“Distant Constellation,’ a documentary featuring residents of a Turkish old age home sharing stories of their youth, might not sound riveting to all tastes — but through the lens of director-cinematographer Shevaun Mizrahi, it is one of the more exciting achievements in nonfiction cinema in recent memory. Raised in Massachusetts by her mother, Mizrahi would often visit her Turkish-born father in Istanbul, where she would volunteer at the government run facility for the elderly and spend time with its residents. Many of them were minorities, and spoke different languages, making it easy for Mizrahi to communicate.
“They lacked bitterness, despite the tragedies some had through,” said Mizrahi in an interview with IndieWire in New York, where she was in town for a screening of the film at BAMcinemafest. “It was a place that felt familiar and those relationships built over years. I was studying cinematography [at NYU’s graduate program] and my camera was like a sketchbook. I always had it and experimenting with filming. I started shooting little portraits of the people I was closest to.”
At the time, Mizrahi had been working as an assistant to the legendary cinematographer Ed Lachman (“Far From Heaven”), who she met through the Marcie Bloom Fellowship. (Mizrahi worked with Lachman on Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and parts of Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise” trilogy.) Ironically, what she learned in her time with Lachman was that she didn’t want to be a cinematographer, but she was drawn to Lachman’s artistic flexibility in approaching the medium from different directions and his embracing of filmmakers, like Seidl, who were forging their own way of making films.
“Ed works a lot from photography, so this process of translating still imagery into moving image, which is something kind of abstract, but it was inspiring to see how he managed those [influences],” said Mizrahi. “He’s also a wild card, so open to new voices, in a way that’s unique for people working within the the industry. I learned that I wanted to do things in my own way and at my own rhythm and pace – ‘Distant Constellation’ became my way of discovering the rules of cinematography and filmmaking don’t necessarily make sense to me.”
Mizrahi looked for inspiration outside the film world and found it when she audited Gordon Lish’s poetry class at the Center for Fiction, where she was exposed to the writing of Jack Gilbert and Wallace Stevens.
“The film is taking more from poetry than another filmmaker,” said Mizrahi. “Wallace Stevens has a poem called the ‘Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.’ He’s talking about in that poem creating the ‘intensest rendezvous’ where you assume the greatest good of things and create a space of warmth and intimacy. I knew if the film could achieve the energy and themes of that poem, I would say it’s a big success. I’m not sure it does, but that’s what I was striving for.”
When Mizrahi would return to Turkey she tried to find a way with her camera to translate the intense intimacy she felt with her elderly friends, while also expressing her subjects’ warmth of spirit in the light and space, which, from zoomed out perspective, could seem cold and institutional.
“From a visual perspective, [the film] follows certain rules that gave it a coherency, like avoiding really wide shots,’ said Mizrahi. “The camera is usually close and quite intimate, so in that way you could craft the space like clay. It wasn’t necessarily how it looked in real life, but you’re searching for that way of rendering the emotion in the way you compose the image.”
Mizrahi filled her narrow window with the texture, tiles and intricate detail of the old French-style building. In post-production, she taught herself how to isolate the colors of the walls and give them an almost painterly feel. Most importantly, she took advantage of the tall building’s large windows, which no other tall buildings around it, that let in a tremendous amount of natural light that Mizrahi could easily craft – using simple bounce boards and filming at certain times of day – to make the building feel like an ethereal tower suspended from the rest of the world.
“One benefit of working with older people is there is a lot of repetition, so as a cameraperson working along you can see things again and again, and edit the film in advance in your mind with the moments you want to capture,” said Mizrahi. “You can recreate certain interactions, or place things according the best light and the way that is going to convey the story the best.”
The caretakers, as well as the more institutional side of the building, were left out of the frame. When the filmmaker first screened a rough cut for her friends, one of the early criticisms that the filmmaker heard was they struggled to get a sense of the geography of the setting, but it was balance that Mizrahi considered important.
She said she wanted “the space to mirror the interiority of the characters, which meant to really focus on their vitality and them as their own people of thoughts and memories and not get too involved in the bureaucracy of aging, and the physical impairments.” Instead, “it’s about their relationship with their ideas and this stream of consciousness, rhythm, almost like their internal monologue that would come from them just being alone [in] the shared space with me because the relationships built over so many years with a lot of trust, warmth and love from both sides. I needed that to be suspended from what was actually around them.”
The filmmaker did include the construction site and workers surrounding the building. Outside every window was a bulldozer or crane modernizing in area around the isolated tower. For seven years, Mizrahi visited the old age home where the same workers were constantly working on erecting new buildings.
“On the walks there, just the sounds, it was just a shocking soundscape and such contrast with the inside of the building, which was this chamber of memories,” said Mizrahi. “The workers in Istanbul [worked] through the snow and night, it’s this endless machine that is bringing this future that you can’t avoid.”
The construction workers started to recognize Mizrahi and eventually she got to know them over tea and built a relationship as close as she had with the elderly residents. That not only changed her perspective on the world outside the old-age home, but helped her figure out how to incorporate the workers in the film in a way that could heighten and expand the film’s themes.
“Instead of having the construction be this very threatening [symbol] of change, it actually was more about this cycle of life and the next generation coming up,” said Mizrahi.
The entire film was shot with no budget and using one of most inexpensive DSLR cameras on the market. Mizrahi points to her NYU classmate, “Son of Saul” director László Nemes, who has become a big advocate for shooting on 35mm film. She said she would love to do it herself someday. Yet for her the inspiration became Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s “Colossal Youth” (2006), which was shot on an older, inexpensive DV camera. In the process of making “Distant Constellation,” Mizrahi learned her movie would benefit from a similar raw and rough texture that Costa found with his low-fi gear.
“Sometimes the really rough camera sound, even when we had two options was better than the lav sound,” said Mizrahi, who recorded very clear sound with a wireless lavalier microphone attached to her subjects, but also captured audio with a small, inexpensive shotgun mic attached to the camera. “There is something very raw about this film and sometimes when it’s cleaned up it loses its aura – and I have no logical explanation for it – but often times rough imperfection would lead to a more emotional outcome, which is counter to everything we are taught in film school by professionals. This piece has its own rhythm, soul and heartbeat and a big part of the process was it teaching me what it wants. You aren’t telling it what it is, you need to listen and be receptive to what is working, and sometimes that meant the less clean audio.”
Mizrahi recently won a Guggenheim fellowship which she is using to take time off from freelance work and to find her next film project, while exploring her distribution options for “Distant Constellation.”
“Distant Constellation” played at the 10th annual BAMcinemafest, June 20-July, in Brooklyn, New York.