Istanbul’s Cerrahpasa Hospital, a state-run teaching hospital in Turkey, is as close to director Deniz Tortum’s heart as you can get. He was born here. And here, his father worked as a doctor. And here, many lives came to an end while several others continued.

Phases of Matter, Tortum’s observational documentary about Cerrahpasa, is not so much about that history as it is about the hospital itself. Its vast corridors, its endless rooms—some filled with people, others filled with discarded equipment and furniture—its elevators, its morgue. Some of the movie’s runtime is populated with doctors, nurses, and surgeons, but mostly it’s the hospital.

And Tortum’s camera haunts the hospital like a ghost, floating this way and that, sometimes looking and sometimes shying away. The movie opens with a circular shot, the camera roaming around a group of surgeons smothering an operating table. It’s not obvious at first that it’s a cadaver they’re working on. Later in the doc, Tortum will watch another operation, this one on a still-living man, and the camera will be slightly less curious. Tortum wants to see, but as anyone who’s spent time in a hospital knows, you don’t want to see too much.

That scene gives way to one of the bravura shots of Phases of Matter: Following the surgery—a success—Tortum’s camera recedes from the room, passes two surgeons, and glides down the hall, peeking briefly in on another room with another operation taking place. It’s a shot that somehow feels free of human hands.

I don’t know if I should be referring to Tortum or Tortum’s camera regarding Phases of Matter. There are no voiceovers, no interviews, no context to ground us. The movie opens with a brief dedication to the hospital, but no more markers follow. And if that wasn’t abstraction enough, Tortum incorporates images of body systems to create an animation sequence fitting of Stan Brakhage. People attach a lot of emotion to a hospital, and Tortum challenges that in fascinating ways.

Phases of Matter is a singular work that fully engages the audience by removing anything resembling a plot and characters. It’s a documentary, but it’s more an art film. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a damn engrossing 60ish minutes of watching. Available March 15 on Kanopy.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Phases of Matter / Maddenin Halleri (2020)
Directed by Deniz Tortum
Produced by Anna Maria Aslanoglu, Öykü Canlı, Aslı Erdem
Institute of Time, Not Rated, Running time 71 minutes, Premiered Jan. 25, 2020, at the International Film Festival Rotterdam