LOS ANGELES (AP) — Foreign film Oscar contender “Mustang” is a Turkish-language film from a Turkish-born director that was filmed in Turkey and tells a distinctly Turkish story with Turkish actresses. But it was not Turkey that submitted the film for consideration for the Academy Awards — it was France.
For “Mustang” director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, it makes sense. She was born in Turkey, but raised mainly in France. France was also where she was educated in cinema, and the country has supported the film — her first — from the start, choosing it as an official Directors’ Fortnight selection at the Cannes Film Festival.
“There were some discussions about whether it would be Turkey’s entry,” Ergüven said. “The fact that it was supported by France is a great message of embracing the French identity with all its diversity.”
The Academy in 2006 changed its rules to allow for countries to submit films that aren’t in their native language, as long as the film played theatrically in the country. But it also reflects something bigger about the inherent complexities in tethering a foreign film to a particular country.
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Indeed, the film, which tells the story of five young sisters coming of age in a provincial town on the Black Sea, has proven to be quite divisive in Turkey, too, for placing such a poignant spotlight on the oppression of its women.
The girls in “Mustang” are essentially put under house arrest by their conservative uncle after they cause a minor scandal by playfully frolicking in the sea with a group of boys, and sitting on their necks in a game of chicken. The adults in their world see the act as disgusting and worthy of drastic punishment.
“The reception of the film is as polarized as the country (Turkey). There are people who love it and people who hate it,” Ergüven said. “The more people go, the more people debate about it. In the beginning it was a very simple emotional reaction — ‘I love it’ or ‘I hate it.’ And now people are taking the ideas and it looks like the conflict in the film.”
Ergüven empathizes with the passionate reactions from her birth country, knowing keenly how precisely a filmed depiction of a country can impact its global reputation. “Midnight Express,” she recalled, set a terrible precedent.
“Turkish people look very closely into how you represent the country and I guess they wanted to have more of a film that looked like a postcard,” said Ergüven.
But the story in “Mustang” represents a truth about the country and the situation for girls there that she needed to tell.
“We’ve always heard the stories and we know what happens in Turkey,” said actress Ilayda Akdogan, who plays Sonay — one of the older sisters. “We’re not living the same things as the girls but we have some experiences from society and it’s really important to show these girls.”
The scene at the beach is rooted in a specific memory from Ergüven, but in the film she chooses to let her characters react with courage and insight, throwing the absurd logic of their elders back at them by destroying the chairs in their house because of the body parts that have touched the seats.
“They are superheroes,” Ergüven said. “They have the capacity of inciting hope and courage.”
Since its premiere at Cannes, the film has played around the world and resonated with women in distant cultures and countries from Russia to South America in ways that Ergüven and her actresses could have never expected.
“Mustang” also recently won best picture at the Lumiere Awards, France’s equivalent of the Golden Globe Awards.
The film continues to make waves in the final countdown to the Oscars on Feb. 28 where it will compete against Colombia’s “Embrace of the Serpent,” Hungary’s “Son of Saul,” Jordan’s “Theeb,” and Denmark’s “A War.”
At this year’s Oscars, Ergüven also has the distinction of being the only female director nominated for a narrative feature. She’s used to being alone in that respect, but is excited that the conversation about diversity and representation has amplified in recent years.
“We’re missing the perspective of half of humanity,” she said. “Diversity makes us smarter, all of us. It adds perspective, it adds complexity and understanding and it generates compassion and we’re missing all of that. It’s not just a question of figures and numbers.”
For now, Ergüven is continuing work on a film about the L.A. riots that she’s been toying with since before “Mustang,” and enjoying the final stretch of the experience of this little, personal film with a big global impact, regardless of whose name is called on Feb. 28.
“It looks like the end of the fireworks,” she said.