Cinema Scope Issue 79 with Features including .. Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise by Michael Sicinski, Thinking in Images: Scott Walker and Cinema by Christoph Huber, 58th Venice Biennale, Cannes and DVD Reviews.
By Adam Nayman
Canadians don’t do sequels. Or at least we don’t do them that often: Don Shebib went Down the Road Again again in 2011, and Bruce McDonald got the band back together for Hard Core Logo 2 (2010); commercially oriented hits like Fubar (2002) and Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006) have been profitable enough to justify follow-ups. For the most part, though, ours is a cinema of self-contained, one-and-done narratives, geographically proximate but industrially and temperamentally separate from the franchise mentality of American studio moviemaking. But in the past few years, there has been a small cycle of interesting Canadian films whose creators eschew the conventions of sequels while still productively reusing or repurposing characters or scenarios, including Philippe Lesage’s skillful diptych Les démons (2015) and Genèse (2018), linked by the surprise appearance in the latter of the former’s ten-year-old protagonist, or the multiple iterations of “Matt Johnson” featured in Nirvanna the Band the Show, The Dirties (2013), and Operation Avalanche (2016). (Not quite Canadian, but close enough for rhetorical purposes: sometime Torontonian Nicolás Pereda’s recurring docu-fictional use of Teresa Sanchez and Gabino Rodríguez as versions of “themselves.”)
Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s MS Slavic 7, which premiered in Berlin’s Forum and has been slated for New Directors/New Films in New York, is a sequel, but not in the way its title suggests. It’s fun to imagine somebody coming across the title and imagining six previous features about a female Eastern European superhero (played by, let’s say, Milla Jovovich), but the name refers to the call number of a file at Harvard’s Houghton Library housing the correspondence of the Polish-Canadian poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, Bohdanowicz’s great-grandmother. The film, which was actually shot entirely in Toronto (with the city’s Polish consulate and the TIFF Film Reference Library jointly standing in for the Ivy League environs) is about the efforts of a fictional character, Audrey Benac (Campbell), to access and analyze a series of letters sent between Bohdanowiczowa—who, in the film’s slightly modified reality, is her great-grandmother—and another real-life poet, Józef Wittlin. As in both the 2016 feature Never Eat Alone and the nine-minute short Veslemøy’s Song (2018), Campbell’s Audrey functions as a barely veiled stand-in for Bohdanowicz, as well as an entry point for the audience to examine the latter’s family history.
In the space of just a few years, Bohdanowicz has emerged as one of the most acclaimed and interesting English-Canadian filmmakers of millennial vintage, cultivating both a spare, poetic style and a recognizable set of preoccupations tied to female creative experience and the simultaneous materiality and ephemerality of the past. In 2014’s sublime Last Prayer trilogy of short films, she filmed her maternal grandmother Maria in her Etobicoke home, then returned to shoot the same location after Maria’s death, and finally superimposed images from the first visit over the second to create what may be the most tender and technically ingenious haunted-house movie I’ve ever seen. Never Eat Alone juxtaposes authentic footage of the filmmaker’s paternal grandmother, Joan Benac, playing medieval dress-up on location at Casa Loma in the ’50s, with a fictionalized narrative about a reconnection with an old flame brokered by Audrey; the elliptical, black-and-white sketch Veslemøy’s Song finds Audrey researching the late violinist Kathleen Parlow, who mentored the director’s musician grandfather.
In 2017’s lovely Maison du Bonheur, Bohdanowicz examined a life separate from her own family tree: that of the septuagenarian Parisian astrologer Julianne Sellam, the grandmother of a colleague and an unlikely—but ultimately mesmerizing—documentary subject. Maison’s City of Lights backdrop and copious signifiers of feminine-coded beauty—Montmartre balconies lined with flowers, precisely manicured fingers and toes, and lovingly handmade terrines, all rendered via splendidly textured 16mm film—surely eased its festival-circuit passage, but its blend of curiosity, bemusement, and intimacy is rooted in a genuine respect for Sellam’s self-styled petit-bourgeois fastidiousness and its sustaining properties. In lieu of sentimentality or fetishized nostalgia, Bohdanowicz pays tribute to a life lived at length and with considerable grace on its own deceptively frivolous terms. The film’s outward appearance as a piece of mere, elegant portraiture belies its underlying conceptual rigour and a connection, unarticulated but palpable, to the director’s fragile yet unwavering belief in the value of her own artistic practice.
MS Slavic 7 goes further than any of Bohdanowicz’s previous shorts or features in foregrounding the question of what it means to make art, and also does far more than its predecessors in developing Audrey as a character. In Never Eat Alone, she’s a reactive, watchful presence, and in Veslemøy’s Song, not much more than a cipher; here, she registers as a terse, driven, occasionally exasperating (and exasperated) heroine. The expansion of Campbell’s character corresponds to her receiving a co-director credit and giving what seems to me her best movie performance since her debut in Matthew Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker (2013).
Structurally, MS Slavic 7 has a mathematical precision, unfolding as a kind of triptych, with each section broken down into repetitive—but gradually mutating—patterns of time and activity. Audrey, who has been named as the literary executor of her great-grandmother’s estate, visits the Harvard library for three consecutive days and pores over the letters; following each archive session, we see her explain their contents to an unseen companion over coffee. Because most viewers don’t speak or read Polish, Audrey’s interpretations of Bohdanowiczowa and Wittlin’s back-and-forth—their poetry and their shared impressions of lives lived in different parts of the globe after World War II—come to stand in for our own understanding of the text. These monologues, delivered straight to camera, were improvised by Campbell, and swing plausibly between genuine insight, passionate projection, and halting frustration; they’re heady and complex.
The revelation of who Audrey is actually talking to—and the extra layer of mediation it applies to both her quest and the movie’s architecture—pushes the film into a realm of interpersonal drama that Bohdanowicz has only ever attempted in Never Eat Alone. In these exchanges, as well as in the scenes depicting the protagonist’s clashes with her resentful, controlling aunt (Elizabeth Rucker), the overall impression is one of incremental but real improvement. Because Bohdanowicz tends to favour simple, static camera set-ups (shooting on digital video for reasons of practicality and flexibility), it’s tempting to call her a minimalist. And yet it might be more accurate to say she’s a miniaturist, and one with the seemingly magical ability to craft small-scale movies that seem, like the haunted residence in Mark Z. Danielewski’s literary meta-thriller House of Leaves, to be somehow bigger on the inside than the outside. The flat, deadpan affect of MS Slavic 7, applied from without by Bohdanowicz’s judiciously placed camera and within by Campbell’s controlled (but not mannered) acting style, serves as an airtight container for a pair of fresh creative sensibilities to entwine and grow together on an almost molecular level: as co-directors, as auteur and star, and as Audrey’s joint creators, personal inspirations, and alter-alter-egos.
Because MS Slavic 7 is so intricately conceived and densely packed, it’s difficult to fully parse on a single viewing (which is also a pretty good sign that it isn’t minimalist at all). Lest that make it sound at all forbidding, I should also say that its 64 minutes are fleet and often quite funny. But it’s a more serene image of the character in repose that lingers, and not only because the filmmakers have strategically positioned it both at the end of this “story” (such as it is) and as an emblem of their character’s weary determination. A shot of Audrey fast asleep beneath a pile of scattered pages is cozy, tactile, futile, and inscrutable. Besides imparting the possibility of some dream life for a woman defined thus far by her nervy, wide-awake exterior, it allows MS Slavic 7 to conclude on the sort of provisional note necessary to any long-running cinematic franchise. She may be worn out tonight, but tomorrow is another day. Or maybe tomorrow never dies, because, like James Bond, Audrey Benac will return.
Cinema Scope: Can you both talk about the nature of your collaboration on this film, and on creating the character of Audrey Benac beginning with Never Eat Alone?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: Deragh and I have this very alchemical relationship. For Never Eat Alone, I basically asked her to walk into my grandmother’s room and be her granddaughter, which she did beautifully, while also helping to get a good performance out of my grandmother. Not only was she good at inserting herself into this strange, small, intimate scenario, but she encouraged somebody who hadn’t acted in 60 years to pull out this wonderful performance. So because that went so well, we had further conversations about the character of Audrey, who is obviously close to me; she’s named after a cousin of mine, in Never Eat Alone Deragh was wearing a bunch of my grandfather’s clothing, and in MS Slavic 7 she was wearing some of my grandmother’s clothes. There’s a scarf and a purse. So the character is a version of me and a compilation of my other family members…
Deragh Campbell: She’s also a little bit of me at this point.
Scope: Can you say more about that?
Campbell: The way that I relate to Audrey—and this is a bit embarrassing—is that she’s just so sincere. Communication is so important to her, to the point that if she’s unable to articulate herself, it’s a bit of an existential crisis. When we were editing the monologues, I was watching Audrey’s face onscreen moving from excitement to devastation, from the excitement of getting into an idea to realizing you didn’t have the words for it and, as she puts it, losing a grasp on reality when you can’t quite say it.
Scope: How did it work with the letters? I understand from the press kit that Deragh/Audrey’s monologues are improvised, but did Sofia contribute to them in any way? How were the monologues integrated into the overall structure of the story?
Bodhanowicz: I think that what happened was we found the letters and had them translated, and then over the course of three days, I gave Deragh one block of letters per day. She took them home, wrote notes on them, and delivered the monologues each morning afterwards.
Campbell: That’s not quite it. You gave me the letters one-third at a time, but you’d also made your own notes about them. What we were trying to do was impose this really strict structure on the movie, the idea of process as a narrative throughline. That was the actor-director dynamic: I could only focus on one thing at a time, but Sofia could focus on the letters as a whole and be conscious of the arc of the narrative, and give me things to focus on as I went. So the monologues were a mix of Sofia’s thoughts—and the larger concerns of the film—along with my immediate reactions to the text.
Bodhanowicz: When I first found the letters, we discussed them and Deragh got excited and pitched me an idea about Audrey at the archive. I really liked the idea of Deragh being in a situation where she’d be experiencing something spontaneously for the first time. Logistically, it’s not the way you should shoot a movie: you should book a location for one big block of time and have the actor do their monologues all at once over the course of a day. I was told that we were scheduling ourselves badly: we started each morning at Union Restaurant, and then we would take the TTC to the Polish consulate, and then to TIFF for the scenes and reception. It was a really experimental approach, and it seemed like a no-brainer to me to try to support that.
Campbell: It also would have been hard to do three monologues in one day. Anyway, I love the mystery of the monologues. The archive scenes were originally supposed to be silent, with just the images of the letters, reflecting the fact that because Audrey doesn’t speak Polish she can’t read them or understand them. And then you have the monologues, which were supposed to be this abstract space for extrapolation, like they’re Audrey’s notebooks speaking, or a representation of someone’s train of thought. The idea is that the material keeps becoming increasingly tangible to the audience: first through the image, then through the thoughts extracted through the material, and then finally you get to read and hear them in their original form.
Scope: What I thought was interesting is that we can’t react to the letters ourselves: before we have the chance, we have Audrey’s opinions, which are very extended and articulate. It’s a way of keeping us closer to the character and her interior life rather than the poets and their work, since they’re being seen and processed through her subjectivity.
Campbell: It’s a weird, branching family tree of thoughts.
Scope: Speaking of family trees, it’s clear, Sofia, that you’re curious about your family members and more generally in the past. It seems to me that you’re compelled by the stories of your grandparents and great-grandmother when they were at similar points in their lives as you are now: when they were young adults, or in transition, or trying to figure out how to express themselves artistically…
Bohdanowicz: It’s an interesting parallel. I wanted to find a way to talk about the idea of filmmaking and how it’s a self-appointed venture. My great-grandmother was a poet, not as successful as Józef Wittlin, but for both of them, it was a job they had because they self-actualized. You are hiring yourself for that role. That’s the same thing as being a filmmaker, or a kind of filmmaker, where nobody is hiring you. You have to bring the job itself into reality. I’m looking at my heritage and seeing how my grandparents and great-grandparents were artists, and so I can’t help but compare myself to them, and see where I get my sensibilities from, those things that carry forward. There are confrontations in the film, like the ones between Audrey and her aunt, that are about that idea of vocation, and also the idea that people will tell you not to do certain things because they want you to have more stability or a stronger future. And sometimes that manifests in another way, as self-doubt.
Scope: The character of Audrey’s aunt is definitely not sentimental about the past, and she seems like a symbol of that doubt; she’s always telling Audrey she’s selfish or doing things for the wrong reasons. She’s like an obstacle to be overcome.
Campbell: The party scenes in the movie show another way of celebrating heritage. In some families, those are the things that matter: you show up, you make it to the party, you honour the family by doing that. If you don’t show up, you are failing your obligations. Audrey’s interest in heritage comes through in this different way, which is maybe more difficult to understand. What she’s doing with the letters is really respectful, but artists are often accused of being selfish. It’s not about that, though. Expressing yourself and articulating yourself is about being a functional human being and making connections in the world.
Scope: That idea of connection is also relevant given that for the first time we sort of see Audrey out in the world, and in her personal life. She’s focused on this correspondence which represents this long-ago exchange of ideas—not a romance, but something very passionate and personal—and it contrasts humorously, I thought, with her interactions with the translator, which are very functional and transactional even when they are integrated into her sex life. I laughed out loud at the cut to the two of them in bed…
Bohdanowicz: That was a funny move. I realized I don’t explore sexuality in any of my films, so when we were doing it, I was laughing because I was actually sort of going there.
Campbell: The joke was in the very conception of the project, which was that she’d get him into the room to read the letters and then ask him to leave.
Bohdanowicz: She’s using him as an object in a way, or a placeholder. It’s funny because the warning signs are there in the conversations they have, which is where he says that the content of the letters is about affection, and he asks Audrey if she gets that, and she says she sees them as objects, or as conduits. So she sees him the same way. They’re together so that she can have this performance or recital of the letters out loud. I mean, she’s not completely using him…
Campbell: I think I am! One thing that I’m really excited about is that in the next film with Audrey we’re going to give her a friend.
Bohdanowicz: She needs a friend.
Campbell: What’s fascinating about her as a recurring character is that you’re watching her be built in real time. She’s becoming more and more of a full person in the world. Originally, we were trying to figure out what Audrey really wanted, and in some ways, that has stayed quite mysterious. I think that’s been done in a beautiful way, though: it’s like Sofia said about vocation and calling and these high stakes related to her ability to understand certain things. That’s there, but then it’s like, why?
Scope: Is the idea to keep the collaboration going specifically as co-directors, or do you plan to let the roles be fluid?
Campbell: In a community of artists you can take different roles in relation to different projects. When we make the next one, I think it’s going to be a return to a more traditional dynamic between an actor and a director.
Scope: Sofia, in your early shorts you didn’t use actors; has it surprised you to move into a kind of hybrid space between fiction and documentary? How did you develop your approach to dealing with actors?
Bohdanowicz: The early films I made out of my great-grandmother’s poems were like a respite for me, but working with Deragh was my first experience working with a real actor. Because the dialogue in Never Eat Alone was so heavily improvised, it made sense to give her a writing credit. Credit should go where it’s due. If an actor improvises their lines, that’s extra labour and needs to be acknowledged. With the new movie, the evolution of our collaboration has been very natural. We were always going to co-write it in terms of dialogue, but then I thought that the way the story was being told how the narrative was being filled in wasn’t just coming from me. The edit was being shaped by both of us, so it made sense to bill it as a co-directed production. It was a natural thing.
Scope: Deragh, you’ve been a working actor now for a while, so I wonder how what you’ve done on the Audrey movies compares to the other independent features you’ve done.
Campbell: I’d say I have a sort of untraditional history with acting. I wrote and improvised in Stinking Heaven (2013) for a year with Keith Poulson, coming up with the cult and those characters. And for any movie, in pre-production, doing research on a character brings some element of writing to it, like the movie I’ve been doing with Kazik Radwanski for a year and a half. I provide the raw materials that Kaz is using; he has these scenes and then they’re shaped around that.
Bohdanowicz: As an actor, I think Deragh brings more to the table than most. She cares about fully fleshing out the people she plays. She gave herself a reading list to play Audrey. She cares about art direction and wardrobe, and chose a lot of her clothes for the movie.
Scope: This can be a question for both of you: it has to do with the film’s depiction of the archive, which is sometimes a trope in experimental cinema or personal documentary. Watching this trilogy of films about Audrey, I feel a sense of ambivalence about the experience of going to the archive. In MS Slavic 7, there’s a lot of frustration as well as revelation…
Bohdanowicz: It’s about the thrill of the search. I like trying to refract different things against each other, like identities in a microscope: my identity and the people in my family, and trauma that they’ve been through. Some of my family’s greatest treasures are in archives. The objects are in these institutions, and that’s where the dissonance lies. I can access them without owning them, and it’s this beautiful, sad thing. Archives contain my family’s legacy, which is melancholy.
Scope: I guess the frustration I felt came from the feeling that when you go to a library and work with a collection, you can’t possess it. You have special access but not ownership, and it’s a bit like a metaphor for our relationship to the past. The evidence is there, but the things it corresponds to are just gone.
Bodhanowicz: You can’t relive the past. Those interactions with the objects are Audrey’s attempts to reconnect, if not relive. There can be a wonderful, passionate interaction with objects in archives, and then there’s always the threat of frustration as well.
Campbell: There’s this artist…wait, I feel like I’m talking like Audrey now…there’s this artist that is mentioned in the movie, Hanne Darboven. I love this artist, and the last time she was in Berlin, Sofia got me a book of her work. I have a really strong relationship to the written word: I only started watching movies in a cinephilic way after being in I Used to Be Darker, which was not just my introduction to acting but also I guess to watching good movies, because Matt Porterfield is a good cinephile. Anyway, I’ve always done this thing where I’ll underline passages in books—anything I find interesting—and then afterwards, I’ll go and take everything I’ve underlined and write it down somewhere else, in another book. So the notebook will be a mix of my thoughts and these passages. And in that book on Darboven, I saw it was something she does too. It’s like finding a text and wanting to put it into your own body. You see yourself in it. It’s this identity-affirming thing.
Scope: Marie Kondo would be horrified.
Campbell: Screw her, man.
Bohdanowicz: Her smile is suspicious.
Scope: I wanted to ask about the shot of Audrey sleeping with the translations of the letters all around her. It’s quite striking, and feels like it sums something up about her, or about this particular venture.
Campbell: The image is about wanting to do something with Chantal Akerman’s Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978); my favourite thing in that movie is her falling asleep with the tray. What’s beautiful about the transition from the first archive scene to the shot of me sleeping with the letters all around is it’s like the letters are finally speaking. You know that based on how out of sync it is every time Audrey looks down at the page that we’re not reading what she’s reading. There is this sort of tragic thing where she’s just getting glimpses of what’s in the letters, but never hears them. She’s asleep, and the letters are asleep, and they never completely merge.
Bohdanowicz: It’s a nice moment of relief.
Scope: Inevitably, I need to ask about what is going to happen next with Audrey. I mean, we could be funny and talk about how she’s going to bridge into the Marvel Universe or something, but realistically, is there some pressure now to keep the character going?
Bohdanowicz: There’s no pressure. I think there are some natural ideas going forward. There are stories to tell and explore, and two more short films and a feature already slated. I just feel grateful that I found such a strong collaborator. Watching something like the Antoine Doinel series by François Truffaut was very inspiring.
Campbell: I never thought about the fact that Audrey is going to age! Which means I’m going to age.
Bohdanowicz: I can’t fake making a film. If I’m not interested, I’m not going to do it, and this is where my interests lie right now.
Campbell: Audrey is going to shift, but Audrey is Sofia. She’s the presence of the filmmaker. She is the filmmaker’s task.
Scope: Is there any chance that her stories will start explicitly integrating aspects of Deragh’s biography? Or would that contradict what we’ve seen already? I mean, how many grandparents can somebody have?
Campbell: I think of is as being like The Simpsons where Marge and Homer meet and get married in 12 different ways. I like that she could have multiple histories or exhibit different qualities at different times. I think we should start planting misinformation.