Netflix release Paper Lives is a Turkish picture by director Can Ulkay, set in a poor neighbourhood of Istanbul. A group of homeless kids and teens make a living from scavenging and picking up trash to be resold. Managing and supervising this street activity is Mehmet (Çagatay Ulusoy), a kind and thoughtful young man battling serious health issues. He understands the boys’ struggle because he grew up with the same hardships.
Assisted by his close friend Gonzi, Mehmet runs the junk collection business with enough success to allow him to save money for a critical surgery he needs, and perhaps to finally realise the dreams listed on his bucket list, the first of which is finding his mother. Mehmet’s life becomes richer, but also more complicated, when he discovers a little boy named Ali hiding in one of the waste bags brought into the warehouse by his workers. He decides to take the frightened child under his wing and treat him to as many fun experiences as possible. The bond between them quickly grows, but it triggers uncomfortable feelings in Mehmet, related to his own unhealed childhood traumas.
Aesthetically, the film presents a delightful portrait of the Turkish capital. Even the run-down houses and streets are made to look magical, with their bright colours drenched in sunlight, and the lights of the city provide a wonderful backdrop in nighttime scenes. The cast deliver solid performances, and Emir Ali Dogrul is adorable and very capable as little Ali. The film suffers, however, from its melodramatic tone, which is often too pronounced and ends up taking away from the story’s credibility.
Paper Lives focuses on the struggle of poverty and the deep wounds inflicted on the lower classes, but it fails to place that picture in a wider, sociopolitical context and rather seems to exploit the subject as tearjerker material. Although the story is at times sweet, and the protagonist’s central conflict is a potentially strong topic, the shallow treatment of complex subjects coupled with the heavy-handed drama thwart an otherwise good effort to present a touching story.
Paper Lives is released on Netflix on 15th March 2021.
Watch the trailer for Paper Lives here: