'Distant Constellation': Film Review

A quiet gem.
11/2/2018

Shevaun Mizrahi's observational doc hangs out with residents in a Turkish nursing home.

In her first feature-length doc, neuroscience student turned filmmaker Shevaun Mizrahi travels to her father's homeland, hanging out in a Turkish nursing home for the dreamily observational Distant Constellation. Far from the filmmaker in both life experience and proximity to the cosmic unknown, the subjects making up this constellation — elderly men and women who evince no self-consciousness around her — are diverse enough to support any number of theories about this graceful film's ultimate meaning. Does their arrangement form a bear or an archer? Do their reflections amount to a political statement, or simply an artful but unpretentious look at the effects of age?

The film's portrait emerges in fragments, apropos of nothing we can discern, with no titles or voiceover to explain who we're meeting. (Names are taken from the press notes.) Here are men with music in their heads, one of them thinking they should try singing "La Marseillaise." There is Roger, complaining on the phone about a case of bronchitis and the "useless drugs" he is on. When he turns to the camera, he admits he's an impatient man. "I think I have a bad character," he says, though he was much worse in his youth.

Elsewhere, Osep fiddles with a camera and anxiously repeats whatever he says two or three times. "Everything is working... my head," he assures us, though we may doubt it. But just as we're tempted to pity him, Mizrahi locates a framed portrait, in which a youthful Osep is the model of a dapper newsman, hair slicked back and flashbulbs at the ready.

The film's most conventional passage fills the frame with a close-up of an old woman who calls herself "Selma." Even at this age, she's afraid of what would happen if she was identified saying the things she says: "They would torture me." She's the child of a prosperous Armenian family who lived through 1915, a "disastrous year for Armenians in Turkey." Selma says that in order to remain in the country, everyone in the family "had to become Islam" and take new names.

Other interviewees dwell on more pleasant memories. Roger, after a bit of talk about Lolita — surely he doesn't actually think Nabokov's book was a memoir?! — pulls out a manuscript of his own, reading about an erotic encounter he had as a young man and pausing occasionally to make sure we're following him. After a while, he'll look hopefully at the young woman behind the camera and make a proposal that, if not indecent, is extremely unlikely. In other circumstances, we would add Roger to the endless list of men who don't know what they should and shouldn't say to women. But since he would appear to have no power to wield over Mizrahi or anyone else, perhaps we'll instead be amused by or even appreciative of Roger's refusal to let this setting emasculate him. Hope springs eternal.

Other men enjoy more benign mischief. Two chummy geezers take the elevator up and down for who knows how long, joyriding past others who would like a ride. They discuss the possibility that life exists on other planets, and their casual attitude toward such grand questions dovetails with the film's quiet sense of humor, which is sometimes dark but never belittling.

Mizrahi bookends the film with scenes set away from the retirement home, in a makeshift dorm inhabited by young construction workers. These men are erecting the several half-made buildings we glimpse outside the windows of her subjects' rooms — a future being constructed while the past waits out its final days. If they live long enough, these men will someday sit in visiting rooms and mine this period for anecdotes. If they're lucky, they'll have someone like Mizrahi to tell them to.

Production company: Pandora Film
Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Director-d
irector of photography: Shevaun Mizrahi
Screenwriter: Ulrich Kohler
Producers: Shelly Grizim, Deniz Buga
Editors: Shevaun Mizrahi, Shelly Grizim

In Turkish, English, Armenian, French, Greek and Kurdish
82 minutes