Turkish filmmaker Deniz Tortum spent three years haunting the halls of the hospital where he was born and where his father works a doctor with a camera, capturing life in Istanbul’s Cerrahpaşa Hospital. It’s a teaching hospital, but it’s also threatened with closure, and so Tortum’s film becomes a sort of swan song for the institution before it is finally empty. Filmed pre-COVID, Phases of Matter does not capture the current crisis in the medical community, but the daily grind of hospital life, documenting the work of the surgeons, the nurses, the custodians, even the cats sleeping on the waiting room chairs.
Acting as his own director of photography, Tortum’s camera drifts through the hospital, making a ghost of the viewer, observing surgeries, doctors sharing meals, a custodian cleaning an empty suite, rituals of autopsy in the morgue. Phases is not for the squeamish, but Tortum doesn’t amplify the blood and guts inherent in medicine. He is instead fascinated with the work itself, with how mundane these extraordinary processes become to the people who do them every day. A surgeon knicks a thyroid during a procedure and shrugs it off, a younger doctor comments, “Poor patient,” with little sympathy. After all, the patient is fine, except that his thyroid weighs one kilogram, far more than it should. That, not the surgical nick, is the focus of the doctor’s attention.
Though the film is culled from three years of footage, the feeling of Phases is that all of this is happening on one day, because any of it could happen on any day. The custodian will always have rooms to clean and mountains of trash to haul to the dumpster, the doctors will always have patients to operate on, test, check, and re-check, the morgue is always busy. There, the imam explains his philosophy of life and death which are both beautiful depending on your perspective, describing death as an escape from “countless troubles”. Meanwhile, down in the operating rooms, a doctor calls a nurse “beautiful girl” as he chastises her, and it seems like everyone is always smoking, proof that doctors might know better but don’t necessarily do better. They’re human, too, and this is what Tortum’s documentary of Cerrahpaşa Hospital does so well, capture the mundanity and humanity of medicine.
But this is not a traditional documentary. Phases of Matter is best described as direct cinema, as there are no talking heads, no voice overs, no composed score—though one doctor listens to dance music as he reviews tape of his surgery—and no real narrative structure. It’s just a seventy-minute trip through the everyday workings of one hospital in one city in the world, which becomes a farewell by the end, when Tortum switches to black and white, displaying a montage of images of the now empty hospital. It’s not really a love letter, as the camera is utterly dispassionate in its observations, but it’s also not purely clinical, either. There is a rhythm to the hospital, a heartbeat, if you will, and Tortum captures it with latent poignancy. He has not constructed a love letter, but a fond portrait of an institution that, in the end, slips away like one of the less fortunate patients it once housed.
Phases of Matter will be available to stream on Kanopy and iTunes from March 15, 2022.