Paper Lives Review: A Cinematic Triumph Of Turkish Storytelling
A spoiler-free review by mh-musings
Paper Lives (“Kagittan Hayatlar”) dropped on Netflix at midnight, and it is a gritty but cinematic tale of the lives we often overlook within our bustling city lives, the glittering lights and splendor masking the patina of despair that underscores it. The opening scenes masterfully establish this juxtaposition by showing the stark contrast between the rich and famous and the street ‘people’ who take on the thankless task of keeping the city clean. Instead of continuing the thread of this contrast, the movie makes an immediate segue into the lives of such people, exploring their hopes and dreams in a most artistic way.
The story revolves around Mehmet, the manager of a local waste warehouse, who is gravely ill and in the need of a kidney transplant. He is loved and revered by all the street kids and waste collectors in their ‘zone’, and they are all under the protection of Tahsin Baba, an elderly gentleman who has been their mentor within the grime and squalor of their rundown neighborhood. A host of homeless children and young men, who have obviously grown up on the streets, make up the army of garbage collectors, who get paid for the pounds of trash they deposit at the warehouse. Mehmet has gone from being feet on the street to managing the warehouse, presumably because his illness gets exacerbated through the physical exertion of pulling such heavy weights on uneven streets, often in inclement weather. He still sometimes enjoys going out to collect the trash, visiting old haunts along the way.
One evening, his best friend Gonzi (aka Gonzalez) veers into a zone patronized by a different group of rag tag, brutish trash collectors, but he is able to get away with glee. After his trash is weighed along with the rest of the local troupes’ stash, everyone is paid their share and sent home. Alone, Mehmet investigates scuffling noises coming from Gonzi’s cart, and a little boy drops out. He is Ali, a battered young boy frequently beaten by his stepfather, and his mother has put him in the cart to save him from the brutality. Mehmet is immediately drawn to him and takes him under his wing, with promises to reunite him with his mother. As he undertakes this journey, Mehmet is confronted by the truths of his own traumatic childhood that forces him to accept an agonized destiny.
For those of us seduced by the art of Turkish storytelling, Paper Lives is the first Netflix Turkish original movie that weaves in the human side of the Turkish strength of family bonds, whether it is shown through the power of a mother’s love in absentia or through the ways these abandoned children bond together to create a sense of family. The social hierarchy is displayed through the reverence with which everyone refers to each other. Mehmet is ‘abi’ to most and well known in the neighborhood, Tahsin Baba remains the spiritual and moral mentor to all. The characters blend well into the tapestry woven for their lives, speaking in profanity laden street slang.
One of the most poignant dialogues is delivered at a dinner table where the troupe is gathered in celebration. After candles on the cake are blown, Mehmet asks the children what their wishes are, and unsurprisingly the top one is to find their mother, mirroring Mehmet’s own from his bucket list for life. One child mildly says his wish is to die. As silence falls around the table, he explains that his reason is so that his deceased mother will still recognize him when they reunite in the afterlife.
Young Emir Ali Dogrul shows his promise as an actor in his depiction of a traumatized child whose eyes still fill with wonder from the joy of seeing a chocolate cake with glowing candles. He is delightful as Ali.
Having never watched Ersin Arici previously, his turn as Gonzalez is incredibly affecting and perfect, providing the backbone to the fluidity of the story in the most meaningful way. The way Gonzi and Mehmet are bonded within their adopted family is understatedly exquisite.
Veteran actor Turgay Tanulku as Tahsin Baba doesn’t have a lot of screen time but what he brings is the necessary gravitas of a wise old man who has learnt the realities of life, and has long since lost the desire to have others conform to his ways. A social activist in real life who has supported juvenile rehabilitation for decades, Mr. Tanulku does full justice to a memorable character who absorbs the sorrows of his wards and attempts to allow them to find some charm and meaning in their destitute lives.
Paper Lives is directed by the adept hands of Can Ulkay, who has only turned to this craft as late as 2017 and yet his natural talents for building a frame with meticulous attention to detail and a sense of grandiose visual aesthetic is evident in each and every project. One of his very first projects, Ayla: The Daughter of War, was the Turkish entry for the Academy Awards in 2018, and he has only bettered his craft in Paper Lives. From the expansive, torn battlefields of South Korea in Ayla to the myopic world of the neighborhood around a street named Mucadele Cikmazi in Paper Lives, Mr. Ulkay is simply masterful. The movie originally titled Struggle Alley (“Mucadele Cikmazi”) was only recently retitled to Paper Lives (Kagittan Hayatlar).Mr. Ulkay’s 2018 film Muslum was a biopic on Turkish folk singer Muslum Gurses, whose song features in the opening credits of Paper Lives, mentioned above. It is these details, subtle individually but magnificent in its entirety, that make the production one to remember. The viewing is enhanced by the rich script by Ercan Mehmet Erdem, best known for his work on the gritty police show Behzat C., and what the audience gets is a multidimensional cinematic experience that leaves us with questions posed within a slice of Turkish life, but that really transcends all borders.
At a little over two hours, Paper Lives offers a tight narrative that cover a lot of ground if you are looking for it. From the physical characters to the visual and the insinuated, it is an unexpected exploration of a very male perspective of abandonment and the castles built in the sky to overcome the resulting voids. There is only one major female actor, Selen Ozturk, who plays multiple faces of a woman and it is an interesting detail that underlines the power of a mother in our lives, and how she can define the shape of all other women in a man’s life. I will not give away any other spoilers for the movie but invite you to give it a watch. Even if you do not have any history with Turkish drama, you will appreciate the social thought experiments launched through the narrative and will come to understand why the expressive Turkish male characters resonate so strongly with a globally thriving, predominantly female audience for the fare. Here is the trailer for those of you who might not have seen it yet: