Netflix film sheds light on Istanbul's street collectors
Lead actor Çağatay Ulusoy and everyone else behind Paper Lives deserve to be commended for shedding light on the lives of Istanbul's collectors, accurately portraying their trade without romanticizing their brutal, grinding working conditions.
At any moment on nearly any one of Istanbul's endless maze of streets, a recycler of paper, plastic and other products can be seen rummaging through trash cans, stuffing their hulking carts to the brim which they pull by hand, deftly maneuvering through the city's choking traffic. They are everywhere yet hidden in plain view. They appear inseparable from their carts, and few people stop to think about where they live, where they came from, and what is like to do this dangerous, grueling job day in and day out.
Remarkably, Netflix has shed light on Istanbul's recycler community in its latest original production from Turkey, Paper Lives. Known for playing the lead in the country's first Netflix series, The Protector, Çağatay Ulusoy eschews his typically handsome, clean-shaven look with shaggy hair, a gruff beard, and a heavyset build in Paper Lives, where Ulusoy plays the leader of a group of recyclers. Ulusoy's character Mehmet both manages their storage facility and takes to the streets with a cart himself. We learn early on that his kidneys are failing, presumably due to the hazards of the occupation. Despite a regiment of pills and periods of sickness, he doesn't stop working.
Mehmet lives alone in a run-down Beyoğlu apartment, and is respected by those in his community, who are also among the disenfranchised elements of society. One evening he notices movement in one of the carts in his building and assumes it to be a cat, though he is surprised to find Ali, a young, terrified boy covered in bruises. Ali tells Mehmet he is being beaten by his stepfather and that his mother tossed him into a passing cart for his own protection.
With drone cameras looming over the glittering city, the film effectively captures the beauty of Istanbul at night and provides a realistic portrayal of the work and lives of the city's recyclers, who come from all different walks of life: men young and old, children, women, and foreign nationals from West Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. While Ulusoy in The Protector was convincing if unremarkable, his performance in Paper Lives is outstanding. He quickly assumes the role of a father figure for Ali, who is unrealistically determined to earn money to save his mother from her abusive husband. He wants a job, so Mehmet shows him the ropes of recycling while trying to convince the reticent Ali to tell him where his mother lives. It is not hard for Mehmet to sympathize with the child as he too came from a broken home. His only family is the rough and tumble group of collectors he works with and an elderly taxi driver that looks out for him.
It is estimated that over 100,000 people collect recyclables from the streets of Istanbul. They are mostly ignored, but have faced problems from police in the past, who have confiscated their carts. They are paid based on the weight of the products they collect, motivating them to pack their bulging carts until they are about to burst and make as many trips as possible during the day. Some can be seen blasting down Istanbul's steep hills, using plastic bottles under their shoes to glide smoothly, a wild stunt that is featured in Paper Lives.
Ulusoy and everyone else behind Paper Lives deserve to be commended for shedding light on the lives of Istanbul's collectors, accurately portraying their trade without romanticizing their brutal, grinding working conditions. After the success of the wildly popular series Ethos, which was both critically acclaimed and the subject of a heated debate in Turkey, Paper Lives marks another solid original Netflix effort from the country.
Istanbul still lacks a sufficient, comprehensive recycling system, so the thousands of collectors will continue to hit the streets in search of the salvageable throwaways from a massive, crowded city of 16 million that consumes accordingly. In the summer of 2016, I encountered two older collectors who were taking a break from work and enjoying a cold beer on a back street in the neighborhood of Kumkapı, a luxury they told me they could only afford once or twice a month. One of the men had what looked like an IV needle in his left arm, and I asked him what happened. He said his heart stopped and he momentarily died, but was brought back to life. He was back at work the next day.