Our Exclusive Interview with “Paper Lives” Director, Can Ulkay — Part Two

Can Ulkay and Çağatay Ulusoy on the set of “Paper Lives”

This article contains the second and final portion of our interview with Director Can Ulkay, in which he elaborates on the psychological, social, and artistic aspects of “Paper Lives” and on his plans for the future. (For Part One of the interview, please click here.) We faithfully reproduced Mr. Ulkay’s answers in our English translation from the Turkish original.

Can Ulkay is the Director of “Kağıttan Hayatlar” (Paper Lives) — the Turkish movie starring Çağatay Ulusoy, which was released last March on Netflix to worldwide acclaim. (Read our review here.) In this final part of our conversation, Mr. Ulkay impressed us with the social responsibility, scientific accuracy, and detailed research which he invested into the movie. We were also touched by the humility he displayed in talking about the success of “Paper Lives,” which remains among the most-watched movies on Netflix during 2021

We are extremely grateful to Mr. Ulkay for taking the time to provide such interesting and exhaustive replies to our queries. Undoubtedly, this is his most extensive public reflection on “Paper Lives” thus far, and certainly the first to appear in an English-language publication.

Çok çok teşekkür ederim, hocam!

Çağatay Ulusoy and Emir Ali Doğrul in “Paper Lives”

What were your sources of inspiration for “Paper Lives”?

My sources of inspiration were the streets, and the children, and the paper collectors who call these streets home. The magic of Istanbul’s old streets and neighborhoods offered another key source of inspiration for the story. While working on the script, we became immersed in the lives of these people, whom we often meet on the streets but never quite really “see.” As I listened to them talk about their lives over tea or coffee, I became increasingly motivated. Their experiences, thoughts, ideas, sadness, regrets, likes, dislikes, laughs, fears, and other feelings infused every scene that I realized. A character, a life, a place, a piece of music, and even a little bird’s chirp may sometimes offer inspiration for a story or a film. These are things that you perceive, experience, and feel in your subconscious. When I talked to real people and realized that I did not actually know much about street children, garbage collectors, or homeless people, I wanted to learn more. Their life stories thus provided the greatest sources of inspiration for the film.

“Paper Lives” provides a dignified representation of garbage collectors that inspires empathy, but never pity. How did you manage to walk such a fine balance, and still provide a realistic illustration of Mehmet’s world?

It was very difficult to achieve this balance. And, in particular, to be able to illustrate it in only 97 minutes. So, let’s say that we tried to ensure part of this balance through accurate visual and emotional representations. More precisely, we made a conscious effort to “see” these paper collectors, whom we meet every day on the streets but also generally ignore.

We did not wish, however, to turn this human tragedy into a melodrama. Like other people, paper collectors laugh, have fun, and have a sense of humor. Yes, they accept their life but also try to improve it no matter what. We did not want the lives portrayed in the film to inspire pity. We wanted to represent them authentically, as something that can happen in life.  Of course, things were different when it came to Mehmet’s story. We felt sorry for him, we suffered with him. Mehmet’s life was an illusion. We illustrated his world, while he was living for a few days in the childhood created by his imagination. At the same time, we also portrayed his real life. We tried to make the audience actually feel as if there was a real child next to him.

Does the film accurately reflect current scientific findings on Mehmet’s medical condition?

We tried to ensure that Mehmet’s condition was portrayed in a scientifically accurate fashion. The movie showcases two kinds of trauma. The psychological and the physical, which are often mutually reinforcing. During the pre-production phase, we consulted separately with psychologists, psychiatrists, pedagogues, and nephrologists. As a result, we learned that the combination of trauma and renal failure can trigger “delirium syndrome.” [Delirium,” is a common symptom of kidney failure, which develops when toxins accumulate in the body as a result of kidney malfunction, start to affect the brain, and quickly lead to cognitive impairment.]

Delirium, in turn, provided us with a blueprint for Mehmet’s story. In the movie, Mehmet’s health condition is quite desperate. [The only thing that might help is a kidney transplant, for which he has been saving money. As delirium sets in, however,] he starts to experience a decrease in consciousness, attention, temporal/spatial orientation, and logical thinking. He also manifests mood swings, agitation, delusions, and visual hallucinations. By representing the full range of symptoms, the movie intentionally mirrors the scientific findings on Mehmet’s disease.


“Paper Lives” emphasizes the importance of mothers, while fielding a predominantly male cast. Why is that?

The mother — or rather the absence thereof — is the least visible character in the movie. At the same time, she is the main protagonist of the story. I would like to answer your question by quoting Atilla Dorsay, my dear teacher and one of Turkey’s most important film critics, who wrote several important books about cinema. In his thoughtful review of my movie he wrote:

‘Paper Lives, despite the scarcity of women – or, as a matter of fact, their virtual absence — is, in essence, a film about the mother-son relationship. The scenes that illustrate this point with deep sadness are not easy to forget. For example, a child explains his wish to die young by saying: “I want to die now because if it happens later my mother won’t be able to recognize me!” Or the street kids’ pretext for getting high: “If you take this, you will see your mother!” And the bleeding…’

Again, as our esteemed psychologist Doğan Cüceloğlu, whom we lost very recently, said during a television program: “If you don’t have a mother, you have no one.” At the time, his inability to hold his tears despite his advanced age was an indication of how significant the trauma of losing his mother still was. It would therefore appear that “Paper Lives” will take its place in the history of cinema as the film, which proves these words true.

Selen Öztürk as Ali’s mother in “Paper Lives”

“Paper Lives” tackles serious social issues. What specific message does it seek to communicate?

Abandoned children, orphans, fatherless and motherless people who live on the streets, paper collectors: these are the lives of the people who live with us, whom we meet every day in big cities, metropolises, and other crowded places. Increasing their visibility is, therefore, “Kağıttan Hayatlar’s” main purpose. There are many stories about them in the movie. From time to time, these stories make us think, laugh, or sad. In the film, we illustrate to the audience not only the current lives of paper collectors, but we also explain some of the reasons that in the past led them to become who they are. Hence, the most important question that our film raises is: “How well do we know the people, whom we cross paths, share the same streets, and breathe the same air with every day?

How was the atmosphere on the set? Did you manage to experience light moments while working on this emotionally intense story?

Can Ulkay, Turgay Tanülkü, Çağatay Ulusoy and Ersin Arici

We made the film during a period characterized by a severe pandemic. We constantly felt the pressures created by this extraordinary situation. Everything had to be different from regular set operations. Moreover, our movie narrated a very emotionally intense story full of heartbreaking scenes. One day, we had to shoot in close succession emotional scenes with Çağatay and Emir Ali. The next day we had to do the same with Turgay, Ersin and Selen. The pandemic brought us closer as a team. We were always together on the set. Because of the working conditions dictated by the pandemic, we became a family without leaving the set. It became a rather intimate experience for all of us. There were times when we took breaks from shooting and had fun together. We enjoyed these times a great deal.

Each frame of “Paper Lives” is like a tableau. Can you please illustrate the artistic vision behind the movie?

Whether it is mainstream, independent, or arthouse, what matters in cinema is the “frame.” Everything you want to communicate, be it emotion, drama, light, or color, must be in that square. I will say that the key precept for my own work is: “Every shot you take is the director’s picture, it is his painting … Therefore, you have to work on every frame.”

We put the same cinematic and artistic effort into each frame of “Paper Lives.” While making the movie, we worked without worrying whether it would be a mainstream, independent, or arthouse film. We also always kept in mind that cinema is a visual art. Employing real set decoration, original costumes, and impressive locations, we sought to communicate an accurate and authentic picture – one that combined the story’s emotion and drama with carefully crafted visual expression rich with lighting, color, and music. Someone said that “a movie is successful if it creates awareness.” If the artistic vision behind “Paper Lives” supported the film in creating awareness and communicating it effectively to the audience, we have achieved our goal.

Did you expect “Paper Lives” to become so successful both domestically and internationally? And why does the film possess such a global appeal?

We took great pleasure in writing, shooting, and editing “Kağıttan Hayatlar.” We made it with passion. We filmed a story we loved. We felt good about it and that it could become a successful movie. When “Paper Lives” was released on 12 March 2021, however, it suddenly snowballed around the world. While I expected people to like the film, I did not foresee it growing so quickly or becoming so globally recognized. Yes, the subject was heavy, but we tried to render the story fluid and fresh. Reminiscent of a psychological drama, “Paper Lives” could have easily turned into a dark and distressing movie. However, we believed that the audience was not interested in this kind of narrative. When you look at the individual lives of the homeless, the orphans, and the paper collectors, it is not difficult to find stories plagued by mental issues. The duration of a single movie, however, would not allow us to give justice to each and every one of them. We thus identified a common theme among these stories, that of “maternal love” or rather the absence thereof. This leitmotif set the background and tone for the entire movie. Looking at those lives, those places, those papers, and those cardboards through the lenses of a mother-child relationship clearly appealed to audiences all over the world.

What was your greatest reward, and what was your greatest challenge in making “Paper Lives”?

I believe that challenge and reward are two faces of the same medal – in our case of the pandemic. In the production phase, the greatest challenge was to figure out how to make a movie under these difficult conditions, where the usual rules did not apply. As we were filming, our biggest test was to complete the shooting while also protecting the staff. After we wrapped up the film and the day of the release arrived, we felt the combined impact of these challenges. The positive feedback, admiration, and popularity, which the movie received from around the world, constituted our most important reward. One that made us forget all the challenges we encountered along the way.

Where does “Paper Lives” fit in your career as a filmmaker? And where are you going next in your profession?

Can Ulkay

Each of my movies occupies a different place. “Paper Lives” is one of the most important films in my career. It has encouraged me to try new things in other areas, and in different styles of narrative. At the same time, the movie is incredibly important because it marks an important transition in my professional life. Working with Netflix carried me to different places. It showed me that it was possible for a movie, which I created, to attract a global audience and spread its message around the world very rapidly. As a matter of fact, our invaluable exchange clearly revealed the extraordinary consequences that Netflix’s global reach may produce not only for me, but also for my actors and, of course, for Turkish cinema. In the future, I will always remember how my film was able to reach people on a planetary scale and will practice my profession accordingly. Thank you very much.

@ 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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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dimitriu Gabriela says:

    Thank you very much!


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