A ‘Constellation’ of Age and Memories in the Heart of Istanbul

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BOSTON – When you enter an independent or assisted living home, you sometimes feel like you are entering a different realm, where time is slowed down or halted, and the past and present simultaneously exist. Somehow Bostonian filmmaker Shevaun Mizrahi captured this almost mystical feeling in her 82-minute documentary “Distant Constellation,” which is playing in New York, Boston and Chicago before a national release. Set in a retirement home in Istanbul, the film includes glimpses into the lives of a number of Armenian residents.

A scene from “Distant Constellations” with Osep Minasoglu on the right (courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

As the viewer slowly sinks into the film, he gradually pieces together where he finds himself. The colorful dialogue takes place in multiple languages, Turkish, Armenian, English and French, unified through the English subtitles, but none of the names of the characters are given, nor is the place identified directly.

Among the main Armenians depicted, Osep Minasoğlu (Hovsep Minasyan, 1929-2013) is a famous photographer unable to take photos and constantly repeating phrases. Selma (a pseudonym) is an Armenian woman still living in fear, focused on her tragic family history and the destruction of her village in 1915. Like Osep, she passed away while the film was still being made, in 2012. Gaspar Beyleryan had been an Armenian priest but also had done a lot of metaphysical exploration. He is shown doing a hypnotism, and the film closes with the story he relates of a boy who drowns and dies, yet ends up living after all.]

A scene from “Distant Constellations” with “Selma” (courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

Of course there are many quirky non-Armenian characters too. The elderly Levantine pianist Roger Dumas, for example, ends up attempting to charm and proposition the filmmaker, at least 40 years younger than him.

Filmmaker Mizrahi grew up in the United States but has close ties to Istanbul. She has an American mother who separated from her Turkish husband, so Shevaun would go to see her father and other relatives in Turkey during the summers. Consequently, she picked up some Turkish over the years. Her grandmother and other relatives there, being themselves part of a minority group there, spoke six or seven languages each, and her father grew up in the same area as the retirement home.

Shevaun Mizrahi (courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

Mizhrahi said that she always was really involved with photography from an early age. A mentor in high school helped her build up a portfolio, and her worked was exhibited at the Smithsonian of American Art.

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In college at the University of Pennsylvania, she double majored in cognitive neuroscience and English literature, which allowed her to incorporate many varied interests. She took courses in philosophy, anthropology and psychology, and initially thought of going to medical school. She said, “I was motivated on that path to work with people on an intimate level, to be close with them and get involved with healing arts like medicine.” At the same time, she volunteered in hospitals and neuroscience labs, but after this period of exploration returned to art.

She went to graduate school at New York University to study film, and through the Marcie Bloom Fellowship in Film became Edward Lachman’s assistant for two years. She also became fast friends with fellow students Deniz Buga and Shelly Grizim, who came on as producers for “Distant Constellation.” Grizim edited the movie with Mizrahi. They became a very small team working steadily over the past three years to carry the movie through distribution. Mizrahi said that as they did not get funding, they were basically engaged in “a labor of love.”

When asked if she felt cinema had a healing dimension, she responded, “It definitely can be. When you watch films and make films, they interact with you on a molecular level.” Speaking about making “Distant Constellation,” she said, “In this process in particular, it did create a safe mode for me in front of subjects to go through some process together that was good for both of us. Some film productions can be very violent but this was certainly not true in this case.” She said that the time spent with the community in the home was enjoyable, fun and meaningful, yet there was no deeper significance than that.

Mizrahi declines to be identified as part of any school of filmmaking, but did mention her admiration for Pedro Costa, a Portuguese director. His film “Colossal Youth” (2006) deals with somewhat similar themes to her movie and was made in a similar low-budget fashion. Costa takes his time in unspooling the story. Mirzahi liked that it is about how things happen, and about being present in the moment.

As a teenager, she liked the spirit of magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and has thought about how to build it visually through color and sound. In a sense, she said, her filmmaking approach is impressionistic.

She does not work in straightforward narrative in documentaries nor make political films. However, she said that her approach “in some ways helps you discuss political issues more honestly, particularly when there is no ideological agenda.”

The retirement home in “Distant Constellations” (courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

Mizrahi had been visiting the Istanbul retirement home for two years and became quite familiar with the neighborhood as well as the residents and staff. She began shooting in 2011, but because she did not have special funding and had to work at different jobs, it took her six years to finish filming. She would shoot each time, working as a one-woman crew, when she was going to Turkey to visit her family. The film is constructed in such a way that it appears to take place over the course of several days but this is a cinematic illusion.

Mizrahi explained that in addition to the issue of financing, it was a complex project requiring much time because she had to build relationships and trust. She said she had to be thoughtful about how to prepare the film, as it dealt primarily with minority groups in present-day Turkey.

A “window on the world”: a construction site near the retirement home in “Distant Constellations” (courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

Around 2011, the construction work in the area surrounding the home picked up. Mizrahi said that previously, “it had been a rather quiet place on the top of a hill with a lot of older establishments. From inside the building you could look out and see the cityscape for miles.” But then the construction of high rises, hotels and nightclubs began on a large scale. She said, “The physical experience of walking there completely changed. There were such loud noises. It was dusty, and this very visceral shock between the experience of being outside where things were changing at a very fast pace and being inside, in a quiet chamber of memories, with the waiting and slowing down of time.”

Today there are huge skyscrapers surrounding the home on all sides, with their glass reflecting blue light onto the home. Mizrahi said, “The home is very much like a time capsule, like the last chapter of that generation. It is very unusual to find people with those stories now.”

This changed situation gave her the central tension of the film, with the contrast of these two environments. Mizrahi said, “Once I understood that, it was about building it up, building the pieces in a way that would allow this tension to vacillate in a very classical sense, like a plot with a good guy and a bad guy.” She had to resist the judgments of the new world outside, yet the hopes and dreams of the new generation, in this case, the construction workers, were not so different from those of the generation before.

Mizrahi accepts that this is not a straightforward film. She avoids showing things in a literal manner. For example, the staff of the home do not appear. The film, she said, is for her “an emotional journey through abstractions, stream of consciousness, the inner world of ideas and memories, and magical sounds and bright colors.”

In this retirement home, one-third or more of the residents are Armenians. There are Turks, Levantines, Spanish, and members of other ethnic groups too. Most everyone, Mizrahi pointed out, was homeless or dealing with poverty. Some were taken off the street. Therefore, paradoxically, although they were quite educated and multilingual they actually had much less money than the construction workers seen outside, who appear to be poor people in the documentary. The retirement home is basically a philanthropic enterprise.

Mizrahi became friends with the residents, and with the construction workers outside, but because she was nonetheless an outsider, the film is, as she put it, an outsider’s inside view. She said that “the idea was to convey what it was to spend time with them,” not to tell them what to say with an agenda. At the most, there was some guiding in terms of topics.
Mizrah said that all the characters were chosen because “they all lack bitterness—there is a kind of optimism and humor. That is the connecting element between them all.” They were the people to whom she was naturally drawn, and, she said, “It was a natural kind of synchronicity with my own rhythm and nature.”

Beyond that, she found that with aging, “all of our ideas become one idea…everything gets channeled into a smaller and smaller lens, until it is distilled into that one main object that defines our spirit, our essence.” Thus, each character strongly represented one thing. The photographer had his relationship with his camera. Another man was primarily into eroticism.
An Armenian woman, Selma, returned again and again to the terrible events of her childhood and their aftermath. Looking at life this way, Mizrahi said, it makes us all wonder what that thing will be for any of us eventually, and what level of control we might have over it.

Mizrahi tried to add some humor in the film as leaven, noting that “any moment of humor becomes so accentuated because it is in the context of the topic of mortality.” The discussions between residents Serkis Zilfioğlu (another Armenian) and İzzet Cemal Alpokay, aptly described by Mizrahi as like a Laurel and Hardy pair, provide one example. They sometimes took refuge in the elevators for their conversations about the cosmos, riding up and down to ensure privacy while discussing topics like aliens.

Mizrahi says that she finds she is better at presenting real time visually and less in showing archival footage and laying out the narrative of past history. Along with an impressionistic approach, she has added a supernatural element to the film, with eerie sounds like wind blowing in the background and unusual lighting. There are long shots of snow falling, flames burning, and people sleeping in the dark. Mizrahi says her approach to the film was a sort of sci-fi anthropology and not purely ethnography. She called it “painted, with a supernatural kind of emotion…so things had to be stylized and arranged and colored and the sound design had to be decorated with certain supernatural sounds to convey that.” The quality of the light in the home, with its large windows, was in fact one reason why she chose it.

Clearly, the film, slow-paced and noncommercial, is not congruent with television and internet culture today, yet, according to Mizrahi, younger people have formed one of the audiences most receptive to the film. She finds, she says, that they are open to new forms of showing time. In addition, there are a lot of universal elements to the film. Mizrahi says, “There is a humanistic quality to these portraits that seems to really connect with people, whether they had an older relative they took care of, or witness modernization in their own neighborhoods. I think this has helped us in sharing all around the world.” People from audiences in varied places like Locarno, Switzerland, would come up and say the film echoed stories from their own grandparents.
The film has played in many competitions internationally. It received the Jury’s Special Mention Award in Locarno and the FIPRESCI Award at Viennale in Vienna, Austria. In South Korea theaters were really packed and it won Best Picture Prize at the Jeonju International Film Festival. It was shown at the Istanbul Independent Film festival this year and theatrical distribution will begin next May in Turkey if all goes well. It also was shown at the retirement home once and the residents, Mizrahi said, really enjoyed it.

“Distant Constellation” won the top prize in Yerevan’s Golden Apricot Film Festival, with the jury primarily composed on non-Armenians. Mizrahi said, “It was one of the festivals I did not attend. It is one of my biggest regrets from the past year.”

In the US, the film ran November 2-7 in New York at the Metrograph (http://metrograph.com/film/film/1828/distant-constellation), on November 9 in Chicago (Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art in Evanston, Illinois) and will be shown on November 26 in Boston again with the director present at the Brattle Theatre (http://www.brattlefilm.org/2018/11/26/distant-constellation/). Grasshopper Film (http://grasshopperfilm.com/film/distant-constellation/) will begin distribution in the United States and Canada afterwards.

Mizrahi won a Guggenheim Fellowship this year, which will help her continue her work. She is already thinking about her next film. She said, “It is my hope that I will be able to make it with the same level of intimacy and visual style. I think it is always a mix of expectations and intention, and unknown circumstances turning them into a new direction. A central idea is going to give the object to focus on and pursue. … I think also as you discover things during the process the audience goes through that with you. I think that is a very important piece of making things.” She also hopes to continue to operate in the same stripped-down fashion, alone without a crew.

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