Shevaun Mizrahi’s Distant Constellation is a master class in the art of the portrait. Set at a Turkish retirement home, the film exposes the idea of places as metaphors, mirrors, and symptoms for the people who inhabit them. This idea is illustrated by the subjects’ age and made poetically clear by the enormous construction site that surrounds, if not besieges, the home. All of the noise going on around the home literalizes the symbolic wreckage that the film’s subjects stand on: a violent reminder of the clockwork order of things, of rushing out the old in order to make room for the new.
This rush seems to be as much natural as it is manmade, and is akin to that of the real estate developers who harass the last remaining tenant of a ghostly building in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius. In that film, the harassers who put pressure on Sonia Braga’s protagonist are compared to termites, demolishing, bit by bit, the apartment building she’s called home for much of her adult life. In Mizrahi’s documentary, it’s the construction of a new structure, neighboring the retirement home full of so much life that the workers cannot see or are simply oblivious to, that proclaims finitude.
Inside the home, a man fiddles with his glasses and reminisces about reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Another remembers fondly that in 1958 there were 500,000 call girls in the streets of Paris. An Armenian woman recalls her people’s lives under the Turks: stabbings, shootings, burning, and being forcibly converted to Islam. Distant Constellation doesn’t try to capture these stories in their entirety. It does justice to its subjects by precisely respecting the rustiness of human recollection and accepting the bits of anecdotes that the subjects report to the camera for what they are: frail fragments. And ephemeral ones at that. Given the different levels of lucidity of some of the elderly people portrayed, one of whom believes he’s being followed by hairy aliens, those vivacious pieces of memories may be lost forever as soon as they are uttered should Mizrahi’s camera not be there to catch them.
Unlike other documentaries that string together different individual portraits under the same literal structure, such as Eduardo Coutinho’s Master, A Building in Copacabana or Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams, Distant Constellation feels more like a poetic montage than a series of accounts. Mizrahi is just as interested in the individual inhabitants of the retirement home as he is in their belongings—their only companions, it seems, when the film crew is gone. These are talking heads very much invested in handling props that invite the viewer’s contemplation: a magnifying glass for reading the numbers on an old Nokia phone, a photo camera handled by a man going blind, a radio, an electric shaver, and a clock made in the USSR.
The fine print on that clock disorients us ever so gracefully, along with the fact that the men and women in the film speak different languages: French, English, and Turkish. Where are we, exactly? The beauty of the film is its commitment to articulating a sense of space and yet revealing that space to be a kind of nowhere—or nowhere’s anteroom. If we aren’t sure where we are, or where the subjects before us are from, we all share the certainty of knowing we’re close to some kind of end. Distant Constellation is a portrait haunted by time-keeping in a world where time is already up. The film’s subjects are encircled by clocks and watches, aurally wrapped up in tick-tock sounds, or transfixed by the passing of the moon. In an incredible moment, the old Armenian woman falls asleep before the camera while telling a story, only to wake up soon after and apologize to the camera: “I drop like that…”