of President Erdoğan was on your mind when you were writing the film. Yes, I did! After I said that to the New York Times, I had many unsympathetic threats on the Internet. [nervously laughs] Maybe I shouldn’t say that every day, but yes. It’s a moment in Turkey where the debate is very saturated. Anybody who thinks or questions is attacked. Can Dündar, the editor of Turkey’s biggest newspaper, is in jail. It’s very dark days.

Do you know how the film’s nomination is being received in Turkey? Honestly, I’ve been on the phone since I saw the news so I don’t know. But it was strongly attacked in the beginning. And every time we gained some momentum, it was discredited. They don’t attack you on any specific points; it’s an attack that is aimed to de-legitimize anything you say. For example, Can Dündar has been called every possible name: a terrorist, an enemy of the nation. And he’s probably the journalist with the most moral backbone. Turkey is the country with the most journalists imprisoned in the world, even more than China. And Erdoğan said in a speech this very week how journalists are important to democracy, how we should let them speak! It’s like we’re walking on our heads.

So there was no way in the world that exists today that Turkey could’ve claimed this film as their own? No, it didn’t happen that way. The feeling there has been uneasy to this point: It’s like, “Okay, we’re not going to do anything against the film, but we’re not fine with it, either.”

On the other hand, it’s a strong statement for France, especially right now. Yes it is. There are some baffling ideas in Europe right now, some right-wing ideas that prevail, and standing behind this film is a way of saying France stands behind what it is today with our diversity.

On the subject of diversity, you are the only female narrative director nominated this year. [Lis Garbus’ What Happened Miss Simone? was nominated in the Best Documentary category; Nomi Talisman, Courtney Marsh, Dee Hibbert-Jones, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy were among the nominees for Best Documentary Short-Subject] It’s true it feels a little lonely. It’s not just the selection committee; it’s a product of our time. We’ve come a long way, but I still have a hard time gaining anyone’s trust as woman director. I’ve been on a lot of panels lately leading up to the Globes and the Oscars with my fellow male directors. I adore them, but they are very male, with dominant body language: legs spread, hands behind their heads. I don’t have that. I have a soft voice, clothes with flowers. It gives this idea of fragility that is not true. I’m strong, but you might not imagine that at face value.

They might have a better idea if they knew what you went through to get the film made. Yeah, honestly it was quite a fight.

Not just as a woman filming in Turkey, but a pregnant woman. Yes! The producer dumped the film three weeks before shooting. I had found out I was pregnant just one week before that.

She dumped it because she thought a pregnant woman shouldn’t be out of the house? Yeah. She sent a letter to everyone on the film saying that I was pregnant. And she’s a woman!

I imagined you already had a speech prepared from when Mustang was nominated at the Globes. Are you basically going to just use that one since you didn’t get to deliver it? No. From where we stand in the world, the Oscars is the one and only universal tribute. Along with Cannes.

Will the five girls be attending? Of course! I was very alone at the Globes, but we’ll be all together at the Oscars.

I predict they will rule the red carpet. They are a riot. They’ve internalized the values of the film as their own. They act like hardened criminals of an elementary school. Wherever they go, on the red carpet they climb on top of each other, they race. They are quite untameable.

Photos: Oscars 2016: The Only Nominated Female Director Talks

Deniz Gamze Erguven. Photo courtesy The Coveteur/Trunk Archive.

The cast of Mustang photographed by Caitlin Cronenberg.

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg.

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg.

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg.

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg.

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg.