Interview with Shevaun Mizrahi

Kristina Zorita
Kristina Zorita

Shevaun Mizrahi, director of the Best Documentary at Seville European Film Festival

Distant Constellation”, the first feature by American Shevaun Mizrahi, won the New Waves Non Fiction Award, the main prize in the documentary section in Seville. Mizrahi introduces us to a retirement home for cultural minorities; a place of fading lives and vivid memories. In contrast, she shoots a construction building nearby where workers still have lives to build. Full of humour and tenderness, “Distant Constellation” also won a special mention in Locarno, the FIPRESCI award at Viennale. EWA’s blogger Kristina Zorita interviewed Mizrahi during Seville European Film Festival.

What made you want to shoot in a retirement home?

I went to the home for the first time in 2009 in the neighborhood my father grew up in. I was volunteering a bit, making friends. In 2011, I was studying cinematography and working as a cinematographer, I always brought my camera and film with me wherever I was. So that’s how it began, as a kind of diary of my time there. I shared it with Denis and Shelly, my best friends from Film School and eventually they went to produce this film.

So they encouraged you to make a film?

When I shared the sketches of my filming, they told me what they liked, their feelings, but there was no intention of making a movie at that time. And then the construction work started in that area. Basically as I walked there to visit, there was a new building, a new set of bulldozers. It became dustier and dirtier. The change of the atmosphere and the stillness outside were so shocking. I began to think that there was a movie there with the tension that had built itself up. This time I started shooting more seriously with the intention of making a film, and that went on until 2015-16.

Your characters are: a woman who recalls the Armenian genocide, a man who talks to you about his romantic life and two brothers discussing the meaning of live in an elevator. What draws you to them?

One of my favorite characters is the photographer. I share with him the passion for images. All of them share a joy of life and optimism. They are very bright in spirit, remarkable people. Indeed, it was difficult to finish the movie because most of them died, and they had become my friends. But when I see the movie, it gives me a lot of energy. I think the film has no bitterness in it; there is a lot of pain, and sadness but it’s not bitter.

When they recall their past, there is a scene where the workers in the construction talk about the future, they seem to be building their lives

Yes, it’s exactly like that. The construction became an ominous dark present outside, almost like a villain in a movie. But in the end I really wanted to show the human side of the workers, behind their jobs, and show their hopes and dreams. The construction site itself has another meaning. It is also the story of Muslim Turkey burying other existing cultural identities.

How was the actual shooting? How many people were in the crew?

In fact, it was just a one-person-crew, me. I used the equipment I use for work. I put all the equipment in my backpack, went to the locations, spent time with the person I was supposed to speak to that day, set up the micro, set up the camera, put the recording device on and started recording. Usually at eye to eye height with the subject and moving the camera only in very few cases. I have done so many jobs as a DOP, so I was used to it, although I was more used to technical shooting. In this case, the importance is the framing, how to tell the story and being sensitive.

Have you felt mistreated being a woman filmmaker?

Not in this particular case. I would say that even helped me. But in some festivals, they have presented me as Denis’s (the actual producer’s) line producer, because he’s a man. And in bigger productions where I work as a cinematographer, they think I am the make up artist. Not that far from my many interests. (Giggles) But I love challenges. It suits my character to break rules, have a challenge. In my case, all the obstacles can be turned to benefits. There are so few women DOPs. There is no reason for that. The culture is so masculine. It’s intimidating, when it shouldn’t be. There are really good men DOPs, as there are bad ones. There is no reason not to give it a try.

Should the industry tackle the inequality in films? Should there be a quota?

I think the trick is education. Having seminars for women, where they have a protective environment, a place where they can focus and don’t feel intimidated, and develop their skills by getting a lot of attention. For instance, I have started to give classes to women in Istanbul. There should be scholarships, so they can have the financial help if they need it and there should be mentorships; they should be taken under the wings of mentors who guide them through this complicated world. I have been myself the assistant of a cinematographer who helped me navigate through this world.

Distant Constellation” will be screening at IDFA festival starting November 15th.

Picture by Oscar Romero.