“To All The Children Who Grow Up All Alone On The Streets”

Thus begins the dedication of the 2021 Netflix film from Turkey called “Paper Lives”. It’s almost ironic, because most of those children won’t have the opportunity to watch it. Maybe it’s to sting us – who’ve had the privilege of a roof over our heads all our lives, with mothers and fathers looking into our well-being, sparing time and money to ensure we grow into productive individuals with the luxury to ‘Netflix and chill’ in their free time.

Directed by Can Ulkay, ‘Paper Lives’ follows the life of Mehmet, an ailing man who runs a solid-waste warehouse. Most of his employees are poor orphan boys who would’ve been sleeping on the streets if not for the little money they make out of collecting scrap. With no family himself, Mehmet is sympathetic to the boys. So when he finds a bruised little boy crawl out of one of the sacks his men collected, Mehmet quickly becomes a foster father of sorts to the lost child. Next begins a quest to possibly re-unite the boy with his mother.

Shot largely in Istanbul, the film offers a mixed slice of Turkish life, from dingy lanes where homeless kids sniff glue, to sparkly blue waters where happy families picnic on sunny Sundays or the waters of the traditional Turkish baths, where men meet, sing as they wash their fatigue away. There’s an interesting juxtaposition of two parallel worlds, one with bright city lights, of material pleasures; the other of these orphaned overworked men, who are constantly pining for their mothers. Mehmet’s own bucket list has “find mother” on the first line.

Actor Çagatay Ulusoy as the benevolent Mehmet delivers a measured performance, while Emir Ali Dogrul as lost boy Ali was just as vulnerable as his character demanded. However, the pace is slightly slow and the plot is melodramatic. The director could’ve toned down the intensity with which Mehmet strives to protect Ali. While the bond between the two was heartwarming in parts, Mehmet’s emotional attachment to the boy within a day felt slightly absurd and over the top. The mood flits between being dark-oppressive to light and touching. The makers deceptively portray waste-collection like a fun job in some scenes, like the one where Mehmet and Ali happily hop around town looking for cardboard, boxes and bottles, as if they are on a treasure-hunt. But these little sequences save the story from becoming a tedious sob-fest.

There are a lot of scenes that feel dragged out and the viewer is left to wonder why Mehmet gets so much of the spotlight, because the synopsis/trailer makes one believe that it’s a story about how an older man is forced to confront his childhood demons as he warms up to an innocent child. Director Can Ulkay attempts to tie everything up in the climax, scenes that didn’t make sense early on, fall into place like pieces of a puzzle. “Paper Lives” needed some snipping, despite being just one 1 hour 37 minutes long, the runtime could have been shorter and would have been more engrossing.

It’s a 6/10 from me.

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