All over Istanbul, entrepreneurial scavengers pull junk carts, filling the canvas bags on those carts with recyclable cans, liquor bottles and especially cardboard.
A lot of them are orphans, the street children of the city who grew up on this work, running carts for a go-between who pays them for their collections and sells those recyclables on.
In “Paper Lives,” Mehmet (Çagatay Ulusoy) is the Fagan to a gang of these junk-collecting Oliver Twists, feeding the kids and young adults donuts as they head out, paying them off when they return, taking an interest in them because he grew up the same way.
Mehmet is saving up his litter-loot for something, nothing that’s on the “bucket list” he and his best collector Gonzi (Ersin Arici) came up with years back.
“Ride in a convertible,” (in Turkish with subtitles, or dubbed into English), “fly on an airplane…stay in a luxury hotel…find my mother.”
We meet Mehmet knocking on death’s door. A trip to the emergency room reveals that he has kidney failure, has known about it for some time and has been saving up for the day when this rationed health care system finds him a kidney. As it’s his “turn” to get dialysis, he fights off death for another day. But all he frets over is the frantic mother (Selen Öztürk) who dashes into the ER with a little boy who’s stopped breathing.
When he stumbles across a little boy named Ali (Emir Ali Dogrul) stowed away in one of those collection bags, turning him out or calling the cops never figure into his thinking. No, he’s going to “save” this child, maybe get him back to mother the boy claims helped him escape a cruel stepfather.
Screenwriter Ercan Mehmet Erdem and director Can Ulkay introduce us to a fascinating underworld operating in broad daylight of veterans of the carting trade who fend off rival collectors, hide from the cops and know all the tricks for collecting what has value and making a quick get-away when others covet it, too.
Early scenes have a “Man Push Cart” flavor, lots of details of how this off-the-books economy works. Liquor bottles with their caps have value because black marketeers refill them with cheap knockoffs and re-sell them at premium prices, for instance. They carry on with their work as the affluent — locals and foreigners — weave in and out of traffic in luxury cars on their way to chic hotels that the paparazzi stake out for work.
Mehmet is a sort of benign, somewhat shady eminence in his little corner of the world — giving cash to street urchins, making them promise they won’t spend it on glue to sniff.
But “Paper Lives” quickly descends into a sort of overwrought madness the moment the little boy arrives. Mehmet’s behavior is soap opera meltdown over-the-top. He protects the child, lashes out at threats to the child’s wellbeing and threatens even his most intimate friends when they’re not all-in and on-board this little experiment on orphan-raising-an-orphan child rearing.
Ulusoy’s near-hysteria in many moments reminded me of Italian neo-realism pictures like “Bicycle Thieves,” the least realistic parts of those films.
The hero’s histrionics and the fact that the viewer can guess the solution to the “mystery” too soon lessen its impact. But the attention to detail, taking us into this world of Artful Istanbul Dumpster Divers, holds one’s interest throughout.
Little Ali may drive the plot and present obstacles to Mehmet’s life-saving kidney surgery. But one can’t help but think his story, and the movie about him, would have been more interesting and less maudlin and melodramatic had the screenwriter found something more interesting to do with the child.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, violence, smoking, glue-sniffing and lots and lots of profanity
Cast: Çagatay Ulusoy, Emir Ali Dogrul, Ersin Arici, Selen Öztürk and Turgay Tanülkü
Credits: Directed by Can Ulkay, script by Ercan Mehmet Erdem. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:37