PHASES OF MATTER: A Haunting Piece Of Operating Theater

I hate hospitals. I hate their claustrophobic rooms, their stultifying atmospheres, and their harsh lights. But for director Deniz Tortum, one specific hospital resonates emotionally. Phases of Matter, his third feature documentary, opens with, “For Cerahpaşa Hospital, where I was born, where my father works and which may be demolished soon.”

The Turkish documentary is equal parts elegy and vérité exploration, Tortum’s camera floating through the halls of the learning hospital, wordlessly documenting its inhabitants and workers. The film began playing at festivals in 2020, but only now is receiving a virtual release.

Shot over three years, Phases of Matter rather feels like it transpires over a few days. Tortum traces the hospital’s final years with both restlessness and repose, cobbling together a fleeting image of a place on the verge of becoming empty. It’s haunting, graceful and not for the faint of heart.

Hospital Cats

The first 40 minutes of the film focus on the day-to-day life within the hospital. A gaggle of doctors dressed in blue medical scrubs examine a body, later revealed to be a mummified corpse. A doctor finds a book of poetry on a patient’s bedside table and reads a piece aloud. Surgeons eat lunch and make small talk about operating on loved ones. “I circumcised my brother-in-law and also performed an appendectomy on him,” one says.

Editor Sercan Sezgin keeps the pace patient, imparting the feeling of both being a fly on the wall and also of sinking into something. Sound designers Ernst Karel and Yalin Özgencil, with foley artist Taylan Geçit, mold the droning lights and intermittent machine buzzing and beeping into a disquieting sonic backdrop, an uncomfortably still ambiance against the hospital’s cluttered spaces and dark, colonic hallways.

Nevertheless, there are moments of levity and poise in Tortum’s film — charming little discoveries he makes of cats sleeping in the lobby, or of a doctor watching operation playback as he blasts Turkish psychedelic dance-rock. These counter the intense, stressful surgical scenes. In one, doctors have to remove an object a young woman swallowed by accident. The attending nurses watch on, providing running commentary as they also gossip about music, but it does little to abate the horror that in the next room over, the doctor is currently pulling something out of a young woman’s throat!

PHASES OF MATTER: A Haunting Piece Of Operating Theater
source: Institute of Time

Despite our exposure to all kinds of medical drama, Phases of Matter is not a narrative documentary and contains little of the breakneck surgical timber of something like Grey’s Anatomy. The drama, like the body horror, Tortum finds accidentally. Tortum also seems unconcerned with developing individual subjects, though there’s a winsome, puckish doctor we meet one day at lunch, and it’s always fun to see him pop back up.

Truthfully, Phases of Matter is not any one thing in particular — it’s been called Frederick Wiseman–esque, but at 71 minutes, it’s certainly a few hours short of earning that honor. As a work of vérité filmmaking, it’s ultimately complicated by an ethereal final reel and an emphasis on interrogating its own materiality. And as a testament to the hospital, the film never gives you a full picture of the place. You see its surgical rooms, its doctors, their practices, and their patients, sure, but Phases of Matter is more interested in capturing an overall vibe than it is one particular angle.

Operating Theater

The main surgical scene in Phases of Matter is one of the most stressful viewing experiences I’ve had in a long time. I don’t think we’re ever told outright what’s wrong with the patient; we just follow the surgeon into the room and watch him disinfect, glove up, and go to work.

Within minutes, doctors are burrowing tools inside the patient’s chest with the same resistance you might get sticking a PVC pipe into a watermelon. The poor surgeon realizes he doesn’t have the tools he needs and begins calling for an Uacision, which, once it finally arrives, nobody knows how to use. A batch of doctors stand around the thing troubleshooting it the same way you would try to pair your phone with a Bluetooth speaker, and it’s both the most human and the most unnerving thing ever — nobody knows for sure how to work it, but everybody just kind of presses buttons, tightens valves and sticks more things into the patient until the machine stops giving error messages.

Aesthetically, the scene plays out in several long takes, all with a handheld digital camera as Tortum swivels around the space, trying to capture the drama. Tortum gained incredible access to these doctors, but the space restrictions of operating rooms and the delicacy required in these procedures mean that Tortum can’t exactly bring multiple crew members with him. (One location sound recordist, Mert Berkay Sünear, is credited, but I can’t imagine the operating scene involved more than Tortum, like Wiseman, holding his camera and a shotgun mic amid the chaos and hoping he can figure it all out in the edit.)

Once the procedure gets underway, a long take begins as Tortum wanders out of the operating room and down the hall, peering into other surgery rooms and following a nurse, and the farther he goes through the hospital, the more frantically his camera moves. Through what I’m pretty sure is an invisible cut, the shot lasts five minutes, and you begin to feel dizzy as Tortum looks around faster and faster, overwhelmed, as though the camera is trying to take in as much of this place as it can before it’s demolished.

PHASES OF MATTER: A Haunting Piece Of Operating Theater
source: Institute of Time

At 40 minutes, we finally leave the hospital for a breather. Tortum follows several wild dogs, then a street drummer, who plays overtop some inserts of medical scans. Because we rarely travel outside the hospital, the film never drums up any political dimensions, besides a small glimpse of graffiti and a passing reference to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Unlike many other hospital documentaries, like 2020’s coronavirus doc 76 Days or Wiseman’s own Hospital, the focus on observational filmmaking becomes poetic rather than political.

We don’t last long in the outside world, quickly moving back to the hospital for more grotesqueries — mummified remains, diseased organs, a severed leg, a dead fetus. We see a room full of medical test dummies and dead babies preserved in jars like the triclops in Nightmare Alley.

When the hospital is finally closed, we switch to a grainy black-and-white image. Stretched out before us, like a medical constellation, is a pixel-mapped hospital hallway composed of dots glowing like stars. (The laser scanning is by Doğan Tekin.) The computational flickering sound of the laser scanner overwhelms the soundtrack as we push in, giving way then to a knocking sort of silence.

This is Phases of Matter’s purpose writ large, the preservation of space and memory. As the score by Moondog and Alican Çamci returns, we find a laser-scanned operating room. We brush past the dotted stars and sink into that blackness, like sliding through atoms.

Conclusion

Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure of Phases of Matter’s effectiveness, or even how invested it is in being the preservative piece of cinema I think it’s trying to be. The wandering approach prevents any personal narratives from developing, which, though it feels like a missed opportunity to not speak one-on-one with the surgeons and young doctors the film follows, might nevertheless work for viewers interested in Tortum’s nuanced, observational approach.

The metaphysics of the title is never directly paid off in the film, but one scene, with the morgue imam, sums up the work nicely. He explains how difficult it is to console grieving loved ones and how he’s come to conceive of passing as a matter of perspective.

From the position of the living, the dead person is gone forever. “But if we look from the afterlife,” the imam says, “‘He escaped distress, debt, ungrateful children, betraying friends, sickness, making ends meet, inflation.’ Countless troubles. I can count more. Looking from the afterlife, he escaped all that.” Amid all of Tortum’s fascinations with the interplay between the real and the virtual, and the surgical set pieces within the hospital, it’s ultimately these concepts of passing and perspective that preoccupy Phases of Matter. How will we pass, how will our institutions fade away, and who will be left to see them out?

Have you seen Phases of Matter? And if so, what did you think of it? Leave a comment below.

Phases of Matter is available to stream on Kanopy and DocAlliance Films.


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