Turkish films are lesser-known than those from other countries but their cinema, which quite often focusses on slice-of-life type stories, continues to surprise and win hearts around the globe. Paper Lives is another glimpse into the lives and struggles of the poor in Turkey.
Paper Lives follows Mehmet (Çagatay Ulusoy), a poor and ailing waste warehouse owner. He and his friend, Gonzales (Ersin Arici), fondly called Gonzo, who is practically a brother to him, helps employ dozens of homeless teenagers and children who collect valuables like paper, glass and plastic from waste all over Istanbul.
Together, they make a happy family of misfits and live in harmony. After almost dying from kidney failure, Gonzo and Mehmet plan to use the money they collected, over the years, to fulfil the items on Gonzo’s bucket list.
But that night, Mehmet discovers a young boy named Ali (Emir Ali Dogrul), in one of the waste containers. Ali’s mother had put him in the container to save him from his abusive stepfather. So, Ali vows to earn enough money to rescue his mother from his tyrannical stepfather.
Mehmet takes Ali under his wing. He becomes the father figure to Ali that he never had and in doing so has to confront his own traumatic childhood.
Çagatay Ulusoy essays the role of Mehmet perfectly. Mehmet is a kind, caring, generous individual despite being a ‘street kid’ for most of his life. He watches out for his rag-tag family and shares with them whatever he can.
But his tumultuous childhood and the subsequent years on the streets of Istanbul have also traumatised him deeply. Ulusoy captures all of Mehmet’s varied emotional states; his volatility, ecstatic joy, gentleness, helplessness, rage, without a hint of pretence.
Emir Ali Dogrul is quite simply, brilliant, as Ali, the eight-year-old runaway. Child actors often give wooden and over-rehearsed performances. Paper Lives needed Ali to be natural and raw.
Dogrul absolutely delivers. He possesses such skill and aptitude at such a tender age that he is able to dominate scenes where he is performing alongside much more experienced and skilled adult actors. He is able to draw the sympathy of the audience as well as their horror. It is an absolute joy to watch such genius in action.
Ersin Arici plays Gonzo, Mehmet’s closest friend. Together, they had been fending for themselves for several years. Gonzo is responsible yet fun-loving. He doesn’t take offence even when he could. He cares very deeply for Mehmet. Arici is a great foil to Ulusoy’s Mehmet. They have great chemistry together. The playful brotherly love between them is heartwarming.
The supporting cast doesn’t get much attention but they make up a rich and detailed background in the film. They deliver excellent performances too.
Paper Lives is a poignant tale about love, friendship and most importantly, trauma. The film has excellent nuanced characters. Even the characters without the spotlight, who are only in the scene for a shot or two have specific characteristics that add to the overall themes in the film.
Though Paper Lives’ main focus is on the problem of homeless children, it manages to elucidate other points too. The film comments on the class divide, not only between the rich and poor but the classes within the poor too. The starting sequence especially sets the tone of the film and lets us know the status of the protagonist of the film and his place in this world.
The film has excellent cinematography throughout the film. It uses long takes, handheld, close-ups in all the right places which make the emotions hit even harder. There is one particular confrontation between Ali and Mehmet where the stakes and tension are further elevated due to the use of chaotic but precise handheld camerawork. The colour and lighting of scenes, especially the ones at night, are beautiful.
Paper Lives has varied music throughout the film. It embraces classical music with a Turkish twist in emotionally charged scenes but switches things up to more modern sounds for the excellent life-affirming montages.
Albeit, gut wrenching and bewitching, the film does stumble along the way.
Most characters in Paper Lives have a tragic backstory, which makes sense given their dismal state. The film makes a point to show them all happy and carefree despite their worries. The problem arises when their tragedies are explored through expository dialogue.
Several such pieces of dialogue feel forced and exploitative in the film. They seem to be meant only to tug at the heartstrings of the audiences without much depth.
The ending of Paper Lives makes the film even more interesting. But once again, is way too expository and lays everything out too clearly. This was completely unrequired, the makers should have had more faith in their audiences and should not have spelt everything out.
Few Netflix original films from other countries translate so universally to all cultures.
Paper Lives is a mesmerizing, touching film with exceptional performances. It is a quick watch that can offer a glimpse into the rich Turkish cinema. It is a must-watch.