There is a debate among film critics about whether “favorite” is the same thing as “best,” particularly when lists and rankings are involved. I try to look at things more objectively in my criticism. My favorite movies are not necessarily the best movies and vice versa. I especially subscribe to a distinction with documentaries. There are a lot of great documentaries that are not my favorites, as I believe that favorite entails or at least implies some enjoyment.
Titicut Follies and Triumph of the Will are both great works of nonfiction filmmaking, but I can’t say I like watching them. And it’s not just a matter of rough or disagreeable subject matter. I’m not really a fan of Chris Marker, but I can appreciate what makes his films great. Sans Soleil is one of the best docs of its kind, yet not one of my favorites. Of course, Marker’s films are more works of art than information vehicles. Art is always going to be more subjectively received.
Distant Constellation is another documentary that lands on the side of art and poetry, but I don’t appreciate what makes it “great.” Great as in it’s a film that’s already been praised by many critics and has won and is nominated for awards at festivals and elsewhere. The film earned its director, Shevaun Mizrahi, a Guggenheim Fellowship. Whether I like it or not doesn’t matter, I guess, because it has kind of already been confirmed as being, objectively, a significant work.
The film consists of portraits of a handful of inhabitants of a retirement home in Istanbul. One of them is a professional photographer who has lost his eyesight. Another is a man who talks of his sexual experiences and propositions the filmmaker for companionship. A woman shares memories of being a child during the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Two gentlemen regularly hang out in the home’s elevator, disrupting the needs of the other residents as they ride back and forth on a verticle line. That’s pretty much all there is to Distant Constellation, on the surface.
What’s below the surface is a consideration of time, and to me, it’s a very basic and familiar theme. I’m partial to some of the ways Mizrahi plays with the chronology of what we’re seeing, and how that fits with the bouncing around of the time periods of the subjects’ stories, but even then the content itself sort of floats in and out without meaning. There is no context for adding up the dots together for whatever the big picture is. That certainly fits the title, at least. Constellations are a bunch of nonsense without a guide showing you what the image is supposed to be when you connect the dots of the stars.
I like to go into movies without knowing anything about them. For me, if any kind of visual work requires extra notes, that’s a failure. That’s not to say that titles, captions, synopses, artist statements, historical background, and other supplementals can’t add to an appreciation of the work, but the film or painting or whatever it is has to firstly be able to be effective on its own. Distant Constellation is not. It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know about its making, its significance to Mizrahi’s background, or Turkish history.
But the film still doesn’t do much for me after a read-through of its official description (or synopsis), or Mizrahi’s personal statement, festival notes, interviews, other critics’ reviews, or anything else that might help me understand the reason that Distant Constellation is important and praiseworthy. So be it. I don’t think it’s a bad documentary. I find the old woman quite moving. I don’t find the elevator “pranksters” or the “Casanova” amusing, though. And I didn’t sense anything magical or dreamlike about the film. The cinematography is nice to look at but not for any purpose and not enough to make up for my not being interested in most of the characters in their limited portrayals.
There’s nothing really for me to criticize about its craft. The camerawork is proficient. The editing is surely thoroughly deliberate. It’s just not a film for me. It’s a film for Mizrahi. It is a personal work. It’s art. For her, it surely makes a lot of sense. For some viewers, it may resonate. For me, it doesn’t connect at all. I have no hyperbolic claims to make about it. Maybe it’s not a bad film, objectively, but I don’t have any reason to recommend it.