Paper Lives: The Tragedy of Mehmet
by mh musings
A look into the life story of Mehmet, a child who could never resolve his past as his future hung in the balance.
Spoiler Alert: If you wish to read a spoiler-free review of the movie, go here. This post delves deeper into the character of Mehmet, so beautifully brought to life by Cagatay Ulusoy
The highly anticipated series Yesilcam will be coming to BluTV on April 22, 2021. The platform has shared a number of trailers and teasers, and from all accounts, it seems to be an excellent production that not only captures the cinematic glory of the Yesilcam era of Turkish filmmaking, but also showcases the noteworthy filmmakers of today.
Cagan Irmak, who is a highly acclaimed director, is no stranger to paying homage to Yesilcam. He is the director of Unutursam Fisilda, a period piece focusing on the careers of musicians of the era. In a recent interview, Cagatay said of Cagan, ““Cagan is a very successful director who really loves his job, knows the period well, knows its textures, knows the lines between the lines, follows life in every aspect. His observation skills are very impressive.”
None of us came out with dry eyes after watching Paper Lives. Cagatay's soulful depiction of Mehmet is so beautifully done, capturing such a broad range of emotions, that it makes us want to go back again and again and, like him, search for the innocence of his childhood for him just so we can protect him for all that he endured in life. Mehmet is no ordinary man. He didn't choose to be a part of an abusive household, and he didn't choose to be parted from his beloved mother. He didn't choose to be thrown out in the midst of a crusted neighborhood where survival instincts can rob people of their humanity. We see this in the group of trash collectors who beat up Mehmet before his last stint in the hospital. We only know that his mother put him in the cart, but we are not shown his history of how he eventually comes under the care of Tahsin Baba. What traumas did he live until we meet him in the present day? By looking at visual and aural clues provided throughout the movie, we wanted to re-construct the life Mehmet lived and why his mental health became so fragile towards the end.
Scars & Physical Health
We are introduced to Mehmet’s debilitating cough when Gonzi takes him to the hospital after his evening out in the rain. We see that he has a prominent scar on his nose, most likely from a brawl or a street fight to defend himself.
As he is waiting in the waiting room, we see his placid complexion, which can be indicative of lung issues as well as a failing kidney. He’s a smoker, and we later come to learn that kids older than himself hurt him and abused him by forcing him to sniff glue, at the very least. Who knows what more he endured while he tried to find a home for himself.
He takes off his shirt for the doctor, and we see a jagged scar on his back. The crude nature of the scar can suggest that one of his kidneys got farmed against his wishes, which leads him to his weak health today as his body puts undue strain on his remaining kidney. We are also shown a brief glance of bloody urine, confirming the failing state of his kidney.
When we first meet Ali, he is bruised and battered. Through Mehmet’s later flashbacks, we realize that he was beaten repeatedly and brutally by his stepfather, and his mother decides it is better to leave him in a garbage can than to run away with him and protect him.
He gets into another altercation with the street thugs in the Cihangir area, where his home used to be. Who knows how long his mind has been playing games on him and how many times he got beaten up in this manner elsewhere. Tahsin Baba may have provided them with work, but he is not shown to be around to provide physical protection at all times.
Despite the heroic figure he cuts for the youngsters in his neighborhood, Mehmet is deeply scarred, mentally and physically, and lives with the conflict of needing to dream so he can survive, and retreating into his imaginary world so he can cope.
His closest bond is with Gonzi, and it is obvious that they have grown up together. Gonzi loves him deeply and absorbs all of Mehmet's ventures in his alternate universe. To Gonzi, Mehmet is the stability of his known family and the way he holds up Mehmet time and again is the testament to how much he loves Mehmet; how much Mehmet means to his existence. Purged by their real families, they try to find meaning in bonds they are able to create and we see that in the bonds Mehmet formed. Bond of brotherhood with Gonzi, a father he can respect in Tahsin Baba, and big brother to all the young kids he tries to corral into choosing better than what he absorbed in his own life. He creates a tensous sense of family, but could never fill the hole in his heart left by his abandonment by his mother. And as such, every female figure in his universe looks like her.
From the time Mehmet sees his ‘mother’ at the hospital and how every female role in his life embodies her, speaks to the depth of loss he feels without her. He wants to believe that all mothers love their children and that she abandons him for his own good, because she had no other way. That she needs to be saved and it was because of money that she couldn’t go with him. As such, saving up so that he can save her becomes a vision that gives him hope. He cannot possibly acknowledge the question Tahsin Baba asks him, “What if his mother threw him out willingly? Why isn’t she looking for him all over Istanbul?”
The fragility of Mehmet’s mind stems from choices his mother makes on his behalf, launching him into a traumatic life where his innocence was robbed from him. He keeps going back to the only home he knew, in a nicer part of town in Cihangir. Maybe he felt guilt that he couldn’t protect his mother but he also felt despair that his mother couldn’t protect him.
Showing up to the house with a wad of cash is with a sense of achievement that he has overcome so much and perhaps now can buy back time with his mother, and save his childhood. His need to resolve this childhood trauma is so great, that he is willing to endanger his life and forego his surgery if it means that he is able buy time with his mother.
In his soulful song, Muslum Gurses sings,
“To loves that remain unfinished
To my borrowed smile
To dying before getting to live life
I have an objection”
In addition to all the pains Mehmet absorbs, perhaps these words describe him the most. A life on the streets cost him his health but his soul died a long time ago. His bucket list contains frivolous dreams except the one about finding his mother. His abandonment leaves such a big hole that it remains an unfinished love story. He laughs and bickers with his brothers, but these are borrowed moments masking the hollow caverns within; a daily effort at a normalcy that seems forced. And the fact that he dies even before he could fully learn what living meant, is indeed very objectionable.
And these are the stories that should open questions in society about our family systems that get fractured by toxic patriarchy, or irresponsible maternal instincts. Questions about the responsibilities the greater society has in providing security to children like Mehmet who did not choose this life of squalor nor was he born into it. How do we care for them?
Towards the end, Gonzi says, “We tried to build our lives with what other people threw away.” Not only did they try to find their treasures in the trash of other people’s lives, some of them were what other people threw away.
Cagatay provides a superlative performance as Mehmet. Once we realize that little Ali was a figment of his imagination, rewatching his scenes with Ali makes his portrayal even more poignant. In their togetherness, he has unfiltered joy on his face, a bravado and sense of purpose that we expect to see in a well-adjusted adult. This is the reality he wants. He is a protector not at the mercy of anyone, he is powerful at removing the threat of an abusive stepfather, he is worthy of reuniting a child with his mother.
Article (c) CUNA & mh musings
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