On 12 March, the whole world will finally get to watch Director Can Ulkay’s much-anticipated movie “Kağıttan Hayatlar” (Paper Lives) on Netflix. Since little is known about him outside of Turkey, we decided to take a closer look in anticipation of the film’s release.
Believe it or not, Can Ulkay produced his first full-length feature only a short time ago. Over the last six years, however, his rise as one of Turkey’s most successful movie directors has been irresistible. Indeed, since 2015, all of his films have qualified as domestic box office hits and internationally recognized productions.
Can Ulkay was born and grew up in Istanbul. He completed his cinema studies at Marmara University in the 1980s and went on to work for TRT (the Turkish public television) until 1994. He subsequently embarked on an incredibly successful career in the advertising industry, directing many award-winning commercials for Coca-Cola, Turkish Airlines, P&G, and other famous companies. Over the years, Can Ulkay also shot music videos for artists of the caliber of Sezen Aksu and Sertab Erener, and created political ads in connection with national elections in Turkey.
In 2015, he shifted his focus towards directing full-length feature films, starting with the critically acclaimed WWI-era movie “Sarıkamış Çocukları.” Since then, Can Ulkay has gone from success to success. In 2017, he struck gold with the film “Ayla,” which not only broke sales records at home, but also went on to became Turkey’s official entry for the 2018 Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
In 2018, he co-directed “Müslüm” about the incredible life of the late Turkish arabesque singer Müslüm Gürses, which became that year’s most viewed film in Turkey. And only a few months later, he filmed another WWI period movie entitled “Türk Işi Dondurma” about the struggles of two Turkish immigrants in Australia. In 2019, he also worked on the yet-to-be released, all-star cast “Dumlupinar: Vatan Sag Olsun,” which narrates the tragic story of the Dumlupinar submarine and its crew.
Several hallmarks characterize Can Ulkay’s work. Among these, four are likely to be relevant in “Kağıttan Hayatlar” as well.
First, Can Ulkay is a gifted director of children.
“Kağıttan Hayatlar” chronicles a lost child’s chance encounter with Mehmet (interpreted by Çağatay Ulusoy,) who runs a solid waste warehouse for a living in one of Istanbul’s dilapidated neighborhoods.
Two previous films by Can Ulkay also featured children as the lead protagonists. “Sarıkamış Çocukları” (The Children of Sarıkamış,) chronicled a group of boys’ ill-fated journey to bring ammunitions across the Allahuekber Mountains to the Turkish soldiers on the Russian front during WWI. Under Can Ulkay’s direction, the boys’ trek through the rough and snowy terrain appeared incredibly realistic. So did their naïve idealism, which carried them to confront death with a moving sense of purpose.
His second film, “Ayla” narrated the story of Sergeant Süleyman Dilbirliği, who informally adopted an orphaned 5-year-old local girl in the middle of the Korean war. The movie cleverly juxtaposed the fate of the child with the war effort. Ayla thus became a symbol of resilience in the face of unspeakable tragedy, of hope in a sea of absurdity. Under Can Ulkay’s guidance, the young Korean girl, who played Ayla, succeeded in conveying a remarkably wide range of emotions with little or no dialogue.
In light of Can Ulkay’s extraordinary record in successfully directing children, we expect Emir Ali Doğrul’s interpretation of Ali in “Kağıttan Hayatlar” to be nothing short of remarkable.
Second, Can Ulkay’s idea of fatherhood is broad and inclusive.
From the trailer of “Kağıttan Hayatlar,” we already know that Mehmet was rescued as a child by Tahsin (interpreted by Turgay Tanülkü.) We are also aware that Mehmet will aspire to become a parental figure for Ali, who is escaping a violent stepfather.
In his previous work, Can Ulkay has often juxtaposed abusive and/or absent fathers to inspiring father-like figures, who provide much-needed parental care regardless of blood ties. In “Sarıkamış Çocukları,” Yusuf, Mehmet and the other boys find in the teacher (interpreted by Ozan Ağaç) the last vestige of grown-up guidance in a world run amok. In “Ayla” Sergeant Süleyman (interpreted by İsmail Hacıoğlu) provides a wonderful role model as a young man, who relishes the (traditionally feminine) role of caregiver to little Ayla. Finally, in “Müslüm,” the protagonist’s abusive father stands in powerful contrast to Limoncu Ali, the teacher who discovers and encourages his musical talent.
“Kağıttan Hayatlar” will provide Can Ulkay with the opportunity further to elaborate on his conception of fatherhood. Perhaps more importantly, it will offer him the chance of putting forward an alternative notion of “masculinity,” which may empower men to become better fathers both in Turkey and around the world.
Third, Can Ulkay takes memory seriously.
In “Kağıttan Hayatlar,” the appearance of Ali in one of Mehmet’s collection carts raises several questions. Where does he come from? Why and how did he get lost? Will he be able to reunite with his family? Or will he end up like Mehmet’s? The search for answers to these questions, ostensibly causes Mehmet to re-live his own traumatic childhood.
Can Ulkay’s previous movies often discussed the role of the past in people’s lives. In “Müslüm” the protagonist struggles to distance himself from the legacy of his abusive father, in part because he fears turning into him. In “Ayla,” Çetin Tekkindor’s moving interpretation as the elder Süleyman powerfully illustrates how time and distance never weakened his affection towards Ayla. In Sarıkamış Çocukları, the boys may have perished. Their descendants and a grateful nation, however, continue to remember their sacrifice. Finally, Mehmet and Ali in “Türk Işi Dondurma” are hostages of their past. On the eve of WWI, they become persona non grata in their adopted land of Australia solely on the basis of their Ottoman origins. They can neither stay nor go back. So, they choose annihilation in the name of a primordial notion of patriotism.
Audiences are looking forward to seeing Çağatay Ulusoy take on the most challenging role of his career. Will Mehmet’s encounter with Ali bring about healing, or merely reopen old wounds? Based on Can Ulkay’s previous films, one should not expect “Kağıttan Hayatlar” to provide a simplistic, feel-good resolution to this complex tale. Nevertheless, the film is bound to offer a thoughtful reflection on the influence that the past continues to exert on people’s lives in the present.
Fourth, Can Ulkay pays close attention to reconstruction and detail.
“Kağıttan Hayatlar” is the first of Can Ulkay’s movies that takes place in the 21st century. However, it deals with an underworld that is so far removed from the mainstream, that it may as well belong to a different time.
“Sarıkamış Çocukları,” “Ayla,” “Müslüm,” and“Türk Işi Dondurma” were all historical films, that required carefully reconstructed period sets and great attention to detail. Can Ulkay’s experience with these movies has no doubt proven valuable when it came to recreating Mehmet’s environment in a meticulous, yet realistic fashion. The backdrop in most scenes of “Kağıttan Hayatlar” is bound to be squalid, messy, dirty, and claustrophobic. And yet, the trailer already indicates that Can Ulkay and his crew have made careful, abundant, and artistic use of natural light and artificial lighting to tell an incredibly moving, and hopefully uplifting story – mounds of garbage notwithstanding.
“Kağıttan Hayatlar” will mark several firsts in Can Ulkay’s directing life. First time shooting a film that takes place in our time. First time working from a script that is not based on a true story. And first time working with Çağatay Ulusoy. The film, however, also brings Can Ulkay back to doing what he does best: directing children; reflecting on fatherhood; exploring the human psyche; and recreating a world that is distant from most people’s direct experience. Based on these premises, all that is left to do is sit down and enjoy the ride… with lots of tissues ready!
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