Film Review: Distant Constellation

Intriguing but frustrating documentary about residents in an Istanbul retirement home grappling with memory and mortality.
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By turns haunting, overreaching and a tad exploitive (a not uncommon issue in documentaries) Shevaun Mizrahi’s debut feature, Distant Constellation, is also inconclusive, a coda that is paradoxically both flaw and virtue.

Set in an Istanbul retirement home (though it feels more like a nursing home), the film explores the experiences of its elderly Turkish residents, all suffering (in varying degrees) from the ravages of time, physical and mental. It’s an end-of-life narrative about memory, distortions of memory, and mortality, throughout evoking a slow-moving dream stuck in a grayish pre-dawn netherworld with snippets that feel disconnected and random. The bleak color palette and static imagery are moody and surreal.

The Turkish-American one-woman crew (director, editor, etc.) shot the film over a period of years, establishing a rapport, perhaps even a sense of intimacy, with her subjects, whose oral histories marry the confessional with matter-of-fact testimonials. Regret, nostalgia and at moments bravado are present too.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the residents reflecting a spectrum of ethnic/religious affiliations and speaking a range of languages (including Turkish, English, French, Armenian, Greek and Kurdish) also represent a dying subculture of minorities in Turkey that is today largely Muslim.

A survivor of Turkey’s Armenian genocide in 1915, “Selma,” who doesn’t want to use her real name, recounts in a shaky, strangled voice her happy, affluent girlhood morphing into destitution and despair in the wake of the onslaught, her mother and grandmother converting to Islamism to avoid deportation or even death. Without family money (no dowry), Selma was unable to get married or have children. She always loved children, she says.

A legendary photographer, Osep is now losing his sight thanks to a metastasizing cancer, rendering him gaunt and wasted. But he still relishes his cameras, displaying them with pride and celebrating what he can still see. Most poignant, he looks forward to his upcoming birthday, especially the party the home throws for its residents who have birthdays each month. The cake is particularly good.

Lusty Roger is fixated on all matters sexual and/or wants the filmmaker (and by extension her viewers) to think so. He recalls the joy “Lolita” brought him and reads aloud from his own erotic chronicles, graphically detailing how he brought a prostitute to orgasm. He doesn’t much like living alone, he says, and propositions the filmmaker, forty-plus years his junior, with a proposal of marriage in return for his money when he dies. He also implies it’s okay with him if she lives elsewhere and enjoys other partners as long as she’s available to him too. Her responses, if she voices them at all, are not recorded on film.

And then there are Serkis and Izzet, figures right out of an absurdist play (think Beckett or, say, Ionesco), riding the facility’s elevator up and down, occasionally jamming it between floors so other passengers can’t enter the car, thus giving them the space, privacy and time to gossip about other residents and revel in significance-free discussions on such topics as the existence of Martians, life after death, and how many phone calls per week they should reasonably expect from dutiful daughters. Their roguish antics are endlessly amusing to them.

Short of Serkis and Izzet, who communicate with each other, none of the residents are seen interacting with anyone, not staff, not visitors. No one has guests, nor is there any indication that they ever leave the home. Entrapment, isolation and loneliness make for a thematic thread.

Sandwiched between one-on-one interviews (characterized by facial close-ups), Mizrahi creates a sense of place, literal and metaphorical, the camera panning long, claustrophobic, dimly lit halls with the home’s residents seated in a straight line of folding chairs pressed up against the wall. They appear immobilized, staring listlessly ahead. Occasionally, someone rises and slowly, very slowly, shuffles across the floor.

Some of the imagery is potent. Denuded white branches of a fake Christmas tree adorned with festoons of blinking white lights; goldfish swimming in an aquarium that are graceful and lovely yet feel doomed; and, most pointedly, flickering TV screens featuring newscasters, reporters, hosts, guests and actors, all of whom are aggressively, menacingly youthful.

The contrast between young and old, life ending, life continuing, is leaned on too heavily. Outside the home—and often sighted through its windows—we see the construction of a skyscraper, flanked by tall, massive cranes (admittedly forming a dramatic silhouette set against the sky). Hundreds of construction workers are carrying their loads, moving this way and that across the scaffolding.

And here’s where Mizrahi overextends herself, suggesting that despite the chronological differences between the residents and unskilled laborers, there’s common ground in their mutually experienced yearning. We see the jobbers waking up in barrack-like accommodations when it’s still dark outside to launch exhausting, labor-intensive days, only to be repeated the next. Young workers and elderly residents gaze out windows at starry constellations that are exquisite and unreachable. The title has resonance for everybody.

The film would have been better off without the construction next door and the bleakness of its workers. But far more troubling—and on another front entirely—there’s the murky question that exists for many documentaries and has special application here. To wit: to what degree informed consent was truly given, can be given. We assume the residents agreed to something, but what exactly is tenuous at best. Did Selma, for example, really want us to see her nodding off in the middle of a sentence or more appallingly invasive, the camera rolling as one resident in his final moments gasps for breath and makes the most horrible gurgling, desperate noises? Did he ever say that’s fine with him? From the audience’s vantage point, what’s more voyeuristic than watching someone’s transition from autonomous being with agency to inanimate thing with none? The line between authenticity and exploitation is thin.

Still, in all fairness, Mizrahi eschews sensationalism and sentimentality. The thrust of the film is recollection and for the most part memories bring comfort to the residents. They’ll never see the building under construction completed, but that’s not the greatest loss. Or maybe it is. It certainly drives home the notion of imminent death. The final moments are open-ended. There are no further conclusions and that feels so right, though it’s frustrating too.