Paper Lives: Netflix ~ Non-Spoiler Review

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Image is a photo montage of scene from Paper Lives. Centre image is the theatrical poster for the film.


Paper Lives (2021) also known as Struggle Alley (Kagittan Hayatlar) is a Turkish Netflix Original film. 1hr 36 min. Available with subtitles and dubbing. 15 Cert U.K.


“Mehmet, a young man, earns a living by collecting paper. His biggest supporter in this life is Tahsin Baba. Mehmet’s life takes a completely different turn when an 8-year-old boy named Ali enters his life. Mehmet, who tries to reunite Ali with his family, establishes a different bond with the little boy.” (IMDb)

Image is of Çağatay Ulusoy as Mehmet (left) and Emir Ali Dogrib as Ali (right) in Paper Lives.


Çağatay Ulusoy as Mehmet 

Emir Ali Dogrib as Ali 

Ersin Arici as Gonzales

Turgay Tanülkü as Tahsin

Selen Öztürk as Mom 

Osman Iskender Bayer as Old Man 

Tomris Çetinel as Old Woman 

Volkan Çaliskan as Stepfather 

Mehmet Bahattin Genç as Doctor 

Oksan Büyük as Çagla 

Akcan Kovanci as Çagla’s Friend

Anil Özdemir as Paper Collector 


Writer: Ercan Mehmet Erdem

Director: Can Ulkay 

Producers: Pelin Ekinci Kaya, Çagatay Ulusoy, Onur Güvenatam

Composer: Jingle Jingle, Ömer Özgür 

Cinematographer: Serkan Güler 

Theatrical poster for Paper Lives


The story revolves around Istanbul’s waste pickers and the children who for one reason or another live “on the streets” (most usually in abandoned, derelict buildings). The waste pickers make a living by collecting discarded waste.

At the time of writing Paper Lives is the most watched Turkish film and is still at #9 on Netflix for movies (the only non-English language movie on the list).  

“In a world where children are crying, laughter can only be cruel. To all the children who grow up all alone on the streets…”

Turkish theatrical poster for Paper Lives


I had been following the progress of this movie with interest since it was first announced. I was already familiar with Çağatay Ulusoy through his role as Hakan in The Protector (the first-ever Turkish Netflix Original show). Initially, the English title of “Struggle Alley” was a direct translation of the Turkish but was changed to “Paper Lives” at some point. I watched this movie as soon as it was released on Netflix and have now watched it for a second time which has allowed for a more in-depth understanding. 

The film opens immediately with a rapid contrast between the bright lights and affluence of one part of Istanbul and the introduction of the main character of Mehmet who is collecting waste and holding up a convertible in the process. The context and some key characters are established very quickly. We soon learn that this is a man who is extremely physically unwell, in fact at risk of dying. We also see that he possesses a photograph that is very valuable to him and that he is saving up money. Top of his bucket list is “Find your mother”. That there is a bucket list is immediately poignant given what we already know.

Paper Lives revolves around the character of Mehmet and it is Çağatay Ulusoy’s phenomenal, powerhouse performance that brings an energy, truthfulness and honesty that powers it along. He looks very different from the Çağatay some of us recognise by carrying more weight and looking far more unkempt. This is a physical transformation. The sheer range he shows in this role is impressive with everything from light-hearted comedy to gut-wrenching tragedy alongside showing both the physical and mental effects of his life experience and illnesses. We see both his physical and mental scars. 

Scene with Mehmet from Paper Lives

The other key character is that of the little boy, Ali, who Mehmet discovers. A beautiful child who plays his part perfectly and at no time did I think “acting”. Ali is a very important figure in this story. 

The supporting cast is excellent, especially Ersin Arici in the role of Mehmet’s best friend Gonzalez another street child now adult, also not without his own issues. One of his scenes is the funniest and most exciting in the film. It is also wonderful to see a very wide representation of all sorts of people in this movie. What is even more wonderful is the clear and unreserved acceptance within their community of everyone.

Scene of Mehmet (right) and Ali (left) from Paper Lives

There are several moments of foreshadowing, the first and most obvious being the song on the car radio on the very first trip back from the hospital. The lyrics are as follows: 

 “I have an objection to my cruel destiny

I have an objection to this endless agony

To the fickle finger of fate

To the blows dealt by life

To every single trouble 

I have an objection

To loves that remain unfinished 

To my borrowed smile 

To dying before getting to live life 

I have an objection” 

Mehmet is a man who is clearly very much loved by his “Brother” Gonzales and “Uncle” Tahsin and both worry about him a great deal. Meeting Ali appears to change Mehmet’s outlook on life and together they have some wonderful, uplifting times. This is not a film that is all full of doom and gloom throughout, there are some fantastic, entertaining and stunningly beautiful moments. We witness street chases, races, swimming lessons, water fights in the hammam (their once a week bath, these guys really stink!) a birthday party and singing. However, by way of contrast, we also see brutal violence, abuse, the effects of glue sniffing, childhood trauma and mental illness. 

Scene from Paper Lives of Mehmet and Ali swimming in the sea.

Mothers, family and abandonment are central themes of this story. Not only Mehmet but Gonzales (who has no memory of a mother) and the young glue-sniffing boys who wish to reunite with their mothers. Mehmet rages at his “Uncle” about never finding his mother or taking him to her. His Uncle challenges the idea that these were all caring mothers since none came to find their children. There is a dream-like quality as to what their mothers and fathers would be like. Gonzales has his “parents” inked into his skin, whereas in reality, he has none. 

There is a poignant moment where a young boy who, when asked at the birthday party what he wishes for, answers with “I want to die”. Mehmet, puzzled, tells him that he is only young and will one day grow to be a man. When Mehmet then asks him why he wants to die the child explains that his mother died when he was little and that if he dies when he is older his mum won’t recognise him. This is a devastating fear and the reaction from everyone present is… stunned silence.

I loved the choices made by the director, the cinematography and the design (especially the lighting). The locations are well-chosen and full of contrasts capturing the city and its surroundings. The switch in the palette between the days with Ali and the nights is profound and the use of colour is impressive. This has an incredible set design and the costuming is perfect. Make-up is certainly worthy of a mention, as are the SFX notably one horrendously bloody incident in the hospital. The music is great, both the original score and the soundtrack with a wide range of genres. The use of narration near the end was a very effective device. At no time did my attention flag from this film as the pacing is another strong point.

Ultimately this is a tragedy written from the point of view of a child’s life. We witness all that this poor lad has experienced (somewhat sugar-coated perhaps from an even more terrible reality, but nevertheless still horrendous). What is admirable in this movie is that it manages to avoid falling into sloppy sentimentality.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film. It left me deeply sorrowful, not only because of the story that I had just watched but that all of this, every heart-rending moment, mirrors the real lives for young children on the streets. Children who grow into young men (if they live!) who are often criminals or drug addicts or… make no mistake this is an incredibly emotional and powerful film. One off-hand, callous movement by a police officer at the end tipped me right over the edge.

Films like Paper Lives show you the very real power of film, to tell a personal story that has a wider impact and that is fundamentally important. I cannot see anyone coming away from this without being deeply affected. It has tremendous heart.

“All he wanted was to help reunite his abandoned childhood and his mom.” 


Link to review of The Protector S1-3 which stars Çağatay Ulusoy:

The Protector: Netflix S1-3 ~ Non-Spoiler Review

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