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Twilight Hours: Shevaun Mizrahi on Her Elegiac Documentary, Distant Constellation

Images: Distant Constellation, courtesy of Grasshopper Film

With Shevaun Mizrahi’s documentary Distant Constellation opening at NYC’s Metrograph today from Grasshopper Film, we’re unlocking from our print issue this feature with the director.

It’s not news that nonfiction editing can be an attenuated process. Still, with footage so fully formed, I didn’t expect that Mizrahi would keep returning to Istanbul for three more years, logging more hours on the way to showing a nearly-locked cut at 2017’s True/False Film Festival, with her world premiere following later that year at Locarno. The additional time she took turned out to be crucial for capturing two additional strands that give the film its final structure. The first was adding in the construction site across the street from the retirement home: Distant Constellation now begins with views of it and ends with construction workers talking over lunch about their plans for the future, which not-quite-ironically contrasts with the unavoidable bodily decay across the street. The other was the addition of comic relief in the form of two old men who delight in riding the retirement home elevator up and down all day, busting each other’s chops and gossiping while systematically making it near-impossible for anyone else to get on.

Because I’d spoken with Mizrahi about the film a number of times over the years, I was a little bit nervous that we’d have trouble finding fresh topics. That wasn’t a problem. Over its appropriately prolonged gestation, Distant Constellation has acquired so many layers to pick at that there always seems to be more to explore. Cast in an unearthly light that befits its title, Mizrahi’s film is a work of art that doesn’t lean on its heaviness for impact—it’s a fully subjective gaze at aging, its emotional POV implicit and no less moving for remaining unexplicated. On the contrary: In its enigmatic resistance to a definitively fixed meaning, the film’s affecting on a level that’s hard to shake. Distant Constellation enters limited release from Grasshopper Film starting with a weeklong run at New York’s Metrograph on November 2, with VOD to follow.

Filmmaker: When we first talked about the film, you described potential storylines you hadn’t pursued. You were speaking about that as a decision you made—wanting the film to be received as an art object, first and foremost, rather than something that could be presented in the context of elder care or whatever issue-driven focus would make the film easier to sell.

Mizrahi: Because I don’t really have an interest in commercial filmmaking, more and more I see this as a hobby rather than as a profession. I’ve always worked as a shooter and kept up other jobs to make a livelihood, so I guess that took pressure off of needing to make anything sellable. Which is nice, and a luxury in a way, but also I just wouldn’t be able to make films if I had to do that; I’d probably choose a different profession. We never thought about accessibility or audience when we were forming it. That may be reflected in the fact that we weren’t able to get funding, as you said, because it wasn’t an issue-based film and was wanting to be something more present tense and inspired by the work of Beckett or Borges. It was less about telling facts and specifics and more about capturing this atmosphere and emotional landscape as vividly as possible.

Filmmaker: But at the same time, it would have been fairly easy to pitch your film that way without compromising its content. I remember you talking about specific characters that you decided not to pursue.

Mizrahi: All of them had really charged lives. For instance, the photographer, Osep Minasoğlu was a very famous photographer whose work was incredibly provocative for its time. He went through a series of heartbreaking circumstances that could’ve been the basis for an entire film.  But in the spirit of being in that present moment of time that I was there, it wasn’t so much about telling [the subjects’] backstory or details. It was very much about letting them tell things how they wanted—not prompting them with questions, not telling them what language to speak, letting their interior lives emerge on their own terms. I think one thing about not having title cards is, there’re some very specific issues [related] to Turkey, but there’re also very universal elements that have connected with audiences internationally. I think actually it’s opened up the film maybe. Also, the range of languages—English, Turkish, French—and the fact that it’s almost like this mythological place. You can’t quite place where or when it is. Modernization is something that we’re all confronting, all around the world, so that’s also worked as a strength.

Filmmaker: Was there a version of the film that could have involved your voice coming from off-camera?

Mizrahi: No, never. As we went through different things, especially in the American context, a lot of people suggested that as a solution to bring about a feeling of cohesion. But I never felt that that was something I wanted to do. I think you feel enough of me in it, and I didn’t want to put any more than there is.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about that process of crafting cohesion?

Mizrahi: Because the process took place over so many years, at some point it becomes a living organism in its own right. It’s forming its own rules, apart from you, and you listen to those. It was a lot about paying attention to its needs and not forcing anything onto it that was untruthful to what it was. For instance, the camera’s mainly on the tripod. I only used one lens, a 24–70, so that created a very unified visual landscape. There was one day where I borrowed a friend’s 70–200, and it was immediately clear that those shots didn’t match the language. There’re very few wide shots in the film, and in this way it was possible to be very specific about what you see and don’t see—for example, by keeping the caretakers out of the film—and really be intentional about compositions and not being too informational. For instance, the whole construction site relative to the home—you rarely see this all in one shot, just at the end. In that way, I think it leaves a lot to the imagination, in order to build the space in your mind and the relationship between the two spaces.

Usually you do coloring at the end, in postproduction, but I almost immediately started coloring the film on my own. So, instead of coloring being something that was figured out after, it was very much integrated into the whole process of making it. When I see rough cuts of my friend’s work I always advise them to do a temp color to help them improve the edit, but this is outside the normal workflow so it isn’t always easy. The space was a place I visited so often, and I had a lot of time to think ahead about how to capture the space. Although it’s documentary, you could place people where you wanted and very much have a hand in terms of how you show this world and how you let a scene play out. Immersing into the space on a very visceral level helps you understand how the light works at different times of day. Also, there’s also quite a lot of compositing. Because I was shooting with a tripod, I could do pre-composites in my mind. I did my own color and sound design, and they work in very similar ways—working with real elements, but they aren’t things you could actually capture in reality. Pretty much every frame of the film is handcrafted using different mattes and compositing. A lot of the colors and vibrancy and elements you see, they’re not actually necessarily there but something [that was] put in in the postproduction process. It’s small details, but quite complicated, which made the render excruciatingly long.

I’ve been reluctant to talk about it. Once you know about it, you start watching the film looking for all the tricks, and I think it takes you out of the experience. I think the best example is, there’s this very sci-fi image of [the photographer] looking out in the dark at the crane. It’s almost like using the wall as a green screen. I knew ahead of time I could do this type of compositing. For this particular shot I filmed the photographer in this scene where he was talking about his birthday, making sure he didn’t obstruct the window, and then separately shot the window at a different exposure, trying to roughly capture the same light. There would be no way to get that exposure simultaneously. I did it myself. We didn’t have a budget to do this professionally, but I actually really like the outcome. It looks hyperreal, but it’s something extraordinary that the natural eye couldn’t see, or that the camera couldn’t capture, yet you couldn’t say that it’s not true at the same time.

Filmmaker: I assume that affected where you placed the camera vs. what you knew the camera could see vs. what you could see and how it would all work in the end.

Mizrahi: I really like Pedro Costa’s colorist, Patrick Lindenmaier. I love the coloring he did for Colossal Youth, so I think I was thinking a lot about how color worked in that particular film. I wasn’t shooting a lot, but I had a lot of time to walk around and find the spaces that would provide me with this color palette. Again, I was working alone but could do very small production designs or make small efforts to conjure up this colorful, vibrant atmosphere. The same with the sound design, which has this very similar, maybe science fiction pulse to it. Both the sound and the color give a lot to the audience. The film can be very heavy, in its reflecting on mortality, but those elements of sound and color, I think, offset the difficulties of confronting that subject.

Filmmaker: It’s a super-digital movie. There’s a lot of noise within the frame. It’s hard to imagine this being shot on film.

Mizrahi: I love film, and if money wasn’t a limiting factor, ideally—having really limited means, digital was the only option. But then, over time, in the best-case scenario, you fall in love with the tools you use and the equipment. You begin to really understand and accept their imperfections. That was true both with my sound recorder and my camera, my lens. In an ideal scenario, I would be working with a bigger tool set, but that’s what I had. In the aftermath, seeing how much it gave and offered—all that digital noise, all the imperfections, even in the sound—we had opportunities to clean all that up. There were filters where we could take out the noise. We didn’t want it. I wanted to keep it with those raw textures.

Filmmaker: And about the heaviness of the film: I believe the two men in the elevator came later, not during the first few shoots. They also brought levity of a certain kind, which is probably helpful.

Mizrahi: Yeah. A lot of the main characters had passed away, and they were the new residents in the home. I ended up spending a lot of time with them, listening in on a lot of their conversations and finding them really funny. That was something that came later but fit really nicely with the theme of this circularity: these loops, the cycle of life, the new generation replacing the old generation, this circular formation we built with the construction workers in ending the film. This loop of the elevator really articulated very well the general shape of the movie, along with them having the same sense of humor as the other characters.

Filmmaker: That was the one element in the film that allowed everyone in their reviews to bring in Beckett, because there are two men who aren’t going anywhere. They’re being malicious, but in a very benign way. How long were they in that elevator for?

Mizrahi: There was only one elevator in the home, so it would always cause a big drama because everybody would be waiting to come in. This was a place where they had fun. I think there aren’t so many things to do there. (laughs) Some of these conversations they had in their rooms, and then we reset them in the elevator. So, it was also a combination of me observing them and then figuring out how to make them present to the themes of the film, but in a very active way. It was also this collaboration between me and them, having fun and capturing their interaction in an active environment. Which was a challenge in the film—there’s not so much activity. So much of the shooting was of people’s monologues. But to bring in Beckett, definitely. Happy Days and Krapp’s Last Tape and Endgame were big, even before I shot those elevator scenes. For instance, in Happy Days, there’s this couple, Winnie and Willie. There’s a mound of sand that’s slowly covering them. In a way, the construction work is like this as a plot device of the increasing change happening that will eventually envelop and replace this older generation. Beckett was very present even before that scene, in terms of thinking about time and memory and things like that.

Filmmaker: It’s only now occurring to me that those men in the elevator, plus the elevator shot at the beginning that gives a sense of the scale of the construction site, are really the only moments of motion in the film. If I’m remembering right, they’re elements you found later in the production process.

Mizrahi: This started as more of a personal sketchbook. It was never intended to be a film that would have this kind of reach. It was very personal, and slowly the process went outwards. It grew in pieces and came together very gradually, and went from this very inward, personal experience to something more outward. If you look at the trajectory of the shooting, it probably reflects that process of moving out—literally through space, to the construction site.

I never lived in Istanbul during that time. I was in school studying cinematography, and then I worked for [DP] Ed [Lachman] for four years. I was living in New York and shooting when I would come to see my father and his family here [for] very short periods of time, so there was never any long, extended period of time. Because I was working at the same time, it was something I was just doing on the side, not years of shooting or anything like that. Slowly, some of the people I was closest to passed away, which was really emotionally difficult. The realness of losing these memories had a big effect on me and made me want to take everything much more seriously. Then, I edited this rough cut, which is what I think you saw, then came back in short intervals between 2015 and 2017 to find the connecting pieces to finish the work. Including the construction workers was very important to me because, since I filmed over so many years, I got to know them as well. They were across the street, so [there was] this thing of showing their humanity and not leaving the message of the film to be some kind of apocalyptic tale of good and evil—the past and the present, the destructive force of the future—but really getting close to them, showing their hopes and dreams and ideas for the future, was incredibly important. The inclusion of them came also from that feeling that the film should be more open and less pessimistic. When I think about Beckett’s work, there’s a dark humor to it. In Happy Days and Krapp’s Last Tape, there is a big effort to bring something much more optimistic to this reflection on time and mortality.

Filmmaker: When you watch the film, it’s clear that many of these people are not long for this world, but time—that’s an element you left out of the film.

Mizrahi: I think I wanted to remember them in their full power. Again, that’s why you don’t see any caretakers. They all have an incredible force of will and vibrancy, and I think it was very important that this is like a time capsule of that. I was there, for instance, when the pianist passed away and for two years of his decline. I didn’t shoot him then and didn’t want to show him like that because I think the time I spent with him, the interviews, it was the fullness of him that I wanted to remember. In the end, there’s a scene of a man on his deathbed. So, the film isn’t avoiding that, but with these characters I very much wanted to show them in their full strength. And I think that’s something unusual. We don’t see older people represented like that, with this level of passion and intensity. But that was how they were, and I wanted to show that.

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