Shevaun Mizrahi’s Distant Constellation follows the slow pace of a retirement home and teaches us something about what ageing means.
USA, Turkey, Netherlands, 2017
What actually happens to us when we end up living in a retirement home? It may seem like a strange question, the answer being obvious – we’re there because we’re old and can no longer take care of ourselves – but is that really a satisfactory response? Couldn’t we rather argue that it’s the place where old people are brought when society no longer wants to see them?
«The film quite simply takes the time to see these people – something very few in society normally do.»
Distant Constellation, which introduces us to a group of elderly people at a retirement home in Istanbul, provides us with a chance to ponder these questions.
For my part, a retirement home is among the dreariest places I can imagine ending up in, a kind of gathering space for death. I’ve visited enough of them in this country to know that they’re nothing to look forward to. I wish I could say otherwise, but there’s something inherently sad about these places; I’ve always thought so, not least because they revolve around organizing the communal eating of cakes and watching TV. I admire people who work there and who take over the family’s responsibilities, but retirement homes have few redeeming features. To me, it would be a nightmare to end up in such a place.
The guys we get to know in Distant Constellations, however, don’t seem to be suffering unduly. They live out the remains of their lives through memories and memorabilia that let them relive lost moments over again.
One of the men we get to know has a long career as a photographer behind him, and one of his favourite activities is to take out his old camera and study the assorted lenses and equipment. He tells the director – he tells us – about the many beautiful photos he’s taken. By a cruel irony, however, of all his senses his eyesight has failed him. Another man sits in front of the TV and watches old footage of himself from his heyday as a singer on the stage, singing along as he does so. A third gentleman is still caught up in sexual fantasies of the past.
They’ve been stowed away, they’re no longer participating, they live more in the past than in the present.
Follows the rhythm of the elderly
In another moving scene, we see two gentlemen taking the lift. They’re not going anywhere, they don’t get off, they just find it amusing to go up and down, up and down. Similarly, among the best things about this film is precisely the fact that it’s not heading towards a particular place. Rather, it follows the elderly in their daily lives, without a particular goal in sight. The film quite simply takes the time to see these people – something very few in society normally does.
As the film unfolds, I begin to understand that this is precisely what it’s about: to adjust to the pace of the elderly, to their rhythm of life, their daily routine and passage back and forth between coffee cups, cake plates and armchairs.
Then comes the most moving moment in the film: An old woman tells the director (or perhaps the photographer?) how wonderful it is to have children and how much happiness she derived from a girl she took under her wings during the war. Then, in the middle of her story, she falls asleep. Yet the camera isn’t turned off; it devotes it’s time to her, even when she sleeps.
The slow pace of the old gradually starts to affect the film’s perspective as such. The dwelling perspective takes in the surroundings, observing corridors, elderly people sleeping on a couch, the cranes on the construction site outside reflected in the polished tiles on the floor, a table set for dinner (the guests have yet to arrive).
Construction site and retirement home
Outside the windows we see a construction site filled with industrious workers in the process of building a massive complex. In sharp contrast to the world of the elderly, the world outside revolves around being productive, making things, earning money, doing something useful. Everything is subjected to this cycle of money, work, sleep and food, again and again. Is there, it occurs to me, any more meaning in this frenetic construction work outside the retirement home than inside its corridors of leisurely remembrance and simple pleasures?
Maybe not. The film gives me a different angle from which to look at the retirement home. Not in the sense that it makes me any more eager to end up in one, but because it fills my conception of these places with the stories of real people.
Listen to the stories
But above all this film is about devoting time to all those who aren’t necessarily doing something useful (anymore) – and through its attention to all the details in their daily lives, its ability to listen to their stories and accompany them in their interests, joys and sorrows, the film is also about much more than a group of people at a retirement home.
«Listen to them, says Shevaun Mizrahi, listen to what they have to say.»
Distant Constellation becomes a film about patience, encouraging us not to hurry on by when someone has something they want to share. Listen to them, says Shevaun Mizrahi, listen to what they have to say. And if they go silent and can’t find the words right away, you’ll have to wait.