10 Directors to Watch: Deniz Gamze Erguven’s ‘Mustang’ Is France’s Horse in Oscar Race

Turkish-born, Paris-based director decided to make 'Mustang' her debut after ambitious L.A. riots project fell through.

10 Directors to Watch
Portrait: Courtesy of Vincent Lignier

There are no wild horses in the Oscar-shortlisted “Mustang,” just five obstreperous Turkish sisters determined to resist the blind patriarchal efforts to break their spirit and marry them off.

At first, Turkish-born, Paris-based director Deniz Gamze Erguven feared that she wouldn’t be able to make “Mustang,” simply because the material felt too close (the girls were inspired by one of her cousins back in Turkey). She actually started with an equal rowdy, but far less personal feature. Shortly after graduating from France’s La Femis film school, she traveled to Los Angeles to research the L.A. riots. She spoke to citizens, rode in police helicopters, and poured all she had into the script, which she called “Kings.”

The project was invited to Cannes’ Cinefondation workshop, where she met future co-writer Alice Winocour, but baffled investors, who couldn’t understand why a French-Turkish helmer might be pitching such a story. “It was so obvious to me,” she says. “I was drawn to the tragedy, and the fact that it was five days in L.A. without laws.” When the project cratered, Erguven’s confidence was shot.

“I was ready to move to Australia and sell ice cream, and Alice was the one who lifted me back up when I was really flat on the ground,” she says. “She made me write 20 hours a day.”

Miraculously, some of the more anarchic moments from “Kings” found their way into “Mustang”: The scene where the woman breaks the electrical transformer, for example, or throwing burning pots out the window came from “Kings.” “One reason I was attracted to the L.A. riots, there was an amazing amount of raw energy, and also being a very dark story with a lot of potential for comedy,” she says.

Turkish media have been very critical of Erguven, and the film was passed over when the country decided its Oscar bid, though the French selection committee came to the rescue, selecting “Mustang” — a gratifying victory for Erguven, who recalls, “Before getting my French nationality, I was refused twice.”

And despite the difficulty and potential danger she sees in Turkey today, Erguven plans to make her next film there. “If ‘Mustang’ is about what it is to be a woman, the next project is about a couple, and the theme of the film is losing democracy.”

Age: 37
Influences: Mentor Olivier Assayas, the writings of Andrei Tarkovsky
U.S. Agency: CAA
French Agency: ArtMedia
Manager: 360 Management