“Kağıttan Hayatlar”: Nothing Is What It Seems

WARNING! This review includes SPOILERS about the movie “Kağıttan Hayatlar.” (“Paper Lives”) If you have yet to watch it, please check out the film’s spoiler-free information page on this website instead. Make sure, however, to come back to this review after you see the movie!

“Kağıttan Hayatlar” entices viewers with an endearing and ostensibly linear story about the friendship between an ailing waste warehouse manager and a lost little boy. Mid-way through the film, however, the narrative veers in a different direction, dispensing with most of our expectations. The finale subsequently delivers a sudden, gut-wrenching twist that leaves most viewers dumbfounded.

The film is divided into three distinct segments. The first introduces the protagonist with a carefully constructed juxtaposition between the modern, exciting side of Istanbul dotted by skyscrapers and luxurious nightclubs, and a dark neighborhood where a scavenger is methodically searching garbage bins for recyclables. His name is Mehmet, and “Kağıttan Hayatlar” is his story.

The first thing we learn about Mehmet is that he suffers from kidney failure. The doctor in the ER informs him that his health will only improve with a kidney transplant for which he is still wait-listed. The next morning, however, Mehmet emerges in far better physical shape. In the light of day, he comes across as a clever, attractive, energetic, and generous young man, who represents one of the neighborhood’s charismatic figures.

From his warehouse, Mehmet runs a smooth and efficient waste recycling operation that employs several young men. In this confined universe, Mehmet is king. To his motley crew of garbage collectors, however, he is far more than that. He is their caretaker. He brings them to the hammam, where they may attend to their hygiene. He organizes birthday parties and trips to the beach, so that they may engage in wholesome entertainment. And he keeps an eye out so that they don’t get in trouble with competing scavengers or the police.

“Kağıttan Hayatlar” deserves praise for providing a dignified representation of Mehmet’s colorful family of garbage collectors. Their condition notwithstanding, these young men inspire empathy, but never pity. Their ability to enjoy life through simple things like cleanliness, music, food, good company, and a swim in the ocean is sincere. So is their predisposition for finding humor even in the direst of circumstances. Their wildest dreams are so down-to-earth, as to put the rest of us to shame. With no parents or home to call their own, Mehmet, Tahsin, Gonzi, and the others support each other as a real family would. In short, “Kağıttan Hayatlar,” encourages viewers to look at informal garbage collectors with a different set of eyes, be they in the street of Istanbul, Paris, Rome or New York.

Ersin Arıcı as Gonzi

The second segment of the movie focuses on the relationship between Mehmet and Ali, following the latter’s appearance out of Gonzi’s collection cart. Before “Kağıttan Hayatlar”, several movies such as “Pixote” by Héctor Babenco (1980,) “Saalam Bombay” by Mira Nair (1988,) and “Slumdog Millionaire” by Danny Boyle (2008) narrated the plight of street children. In Turkey, the recent TV series “Içerde” (2016-17) and “Kuzgun” (2019) handled the subject matter with remarkable sensitivity. In contrast to the realism of these earlier productions, Can Ulkay chronicles Ali’s initiation into the world of Istanbul’s garbage collectors as a curiously joyous affair. Seeing himself in the child, Mehmet takes the boy under his wing. He feeds, clothes, entertains, and instructs him to the best of his ability. Finally, in a moving scene atop a panoramic roof, Mehmet pledges to help reunite Ali with his mother.

Çağatay Ulusoy as Mehmet and Emir Ali Doğrul as Ali

Mehmet and Ali thrive in each other’s company, but their joy is unfortunately short-lived. Quite inexplicably, Ali displays a tendency to run away, only to reappear sometime later under equally enigmatic circumstances. Each time Ali disappears, Mehmet suffers a panic attack and calms down only when the boy resurfaces. These intense reactions contradict the impression of Mehmet that “Kağıttan Hayatlar” initially conveyed. At this stage, viewers begin to suspect that there may be something more to Mehmet and Ali’s story than they were originally led to believe.

Following another mysterious disappearance, Mehmet and Ali engage in an intense argument about a mysterious photo, which both claim as their own. The next day, Mehmet decides to take Ali back to his neighborhood in Çihangir, and look for the boy’s mother. The boy recognizes his surroundings and locates his apartment. However, Ali becomes absolutely terrified, when he sees his stepfather come out of the building. Confusion ensues, and Mehmet ends up again in the hospital after getting into a brutal fight with a rival group of scavengers.

The final segment of “Kağıttan Hayatlar” delivers an unexpected twist along with the protagonist’s heartbreaking demise. Back in the hospital, a clearly delusional Mehmet rejects treatment. Even Gonzi and Tahsin fail to calm him down. Soon, they realize that he has hit a point of no return and let him go. Now, Mehmet is on a mission. He drops by the warehouse to retrieve his hidden cash and goes to Ali’s apartment in the hope of buying the boy’s freedom. The old woman, who answers the door, recognizes Mehmet immediately. This is clearly not the first time that he has come looking for Ali. Once again, the woman and her husband remind him that this is no longer his home, that his family abandoned him a long time ago, and that he must find a way to accept reality.

In 1999, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense” delivered a comparable final twist, which is now firmly ensconced in our pop culture. The film narrates the story of a mother (Toni Collette,) who hires a highly regarded child psychologist (Bruce Willis) to help her young son Cole (Haley Joel Osment,) sort through his feelings of isolation and distress. Dr. Malcome Crowe succeeds in establishing a bond with Cole, and the boy eventually confides that he can “see dead people” walking around like the living, unaware that they are deceased. In the end, the film reveals that Malcolm Crowe is himself one of the “dead people,” whom Cole “sees.” In similar fashion, “Kağıttan Hayatlar’s” stunning revelation indicates that little Ali is not real, but merely the fruit of Mehmet’s delusional mind.

Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osmet in “The Sixth Sense

From the film’s final sequences, we learn that Mehmet’s full name is Mehmet Ali, and that little Ali’s story is in fact Mehmet’s own. All along it was Mehmet, who used to live in Çihangir, was abused by his stepfather, and was abandoned by his mother in a garbage collection cart. Alone in the streets, Mehmet was subsequently rescued by Tahsin Baba, and learned to survive as a scavenger. In his mind, however, he never came to terms with his mother’s abandonment and continued to hope that she would one day come back for him. When she never came, Mehmet started to concoct imaginary scenarios in which he would assist his young self (Ali) find his mother and, in turn, gain another chance at a happy childhood.

“Mücadele Çikmazi” was the original title for “Paper Lives”

Scientific research clearly established a correlation between childhood trauma, lack of treatment, and mental problems later in life. Abandonment and child abuse, in particular, have been shown to affect the development of the brain. Former victims are, therefore, more likely than other adults to experience emotional flashbacks, feelings of panic, intense emotional distress, struggle with romantic relationships, and suicide attempts. Especially if left untreated, childhood trauma can increase the risk of psychosis — a condition, which affects the way the brain processes information, causes individuals to lose touch with reality and prompts them to see, hear, or believe things that are not there. Untreated episodes of psychosis, in turn, can result in structural brain damage due to neurotoxicity.

While “Kağıttan Hayatlar” withholds information on most of Mehmet’s post-abandonment life, it is probably safe to assume that his childhood trauma went untreated and that, over time, he started to experience recurring symptoms of mental illness. When we meet Mehmet, he has been having psychotic “episodes” for quite a while. Regrettably, we see no evidence in the movie that he ever received psychiatric treatment. Mehmet’s recurring vision is that of an imaginary childhood version of himself named Ali. Each time they meet, he attempts to rescue him and his mother from the evil stepfather. No matter how hard he tries, however, his efforts are always in vain. Everyone around Mehmet is aware of his mental condition, but they pretend not to notice out of respect, compassion and love. Tahsin and Gonzi, in particular, are very protective of Mehmet and remain on standby in case things get out of hand.

Turgay Tanülkü as Tahsin and Ersin Arici as Gonzi

In the very last scene of “Kağıttan Hayatlar,” a physically and psychologically broken Mehmet is crawling under the pouring rain. Next, he lies near a heap of garbage, while clutching the treasured photograph from his childhood, which portrays him sitting happily next to his mother. In a “Delibal” dejá-vu, the last scene zooms on Mehmet’s lifeless body, which a compassionate soul has already covered with cardboard even before the arrival of the police. Mehmet’s cause of death remains unspecified in the movie. His last kidney might have ceased to function. He might have died from the earlier beating he endured. Or he might have caught a deadly chill under the pouring rain. Yet again, he might simply have regained full consciousness after his last psychotic episode, and realized that Ali is not real, and that neither Ali nor he will ever be reunited with his mother. Sick, exhausted, alone, and without any reason left to hold on to his miserable life, Mehmet simply decides to let himself die. No matter where he might end up after death, any place is bound to be better than his life on earth.

“Kağıttan Hayatlar,” is one of those movies that calls for repeated viewings in order to identify all the clues to the stunning conclusion. Re-watching the film, we thus realize that when Uncle Tahsin says: “Isn’t he (Mehmet) always off his head?” during the car ride back from the hospital, he is not merely joking. He is giving away the film’s end. We also notice how, whenever Mehmet talks to Ali or has visions of his mother, there is often no one else around and nobody ever talks to them except him. We finally understand that Gonzi interrupts everyone’s laughter during the “birthday” party not because he is humorless, but because he does not wish people to make fun of Mehmet’s condition.

Çağatay Ulusoy as Mehmet and Selen Öztürk

“Kağıttan Hayatlar” shines a valuable spotlight on mental disease and on the sad but well-established reality that it affects almost half of those living at the margins of society. The film also helpfully reiterates that it is not only homelessness that causes trauma, but it is also the trauma that causes homelessness. Within the larger society, people like Mehmet and his friends are often marginalized, isolated, and discriminated against because they are perceived as volatile, contaminated, and dangerous. In reality, however, they are among the most vulnerable to exploitation, violence, and re-traumatization.

Despite the difficult subject matter, “Kağıttan Hayatlar” presents many highlights. First, the film narrates a compelling story in a direct and concise fashion. Ercan Mehmet Erdem’s tight script makes each second of this movie count towards the development of the story. In fact, some probably wish that the movie had been less succinct so that viewers might have learned more about Mehmet’s childhood story, and Tahsin and Gonzi’s backgrounds.

Second, each photogram of “Kağıttan Hayatlar” could easily become an artistic tableau. In creating Mehmet’s world, those responsible for the production design and art direction paid such close attention to detail that the film feels almost like a period piece. Through the masterful use of artistic lighting, Director Can Ulkay and cinematographer Serkan Güler’s managed the impossible – namely to infuse dark, dilapidated, and garbage-filled sets with the vibrance of a post-impressionist painting. The sharp contrasts between the run-down, chaotic, and melancholy interiors of Mehmet’s home and warehouse, and the bright, breath-taking aerial shots of Istanbul on a sunny day cleverly match the changes in Mehmet’s moods.

Mehmet and Ali

Third, the choice of Müslüm Gürses’ “İtirazım var” and of Selda Bağcan’s “Ağlama Anne” for the opening and closing titles soundtracks is absolutely perfect, both in terms of the atmosphere evoked by the music, and the content of the songs’ lyrics. Truth be told, however, many would have loved it if the soundtrack had also included Çağatay Ulusoy performing a song composed especially for the film.

Fourth, the strength of “Kağıttan Hayatlar” lies in the caliber of the actors’ interpretations. The talented Emir Ali Doğrul gives life to a multi-faceted Ali, whose mood swings closely reflect the instability of Mehmet’s mind. Turgay Tanülkü brings to the film not only his considerable acting skills but also the full strength of his life experience. Finally, relatively unknown Ersin Arıcı is a true revelation. He infuses Gonzi with great energy and humor. In so doing, he provides the perfect counterpart to the brooding Mehmet.

Emir Ali Doğrul as Ali

Fifth, the strongest asset of “Kağıttan Hayatlar,” is undoubtedly Çağatay Ulusoy’s performance. The Turkish actor literally disappears in the challenging role of Mehmet. In so doing, he delivers a veritable acting tour-de-force, while carefully avoiding problematic stereotypes that only caricature real individuals, who struggle with mental disease on a daily basis.

In the past, we appreciated Çağatay as a young romantic lead, a fierce undercover cop, and a troubled superhero. We also admired his brilliant performance in Delibal as a charismatic college student affected by bipolar disorder. Even taken together, however, these previous roles could never have fully prepared him for interpreting the lead in “Kağıttan Hayatlar.” While Mehmet is smart, eccentric, inspirational, caring, and efficient, at any point in time his mood can evolve into manic, anxious, tormented, unhinged, aggressive, or desperate. As if all this were not already enough, Mehmet is also severely psychotic, and in constant physical pain.

Çağatay Ulusoy as Mehmet

To prepare for such a complex role, many performers adopt techniques similar to the famous “method” acting, which literally demands that an actor use his/her own emotional memory to interpret a completely different person. In other words, an actor should not simply play the character so much as become the character, however temporarily. Because Çağatay Ulusoy stems from a middle-class family, he ostensibly lacks a personal frame of reference for what it is like to be poor, abused, abandoned, traumatized, or homeless — especially as a child. One can thus only imagine the amount of hard work, which Çağatay must have invested to internalize Mehmet’s life experiences in preparation for “Kağıttan Hayatlar.”

And internalize he did. Watching the movie for the second time is essential — especially for non-Turkish speakers — to appreciate how carefully well-calibrated Cağatay’s performance really is. By all indications, Mehmet’s kidney disease is very advanced and causes him an incredible amount of pain, which he realistically represents on the screen more than once. Mehmet’s greatest source of agony, however, is psychological. Thus, Cağatay also needs to play a credible schizophrenic, while at the same time ensuring that viewers do not detect his character’s mental condition too soon. Consequently, during most of “Kağıttan Hayatlar,” Cağatay Ulusoy has to manifest Mehmet’s mental disease mainly through subtle facial expression and/or body language. In the end, Cağatay Ulusoy’s interpretation of Mehmet is both convincing and multi-layered. It is also likely to set the bar for best acting in Turkey for the near future.

Cağatay Ulusoy as Mehmet

Our review would not be complete without a piece or two of constructive criticism. Thus, our first concern with “Kağıttan Hayatlar” is that it stresses over and over the importance of mothers while fielding a predominantly male cast. In the script, Selen Öztürk’s role as Mehmet/Ali’s mother is very minor. What is more, her character remains in a moral limbo, because the film never clarifies whether – as Tahsin claims — she intentionally abandoned little Mehmet Ali or – as Mehmet wants to believe — she was somehow forced to do so.

A related concern is that the few female figures represented in “Kağıttan Hayatlar” are never real, but mere illusions concocted by Mehmet’s imagination. It would thus appear that, as a result of his mother’s abandonment, Mehmet grew up with the belief that he is so flawed that no woman will ever love him. This would explain why there is no trace whatsoever of women and/or girls in Mehmet’s life — romantic or otherwise. And yet, women are unfortunately well represented within the ranks of informal garbage collectors, both in Turkey and around the world. Mehmet’s all-male crew and social circle appear therefore somewhat unrealistic.

Finally, “Kağıttan Hayatlar“, touches on several themes — such as mental health, homelessness, childhood trauma, recycling, etc. — that present broader sociopolitical implications. Can Ulkay, however, maintains the focus exclusively on Mehmet’s personal narrative. Consequently, his characters result completely apolitical — in the sense that they never discuss issues that are relevant to their life, such as the key role of informal garbage collectors in Turkey’s environmental protection; the fierce struggle that independent collectors are waging against the local governments and the big recycling corporations; or the discrimination that the likes of Mehmet continue to experience in Turkish society.

“Kağıttan Hayatlar” (Paper Lives) is a movie designed for careful and dedicated consumption. At each stage, Director Can Ulkay lets us see only what he wants us to see, and only when he wants us to see it.  He challenges viewers to peel back the film’s successive layers until all the hidden parts are allowed to emerge. In the end, however, patience has its rewards. Moving and enlightening at the same time, “Kağıttan Hayatlar” is one of those rare movies that will stay with us long after the final credits roll.

@ Article Copyright by Paola Cesarini. All sources for this article are included as hyperlinks. All pictures and video clips belong to their original owners, where applicable. No copyright infringement intended.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. P. Rivera says:

    Yes, nothing is what it seems . Wonderful psicological movie!! I watched it twice to understand some scenes. Bravo Cagatay Ulusoy and all the actors!!! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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