‘Distant Constellation’ captures essence of disappearing community

Filmed over a six-year period, Shevaun Mizrahi’s debut film Distant Constellation required a slow and steady approach. The meditative film focuses on the final years of several seniors living in a Istanbul retirement home, all while the neighborhood they live in is being torn down and redeveloped. Shooting the film herself, without financing of production company behind her, Mizrahi’s film has captured critical acclaim for its unique approach, winning the cinematography award from the International Documentary Association (IDA) and an Independent Spirit nomination.

Lesley Coffin: Where did the concept for the film come from?

Shevaun Mizrahi: The film takes place in the neighborhood where my father grew up. My father was part of a minority and lived near the minority population which is around there. He’s since moved to a different part of Istanbul, but the home is a place I visited in 2009 and became really close to the residences. Because the area was going through a time of massive development and change, I felt there was a need to capture its essence before it disappeared.

Lesley Coffin: There is a sense in the film that the physical changes happening in the neighborhood are sort of right outside the doors of the home you were filming in. Was that the case or did you edit it for thematic purposes?

Shevaun Mizrahi: The construction site was directly adjacent, it was across the street from the home. I became really close to the workers during the shooting, that’s why I included them at the beginning and end of the film. The construction turned out to be in parallel with my production. I filmed for six years. They were on that construction job for 10. They just recently completed that job. And during that period, other construction jobs emerged as well at the same time. I wanted the film to capture the main site and the adjacent sites which seemed to come out of nowhere. Every time I came back to film there were these massive physical changes to the neighborhood. And at the same time, I wanted the home to feel like this time capsule where things stay more or less the same, a place where we can hear memories and stories before they disappear. It was a place where we could capture their essence.

Lesley Coffin: Did you give yourself a timeframe to decide when the film would be complete?

Shevaun Mizrahi: We didn’t have funding and had no co-producers. Co-producers are usually giving you money but also setting their own time table when they want you to wrap up. We were very free regarding how we wanted to structure the film. We were ultimately a team of three, myself included, and we made the film around our own schedules. We each had our own lives and had to make a living, so we made this when we could afford the time or when I’d visit my friends in Turkey. Because most of the people in the film have passed away, only the two men in the elevator are still alive, the film’s timeframe was set by the span of the lives of the people in the film.

Lesley Coffin: One of the big stories in the film revolves around a woman speaking of the Armenian Genocide, she’s probably one of the last people who can give that firsthand account. How well known is that part of history in Turkey?

Shevaun Mizrahi: I think there are always pieces of that history which surface and can be felt, even without talking about it directly. The history is still there and often comes to light.

Lesley Coffin: The stories and aspects of their lives which the residences spoke of or demonstrated, were those facts about their lives you knew of before speaking with them or did they come to light during longer interviews?

Shevaun Mizrahi: Regarding the pianist, I heard him playing just asked him to give me lessons. The material in the film emerged from friendships and just spending time there, rather than seeking things out or trying to find certain characters or personalities. I didn’t come in with a concept or set of interview questions, I didn’t guide their conversations because I wanted them to create a stream of consciousness. And that comes from just letting them speak freely. One of the lessons of the film is that as we get older, our thoughts lessen to few and fewer things until they might only want to talk about one things. I found that most of the people I spoke with had once central thing they viewed the world from. The photographer had his pictures, the pianist his eroticism and sexuality, the woman you mentioned had her connection to history. And observing that meant I didn’t have to hammer the idea, the audience could see it themselves.

Lesley Coffin: We don’t see a lot of people visiting. Is that what you observed during that six-year period?

Shevaun Mizrahi: Most of the protagonists were homeless or living in poverty and had very little family. I only recently found out that the man who proposed to me had a wife. I never met anyone’s family during filming, until I just recently had coffee with one man’s son. It can be a lonely place of reflection and solitude. At that point in my life, I happened to be spending a lot of time alone, so I think we were grateful for one another’s company.

Lesley Coffin: The younger men working construction, do you feel like they’re living similar lives, living in this communal space and sort of cut off from their families?

Shevaun Mizrahi: Exactly, it’s funny you asked that because someone finally asked about that in Milwaukee. And they are living parallel lives, sort of living in their own realities. The lives of the works and the seniors are very inner-connected, even though their lives are very different.

Lesley Coffin: Did you consider editing the footage different to make that connection more prominent?

Shevaun Mizrahi: I did, the idea of including the workers was to have them make up a whole second section. I spent two weeks just filming them and I’m really close to several them still. The way they work is, each department comes from a separate village, so you can have 10 guys from one village all working electric. And in their village, they knew each other, they were cousins and neighbors. And it was very interesting to me to see men with these nomadic lives but traveling in groups with men from their village. But what happened was, they are young and active and could be very eye catching. And they started taking attention away from the older people, and I thought it was more important to pay attention to their stories. So, I changed the edit to focus a little more on the older people and bring balance.

Photos courtesy of Grasshopper Films

Read FF2 Media’s review of Distant Constellation HERE.

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