Liz Garbus and Deniz Gamze Erguven on Oscars Diversity and Being the Only Nominated Female Directors

The filmmakers behind 'What Happened, Miss Simone?' and 'Mustang' say it's about more than what's in the envelope.

With the media eye trained on a lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations this year, one notable fact is that only two female feature directors were on the list: Liz Garbus (Netflix documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?”) and Deniz Gamze Ergüven (French foreign-language nominee “Mustang”).

It should be mentioned — and you could certainly parse the numbers — that there was an overall uptick in the number of women nominated across the board this year, more than in any of the last five years, in any case. Five of the year’s best picture nominees have female producers (not all that uncommon in the category, actually), while four of the 10 screenplays nominated were written by women (including Emma Donoghue’s first-ever nomination for a woman adapting her own source material, “Room”).

But Garbus and Ergüven’s exclusive club this time around reminds that women still struggle for inclusion in the director’s chair. There are a few categories that do tend to be more welcoming, notably shorts (three nominees this year) and documentary fields, but Garbus has a theory as to why that is.

“I think the cynical view, which I have, is that perhaps documentaries, being lower budget, are more open to diverse voices,” she says. “But I think what happens when we get into the much broader community, and certainly Hollywood — who’s getting the opportunities and who’s getting the budgets and whose films are getting promoted? I think it’s something to look at.”

“Miss Simone” particularly stands out in a year marked by strong female characters, a complex portrait of a complex persona. Garbus’ film was the first commissioned by Netflix as opposed to picking it up during an acquisitions process. “The fact that a film about a black power icon and really controversial artist was one of their first films is something that makes me feel enormously inspired about the kind of content that they’re getting behind,” she says.

During the making of the film, Garbus says she ended up feeling an unexpected connection to the enigmatic singer. She was granted precious access to Simone’s various diaries and notebooks, which provided rich fodder for the film but also opened the director’s eyes to a whole new understanding of her subject.

“Of course, we present a complex portrait of her parenting, but we found notes — and we showed this in the film — about her thinking about her daughter’s clothes and what would she be wearing and did she eat healthy and just those kinds of obsessive notes of a working mother who is on the road,” Garbus says. “As a working mother who’s on the road a lot, I really related to them. It’s something that is a big part of my life, so then to actually see that in her was a really interesting connection.”

Ergüven’s film, meanwhile, is particularly resonant in a climate that sees politicians aiming to roll back the clock on women’s health. It tells the story of five orphaned sisters finding their way through a sexual awakening while growing up in a conservative Turkish village, depicting sexual abuse in the home and the humiliating practice of virginity testing. The film picked up nine Cesar Award nominations in a year marked by a record degree of diverse representation.

As far back as film school, Ergüven can recall not only an overwhelming sense of being a minority in this business, but an unfortunate lack of a female perspective.

“The question of diversity goes way beyond a simple consideration of equality,” she says. “We’re missing the point of view of a big part of humanity when we don’t have films made by women or by other groups if they’re minorities. It narrows our perspective.”

She continues: “Cinema is close to a little army unit, like there’s authority. There are preconceived ideas of strength, the alpha male figure. But I’m not that. I wear dresses with flowers on them and heels [on set]. I don’t necessarily get into any power conflict unless it’s needed, and if we need to, I can start a war as well. It’s just not written on my face.”

She wanted to tackle the “sexualization” of women with “Mustang,” and the fact that it begins at a very early age. The opening sequence of the film depicts the girls innocently playing with boys in the sea, but it kicks off a scandal in the tight-knit community. The scene was based on an episode from Ergüven’s own life.

“There’s a turning point in your life where you’re told over and over again, ‘Watch the way you hold your body.’ ‘Watch the way you move,'” she says. “There are so many prohibited things. Yes, it’s something which is really anchored in Turkish society about the code of honor and things like that, but there’s been a lot of reactions from all over the world from people who said it resonated with them.”

Ultimately, regarding the on-going diversity debate, both filmmakers think that narrowing the focus to awards misses the point that they are merely a microcosm for something greater.

“I think the Academy is a mirror of what production looks like and the problem is way, way, way ahead of that stage,” Ergüven says. “That’s maybe the place where you can be proactive.”

Adds Garbus: “In some ways I think the Academy is a bit of a straw man for this conversation. It’s more than what’s in the envelope. It’s really about what’s happening every day.”

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