Shevaun Mizrahi’s debut film Distant Constellation is a nonlinear documentary that paints portraits of seniors living in a retirement facility as they go about their daily lives, while the neighborhood around them is being torn apart and redeveloped. (BV: 3.5/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Beatrice Viri
Opening with a scene of a young man sleeping before heading to work at a construction site, Distant Constellation explores the lives of seniors in a retirement home as the area around them is developed. One account focuses on a woman who recalls living through the Armenian Genocide and her forced conversion to Islam, another on a man who seems obsessed with sex, one man is fixated on photography, and two friends spend their days playing around on an elevator.
While presenting footage of the stories of the elderly, Distant Constellation simultaneously shows snapshots of the redevelopment going on around the retirement home, and peeks into the lives of the workers furthering the construction. The film takes place over the course of several years, made evident by the progression of the height of buildings and the urbanization of the city.
One quote of the film that really stuck with me occurred during one of the sequences in which the old friends played around in the elevator. They talked about their children not visiting in years but then brushed it off casually with the words, “So is life.” A simple saying that evokes a sense of melancholy— “So is life.” The deconstruction and reconstruction of the buildings, the life of construction workers as they go about their daily lives—“So is life.” I think the phrase sums up Distant Constellation well.
Truthfully, I’m hesitant to say I liked the film. I don’t mean it in a bad way, though—it’s powerful, emotive and tragically beautiful. Distant Constellation embodied a simple kind of sorrow—that much is certain. It left me feeling empty and bittersweet, thinking about the elderly and history they left behind. To see how lonely the residents were, how bleak life seemed for them, and to witness their declining health was unbelievably raw and nothing short of depressing.
The juxtaposition between the construction workers and the residents was interesting, especially when comparing their living situations. The workers were living in communal spaces, while the elderly mostly lived in rooms alone. However, even though that difference was highlighted, I still felt a similar vibe between their lives, maybe due to the old and young sharing a bleak routine and a sad exhaustion in daily life. The elderly and the physical laborers are similar in that they are people who are largely forgotten, so the workers’ inclusion felt parallel to the residents and their lives, though we only caught a glimpse.
The cinematography and editing were breathtaking. The film was beautifully shot and the somber greyscale throughout added to the persistent feeling of loneliness in both accounts. One particular edit that stuck out was at the end, where door disappeared into snow, to remind you of the film’s progression through several years.
Distant Constellation is definitely a film that I ended up enjoying a lot more after leaving the theater and dwelling on its meaning. I needed time to realize just how loaded it was. The material was heavy to begin with, but having time to think about it made me appreciate its nuances and Mizrahi’s intent to preserve the community’s essence. I was initially thrown off by the title, expecting the film to be about extraterrestrials or space, but was surprised by the complete opposite. I think aliens were only mentioned once, as a passing conversation.
Nonetheless, I’ve thought a lot about the title and how it applies to the film, perhaps in the sense of reflecting back on history and the past, or reaching for stories largely untold. Distant Constellation seems so simple at face value, but it’s delicately packed with history, with the soul of a dwindling community, and it explores the lives of people easily forgotten. It’s a film to save for a rainy day.
Read Lesley Coffin’s interview with filmmaker Shevaun Mizrahi here.
© Beatrice Viri (11/2/18) FF2 Media
Photo credits: Grasshopper Films; Shevaun Mizrahi, Shelly Grizim
Does Distant Constellation pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Though the film did largely focus on male residents and workers, one of the most prominent stories was told by the woman Selma to the female filmmaker about her family during the Armenian genocide.