Distant Constellation (2017) ****
Dir: Shevaun Mizrahi | USA/Turk/Ned | Doc | 80′
An Istanbul retirement home is playfully haunted by the rich and colourful memories of its battle-scarred occupants in this impressive and gracefully composed debut from Shevaun Mizrahi.
Outside, high-rise construction takes Turkey into an acquisitive new chapter of its history. But in the faded splendour of their palazzo building, the old guard reminisce with humour, perseverance and poignancy, remembering a time when life was fraught with war and poverty but also held together by a sense of community and the simple pleasures of sex, family, music and the visual arts. Dressed up for another day alone with their memories, the cultured occupants of this care home – who range from late seventies to much older – are left to their own devices, keeping their minds sharp with crosswords in the privacy of their rooms. Others sits together in companionable silence, gazing wistfully into the camera or staring vacantly to the world outside. Mizrahi’s one-to-one encounters are mostly observational and her static camera patiently contemplates each individual without rushing on, even when clearly some are suffering from senility, or even early stage dementia, while others are bent over and crippled by age.
Selma, an Armenian woman in her late nineties. even nods off while chatting (Mizrahi stays off camera, and we don’t hear her voice). She tells how her mill-owning family were chased from their village during the Armenian genocide; the men killed with knives and the animals burnt. “1915 was a terrible time…we were forced to convert to Islam”. Having lost the opportunity to marry, she looked after a Turkish baby for two years, and cried when she left her, never having kids herself. She advises Mizrahi to get married and raise a family when she can but is clearly philosophical about the past: “life has been good to me”.
In another room a soulful photographer attempts to load his camera, repeating over and over again: “I can’t see”. We feel for him, as French music plays softly in the background. Shaved and dressed in a suit and tie, he won’t be going anywhere today but looks forward to his birthday, checking the date on his mobile phone, with a magnifying glass. “in 9 days time, they will bring a cake”. A photo on the wall shows him proudly posing with his camera, his glossy black hair slicked back, he looks like a 1950s matinée idol .
A couple of old boys chat in a stationary lift – which they can’t operate, or pretend they can’t. One says to the other, a heavy smoker: “I’m sick of your breath, take an eucalyptus sweet, or even two” The lift door eventually opens to let two women in. Another – rather dapper pianist – treats us to a classical flurry on the keyboards before gushing forth with some particularly florid memories with his girlfriend in the back of a car: Sexual desire – and the longing for physical touch doesn’t change with age and he is clearly concerned about his emotional future. Hoping there will another relationship in his life (he’s only 77), he swiftly proposes marriage to Mizrahi: “you’re 29, I don’t expect you to stop going out dancing with your friends”. In return, he offers his generous pension, as a dowry.
As dawn breaks, a woodpecker and some spirited birdsong ushers in another day, as residents wash and dress in hopeful preparation. But the swirling murmuration of the starlings also signals the change of season as another winter approaches, suitably recalling the words of Dylan Thomas: ‘Old age should burn and rave at close of day’. It certainly describes these spirited people, captured so charmingly here by Shevaun Mizrahi. MT
NOW ON RELEASE AT ARTHOUSE CINEMAS