Entertainment & Arts

Mustang movie channels female 'power'

Mustang Image copyright Artificial Eye
Image caption The five actresses playing the film's sisters were found through advertising

A family wants to find husbands for their five daughters - but this is no Pride and Prejudice. Instead, the storyline of Turkish-French movie Mustang, a first feature film by director Deniz Gamze Erguven, turns the desire to marry off the teenage sisters into a psychological thriller set in modern-day Turkey.

The film, nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe, won five Cesar Awards in France and 2015's Lux Prize - a cultural trophy given annually by the European Parliament to films tackling issues of social debate.

After the five girls are caught playing on a beach with local boys, their home turns into a prison, with bars on the windows, they are withdrawn from school, dressed conservatively, and marriages are arranged so no more "shame" is brought on the family.

However, the youngest girl, Lale, is determined not to lose her freedom, and she and her sisters begin to fight back.

Erguven, who was born in Turkey but now lives in France, says the emancipation of women has always stirred her - her first short film in 2006, Bir Damla Su, was the story of a Turkish woman, played by the director herself, rebelling against the male authority figures in her community.

She describes how the opening scene on the beach in Mustang was based upon her own life, saying "stories about Turkey particularly engage me because I still have family there and the region is just buzzing".

"I wanted to talk about the condition of women in modern-day Turkey," she says.

"Whenever I'm back, I feel a form of restriction.

"Femininity is reduced to sexuality.

"Everything that a woman or a teenage girl does seems to have sexual connotations.

"In some schools, boys and girls aren't even allowed to use the same staircases in case they come into contact with each other.

"This separation just leads to everything coming back to sex.

"Turkey was actually one of the first countries in the world to give women the vote, and the situation makes me sad."

Image copyright Artificial Eye
Image caption The sisters are made virtual prisoners by their family

However, the film's producer, Frank Henschke, says: "There is a conservative government right now, but some parts of society, particularly in the cities, are incredibly liberal.

"There is not one truth, and, at the end of the day, this is a feature film, not a documentary - it is not every Turkish girl's experience, and there is a lightness of touch to it, despite the subject matter.

"When Mustang was released in Turkey there were some people who loved it and some people who hated it. Deniz got a lot of abuse on social media from people telling her that she wasn't Turkish anymore, they compared her to Edward Snowden, implying she was a traitor. But the reaction is across a broad spectrum, it's exactly as you'd expect from a big country where there is a lot of social change.

"Of all the prizes we won - and being nominated for an Oscar was so wonderful and unexpected - the Lux Prize in Strasbourg was possibly the most valuable. It meant that the film was translated into every language in Europe, and so suddenly there was this possibility that everyone in the EU could see and understand the film, and we could provoke a discussion."

The film was shot 600km north of Istanbul at Inebolu on the Black Sea. The director, who was four months pregnant during the shoot, found her five teenage actresses through advertising.

Only one of them, Elit Iisscan, had any professional experience. The others, Tugba Sungurogglu, Guness Sensoy, Doga Doguslu and Ilayda Akdogan, Erguven describes as "coming together and it being love at first sight".

"The girls are all designed to move together and behave as a single organic being - like the five-headed Hydra of mythology.

Image copyright Artificial Eye
Image caption The director says the current debate about diversity and female empowerment meant her "little creation created a lot of talk" in Hollywood

"I called the film Mustang as it means a wild horse. They are five spirited heroines and they gallop together as one. Really, they are who I dream of being."

The director says she wasn't influenced by Sofia Coppola's film The Virgin Suicides, another story of five adolescent girls sheltered by their parents, but comparisons have been made.

But Henschke says Hollywood was intrigued by a film that combined five female lead actresses with a female director and another female co-writer - a French director Alice Winacour, who herself recently made the film Disorder.

"Mustang was all about what you would call 'girl power'," laughs Henschke. "I'm proud that we helped Deniz make it happen. And really, when the discussion in Hollywood is so focused on diversity and how to empower women in the movies, and we turned up with our little creation, it created a lot of talk."

That is precisely what Erguven wants to provoke. "I know for many around the world this will feel quite exotic. So I just look forward to all the reactions - I just want to make people think, and then open up doors in Turkey, and anywhere where I feel women's voices aren't fully heard."

Mustang is released in the UK on 13 May.