In May 2015, 19-year-old Kurdish aspiring singer Mutlu Kaya was shot in the head by a man whose marriage proposal she refused. The femicide attempt came after dozens of death threats related to the young woman’s successful participation in Turkey’s equivalent to “Got Talent,” which granted her country-wide notoriety.
Co-directed by BAFTA and Emmy-nominated Nick Read (“Bolshoi Babylon,” The Condemned”) and Ayse Toprak (“Mr Gay Syria”), “My Name Is Happy” — which has HiddenLight’s Siobhan Sinnerton (“For Sama,” “Escape From ISIS”) as a consultant executive producer — has its world premiere on Nov. 12 at IDFA as part of the festival’s Frontlight section. October Films is the lead producer, while Red Zed Films is the co-producer, and Autlook Filmsales handles world sales.
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The story centers on Mutlu’s rise as an activist and TikTok star following the femicide of both her sister and a close neighbor. Through the social media platform, where she has over a million followers, the pop star finds a way to pursue justice for her sister, and reach a sense of independence once more.
The festival’s Frontlight section is described as a place for “truth-seeking filmmakers who don’t compromise on stylistic integrity.” Amongst the 22 titles joining “My Name Is Happy” are Giulia Giapponesi’s “Bella Ciao,” which investigates the ties between the Italian song and Fascist movements; Ander Iriarte’s personal exploration of the trauma left by the Spanish Basque conflict, “Blue Files”; and Richard Misek’s deep dive into the idea of public domain, “A History of the World According to Getty Images.”
Watch an exclusive trailer from “My Name Is Happy” below and read on for an interview with directors Nick Read and Ayse Toprak:
When did you first come across Mutlu’s story?
Nick: I first read about Mutlu as soon as she’d been shot. My first contact with her was through our wonderful producer in Turkey in 2016 in the middle of her journey through rehabilitation. She and her family were warm and interested in talking more but we soon realized it was too early to engage with them as filmmakers. When reading about Pınar Gültekin in 2020, who was a victim of genocide whose body was dumped in woodland and burned – a truly shocking case that led to a series of demonstrations in Turkey – I was reminded of the case and got back in touch with Mutlu. At that point, we also learned about the tragic killing of Mutlu’s sister so we felt we had a story that merited a film for an international audience. That’s when we got together, and we went into production in February.
Ayse: I knew about the story because I’ve been involved with the women’s movement since I was a teenager marching up and down the streets in Istanbul. I knew she was a big thing because she was a finalist in this competition in Turkey, and she was strikingly beautiful, and had an amazing voice, and then became one of the many victims in the headlines in Turkey.
And when did you find each other and decide to work together on the film?
Nick: I made a film in Southeast Anatolia in 2012, but that was in the days when the BBC would pack you off and we would arrive as outsiders and point the lens at local people. It was deeply entrenched in our culture. So it was a very early decision that I didn’t want to make this film on my own. I was trying to find someone who had relevant experience and there’s not a deep well of Turkish women who made feature docs before, but Ayse made this fantastic film, “Mr Gay Syria,” and, the moment I saw it, I knew this was the person I wanted to work with.
This is interesting and it also ties to the fact you both mentioned having an almost all-female crew to provide a safer environment for Mutlu and her family.
Ayse: Mutlu was extremely excited about this film. She made it her own. She’s been trying to be vocal about her and her sister’s situation, and she understood early on that a film like this would help her make an impact when it came to violence against women in the world. I think that was one of the strengths of the story. We became really close to the characters, they became a part of the family. We had a very small crew that they very much loved and we loved them back.
The film revolves around a very emotional topic. How was it for you to approach it so intimately?
Ayse: It was very difficult to interview the characters and get to know their story and witness their sorrow because it was very new to me in the sense that it was the first time in my life that I actually came close to a family where there were two women affected by violence against women. It is quite different from being emotionally affected by it, marching down the streets for the cause, because you get the human connection. So it was initially difficult but there was also this sort of strange normalization of it, “Okay, this is what we’ve lived but life continues and we will go on fighting for it.” It allows for the perspective of doing something together for the better. There’s sorrow, of course, but how can we move forward?
It’s established early on in the film that Mutlu and her family live in an area rooted in traditionalism. Were you concerned about their safeguarding when working together?
Nick: The experiences they’ve been through and their passion to find justice for Mutlu, Dilek and other women around them, trump all other considerations of fear. They’re a pretty strong, robust family, and they’re not going to stand down. They have occasionally experienced hostility or estrangement from their neighbors and community, and we talked to them about that, both on camera and off, but I think they are very determined to find justice and Mutlu is very determined to articulate herself as a modern woman of Turkey who cares desperately about women’s rights.
Now that “My Name Is Happy” is out in the world, are you already thinking about what comes next?
Nick: I am going to say something that might surprise Ayse [laughs]. This was the first time, and I have a few miles under my belt in this industry, where I co-directed. I think for us filmmakers, the spirit of collaboration needs to be championed. I think there’s a tendency in our industry to build a film by a single person and I don’t agree with that. A film is made by a team, so I am really interested in continuing to collaborate in the way Ayse and I did on this.
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