by Lily Fierro
In the first seconds of MS Slavic 7, directors Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell present an open book with side-by-side Polish and English versions of, “To Józef Wittlin on the Day of His Arrival in Toronto – 1963,” a poem written by director Bohdanowicz’s own great-grandmother, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa. The film then immediately cuts to the image of Audrey Benac (Deragh Campbell) entering a minimalist hotel room followed by a visit to the Houghton Library at Harvard to explore the correspondence between Bohdanowiczowa and Wittlin. A hybridized character combining Bohdanowicz’s experiences and family history, Campbell’s perspectives and interpretations, and elements of fiction, Audrey is the great-granddaughter of Bohdanowiczowa, and as the literary executor of the Bohdanowiczowa estate, she wants to shine a light on her great-grandmother’s work.
As MS Slavic 7 proceeds, the letters guide Audrey towards a fluid path moving between the present and the past in her memory space, allowing her to form connections to Bohdanowiczowa’s writings and more broadly to her own heritage, family, and artistic research process. As part of AFI Fest 2019, I had the opportunity to speak with director Sofia Bohdanowicz about incorporating documentary elements in her practice, portraying the research and archive process, and overall, interweaving and mirroring hers and co-director Deragh Campbell’s experiences and perspectives to create and progress the character of Audrey Benac.
Q: Before we dig into MS Slavic 7, I have to ask: were you able to access your great-grandmother’s letters before or since the film’s completion? I know that the archive access approval can sometimes be difficult to attain.
A: When we were first doing research, when I was just looking for the letters themselves, I didn’t actually go to Houghton library. I found the letters online, and I was able to request and receive PDF scans of them. But, that doesn’t make for a very interesting film!
Before shooting, we didn’t get a chance to visit Harvard, so we did a lot of research and imagined what it would be like, and then staged everything in Toronto, and we amazingly captured some uncanny resemblances in some architectural pieces on the University of Toronto campus that made the film look and feel like Harvard. We actually saw the letters in September because we were invited to screen the film at the Harvard Film Archive. It was a very easy process, and they were really warm and welcoming because we were invited guests. But, in general, those archives are open to the public, so there are some hoops you have to jump through, and it is a little bit of a process, but it’s not so bad.
Q: That’s great to hear! Getting into some university libraries can be difficult. So many require targeted, very specific searches for the approval process.
A: It’s funny. The film has brought up tensions about institutions and archives, which is not something I completely expected. I’ve had people say to me, “We’re really interested in how you’re critiquing institutions and sticking it to the man. We can tell you’re frustrated with Harvard.” I don’t feel this at all! The dissonance that’s present between access and archives wanting to preserve and venerate letters is fascinating. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the approval process; it is there for a reason. Archives put in great work to preserve artifacts, so they need to know who is looking at them because those objects must stay protected. Although the access process can be very frustrating—for example, I was just in archives in Cambridge in the UK recently, and it took us two hours to get set up—I have an appreciation for institutions and how they protect important artifacts because if they weren’t doing that, then we wouldn’t have any way of accessing our history and telling these stories.
Being able to see my great-grandmother’s letters for the first time in September was such a moving experience because the letters were just there in Houghton, waiting for me to access them. It’s very touching that they’ve been there for over fifty years, and they were taken care of and preserved all of this time. Had they not been, I would not have had the opportunity to make MS Slavic 7 and to explore my family’s history through the film. When I was holding the letters in my hand, I was doubly moved: I was moved by the fact that were my great-grandmother’s letters, her words written by her hand, and I was also moved by this act of preservation. These letters still exist. They are intact, and they are still collected together because of how much care and thought has gone into this archival system.
Q: With MS Slavic 7, you have taken the literary tradition of writers’ own roman à clef novels and made it cinematic. In literary roman à clef, the intertwining of reality and fiction is in the psychological perspective, but in cinema, the intertwining is in not only the psychological but also the audiovisual perspectives. How did you integrate how you feel, see, and hear into what Audrey does, sees and hears on screen?
A: In editing and in discussing the film, I’ve consistently stressed that Audrey is a very sensitive person. She’s a very anxious person, and she’s very layered. She’s a weighted character, so, when I think about the interactions she’s having with the archivist, with her aunt, and with the translator to a certain extent, I think sometimes they can be perceived as reality, but other times they can be perceived as her own internal perspective of an experience because this film is very much about the act of remembering and oscillating between the past and the present. That’s how the film is constructed: we’re going back and forth between Houghton library and this family reunion that she’s remembering. There’s this point of oscillation, and MS Slavic 7 is not a perfectly cerebral film in any way, but in our editing process, we kept asking ourselves, “Is she perceiving this in the here and now, or is this something she’s remembering?” because memories of interactions with people and stories we retell are perpetually changing in our minds and are sometimes modulated by what we’re experiencing in the present moment.
As for the letters themselves, we wanted to focus on three important components of what the letter as an object is, what it represents, and how you can explore that on screen. The first way that we wanted to do that was to try to simulate the experience of what it feels like to hold a letter in your hands, to hold an object that is of holy value, something that is sacred to you. So, exploring the letter as a sacred object and also trying to capture this moment of discovery were the goals of Audrey’s first day at the archive. We did that by using macro lenses, so we could have a nice, shallow depth-of-field. We focused a lot on foleying, and we were able to get these nice crinkling sounds, so you can hear the texture of the letters. We also wanted to play with subtitles at the bottom of the screen, to experiment with this idea that even though she doesn’t understand Polish, the weight of the letters’ history is still present—her great-grandmother’s spirit is still lingering, and her words are about to be discovered.
Whereas the first day focused on the object properties of the letters, the second day in the archive focused on the spirit of the letters—the letters as talismans or objects that hold magical properties. We did that by playing around with acetates and showing projections of the letters to give Audrey a different perspective to observe them. I feel the way that the scene in the archive was staged gives the letters this kind of ghost-like aura. We wanted to represent all of the distance that the letters have traveled, and she talks about that in her monologues. What kind of powers do these letters hold because of their rich history?
And finally, on the third day, we wanted to focus on the content, not only the translation, but also a recital of the letters. We wanted to capture what they sound like when they are spoken aloud. In many films, letters are explored in only one, standard way, but in making MS Slavic 7, we tried to sit down and think mindfully about different experimental ways to depict the research process and the beauty of discovery accurately.
Q: As a former researcher myself, I appreciated the veracity of your portrayal of the research process. Audrey’s attempt to digest all of her research feels so honest and real. When you dig into a topic, you can get extremely overwhelmed by the mess of information in front of you, and you know that it all comes together in some way, but getting there feels like trying to find a path in the dark. And, without an academic framework, you’re left to your own devices to find the way. You capture all of this so well. Could you speak about how you worked with Deragh to elicit this disorienting sense?
A: The monologues were Deragh’s idea. I discovered the letters, and she pitched a very intelligent structure for the film. One particular element that I was interested in were these monologues that she envisioned with a locked-off camera on a tripod, all shot in a single take. When Deragh works on a film, she really likes to focus, especially when she’s building a character, on genuine connections. She is an actor who likes to react in the moment to experiences, which I think is a brave and courageous way of operating. To prepare for the monologues, the night before shooting one of them, she read one section of the letters for the first time. And, I threw in my own notes on my great-grandmother’s words and what I thought along with some historical anecdotes, and she read those as well, and then she proceeded to fill up her own notebook with her own thoughts and ideas. The next day, we would go to a restaurant that a friend of mine managed, and she would deliver those monologues. For each one, I think we did about eight or nine takes, but they were always done in one continuous shot.
This feeling of frustration and difficulty and strangeness in articulation actually came out of the situation that we were shooting in. The film was made very cheaply with a production budget of about 5,000 dollars. My friend offered the restaurant location for free, and we went for it. He told me that the restaurant was going to be empty, but when we were filming, he would open it up for coffee in the morning. I would be all set up and ready to shoot, but then people would come in and out of the restaurant, so it was a distracting space that wasn’t great for Deragh to act and be vulnerable in. She was trying to deliver these beautifully crafted thoughts, but was being met with disruption. It was really frustrating, and we weren’t sure how it was going to work. At the same time, we didn’t have a choice. We went along with it, and thankfully, what it yielded was this effect where you can tell that she was frustrated and having a hard time pulling out her thoughts. And, I think if you were actually synthesizing and digesting your research and discovery in a busy restaurant, it would be that challenging, so everything ended up working in our favor in the end.
I love to work within the realm of what some filmmakers call process cinema. If something happens when I’m filming—for example, this situation with this restaurant that was supposed to be quiet and closed down, but was open and busy—instead of looking at it as a problem, I try to look at it and ask: What are the variables that are being offered to me right now? How can I work with them to make my film unique? How can I look at these unexpected situations as gifts? It can be an incredibly hard thing to do, but if you’re open to creatively embracing those elements, I always find you can come up with something exciting.
Q: Your film is literary in its subject but not its approach, and that’s quite an accomplishment. How did you approach the challenge of avoiding literature-in-film clichés (i.e. re-enactments of moments or letters, voice-over narration)?
A: I was recently at a film festival on the Canary Islands with Shengze Zhu, who made a film called Present.Perfect. She works in hybrid cinema as well, and she said to me, “You know, Sofia, hybrid filmmaking is cheap.” And, I started to laugh because it’s true. It’s an inexpensive and excellent way to tell a story with a small amount of money. For us, re-enactment wasn’t an option because we just didn’t have the means to go there. As for a narrator, my practice stems from a place of collecting documentary footage first, so with this project, we collected the family reunion footage before we went into shooting MS Slavic 7. It was the first thing we filmed, and we treated it as an exercise. What you see is my actual aunt and uncle’s wedding anniversary! Deragh went as a guest. She sat down at the table, and she engaged with my family. From then on, we had that footage as a base, and I could intersperse acts of restaging, so instead of having a talking head or a voice-over narration, these scenes at the reunion became the stitching fiber to tell the story.
I’m always interested in different ways that we can propel a narrative without relying on the typical tropes used in a documentary. The other thing to consider about the film is that it didn’t have a strict outline; the script was very, very loose. We knew what Deragh would be doing over the course of three days. We would go to those environments, and we would shoot those scenes, but I would shoot them very much like a documentary. For example, on the first day, when Deragh sits down to look at those letters, and she’s holding them in her hands, we shot for about forty-five minutes in silence. She continued to look at things and give her small directions here and there, but we kept it very open. Consequently, it took about nine months to edit the film, to find its voice and its trajectory, which was challenging. It was hard to find what felt right within the grammar of the film when Deragh and I were editing. But once we discovered it, we were excited that we found such a strange, compelling little film in all of the footage. We couldn’t quite believe that it existed. It just emerged from a lot of conversation, trial and error, and dedication. We met two or three times a week to edit the film.
Q: What an excavation project. What’s amazing is that it seems like your editing process ended up aligning with Audrey’s process of digging through the letters. Perhaps the energy of Audrey’s search through the letters to find the connective thread between herself and her great-grandmother led to a similar feeling of trying to find the thread between you, Deragh, and Audrey in the film, forming a resonating circle between the letters, your family history, the film’s narrative, and the film’s editing?
A: Throughout making MS Slavic 7, I had my own process when I discovered and explored the letters, not in their physical form, but in their translated, digital form. Then, when filming, there was this double layer of capturing Deragh’s live responses to the letters based on my reflections, which created a lot of mirroring and bouncing back and forth between the information, reactions, note-taking, and research practice. This process worked very well. We both feel comfortable being very vulnerable with one another. We have an open practice and a close relationship. I believe the film has such a strange and unique voice because we were so supportive of one another throughout the writing, filming, and editing process.
Q: Your closeness and trust with each other definitely comes through. Given that Audrey is somewhat of a stand-in for you, how much of Deragh’s perspective of you, which may be different from how you see yourself, is integrated into her performance?
A: It’s a fascinating thing. Audrey is a character Deragh and I developed in my first feature film, Never Eat Alone, which is about my grandmother searching for her long lost love from her twenties. She was a character who was built out of experiences that I had with my grandmother, named after my cousin, Audrey Benac. In the film, Deragh, as Audrey, lives in my cousin Grace’s apartment, and throughout, she is wearing my clothing or some of my grandfather’s clothing. So, to make Never Eat Alone, Deragh got to know my family well, and she could look at my traits and my other family members’ traits and carry them forward in her own creative decisions within her own process. Over the course of the evolution of the character from Never Eat Alone to Veslemøy’s Song to MS Slavic 7, I feel now more than ever that Audrey is a co-synthesis of mine and Deragh’s inputs. That’s a major reason why Deragh became a co-director on the project.
Originally, I was the sole director of MS Slavic 7. Deragh had pitched me the structure, and we were going to be co-writers, but for the first time in our collaborative relationship, I truly felt that I couldn’t come up with all of the answers. They weren’t all coming from me, and that was a positive thing. I just didn’t know, and it was a mystery, and ultimately, I realized Deragh’s voice was the other half of the equation. I think that speaks greatly to her investment in the film and in her work as an actor. She throws herself in and deeply invests herself in the world that the filmmakers are trying to create. She gives herself reading lists and watches a lot of cinema, and she is very involved in the wardrobe. With this film, I remember her and Mariusz Sibiga, the actor who plays the translator, sitting down in the restaurant, planning out their dialog scene and how that was going to go because that scene was largely improvised. I found myself feeling so touched and moved by how well-studied she was in regards to the letters, my great-grandmother’s work, my own thoughts, and Józef Wittlin’s work. I feel lucky to work with a collaborator who cares as much about my family as I do.
Q: In previous conversations, you touched on how funny and strange it was to explore a little of Audrey’s sexuality and overall her intimacy with others. Could you expand on that tension? Intimacy can be more difficult to convey for the female roman à clef protagonist as compared to a male one. To me, creators like Kerouac and Bukowski struggle with intimacy because when they pursue it, their own definitions don’t always align with others’. Audrey appears to struggle with intimacy because it may not be her priority right now, but it is something she wants and needs.
A: I love that. I was having a conversation recently with a friend about being self-partnered. It was something Emma Watson said recently because someone had asked her, “Are you dating someone? Are you single?” And she just replied, “I’m self-partnered,” which I think is a beautiful thing because even though you’re single, that doesn’t mean you’re available. You might not want to be partnered with someone. You might just be happy being by yourself.
It’s funny. I’ve been told that the scene with Audrey and the translator in bed is scandalous because it looks like Audrey is using the translator to get what she wants from the letters. When the translator kisses her on the shoulder, and she has no reaction to it, people misinterpret Audrey to be a really cold person. It’s an interpretation that I completely disagree with because Audrey is a thinking, feeling, sensitive being, and the whole film is about how she has a hard time articulating and expressing herself. She’s finding her voice and trying to ask for what she wants and say what she wants. Just because a person isn’t able to express themselves clearly doesn’t mean that they’re not feeling things deeply.
What that scene actually was for us was an opportunity where we could explore the overlap of two things that Audrey wants: she wants a recital of these letters, and she wants to sleep with this man. She wanted him to read the letters aloud, and he does. And, they do sleep together, but ultimately, she doesn’t want their relationship to go any further. Plus, MS Slavic 7 is not a film where this person is having a hard time completing her thoughts, and her thoughts are completed by a male counterpart. This is a film about a person who has the desire to complete her own thoughts and to self-actualize on her own terms. She’s not looking to rely on a man to fill that void. She wants to continue the search.
And for me, on-screen intimacy was a big thing missing in my work. I’m a very private person in that regard, and the scene in bed was Deragh’s idea. It was enlightening for me as a filmmaker, artist, and person to confront how uncomfortable I felt and to realize I was moving into new territory as an artist to talk about this element of myself, this element of Audrey, and this element that Deragh wanted to talk about. It was a challenge for me to film the scene, and I’ve been quite surprised by people’s reactions to it.
Q: Self-discovery as an intellectual or artist through family history can be simultaneously uplifting and deflating, depending on the discoveries made and the reactions that come from them. Do you foresee a moment when Audrey will walk away from creative works and research that use material or inspiration from her family history?
A: Funny that you should ask—I have a new film coming out with Audrey called Point and Line to Plane. It’s about a friend of mine who passed away very suddenly last year. He was my first producer and collaborator, and I wanted to find a way to honor him. I started writing a letter to my grandmother, and this eventually evolved into a film about trying to find him or traces of him through artwork made by Wassily Kandinsky because he was an artist whom we mutually admired. For the first time, one of my films is much less concerned with family history or with archives, and instead it deals with regret, mourning, and grieving. Point and Line to Plane also explores Freud’s theory of magical thinking, which Joan Didion appropriated in the book, The Year of Magical Thinking, which is about looking for signs, coincidences, and messages from a person when they pass away because of your inability to cope or navigate that person’s loss. So, this new film is about my attempt to communicate with this friend of mine after his sudden passing.
Q: That’s beautiful. I love The Year of Magical Thinking. I found Joan Didion’s approach to the passing of her husband to be a compelling way to look at grief.
A: I found myself very much relating to her words and her perspective in a way that was extraordinarily validating. I thought, “Yes, I feel all of these things so strongly!” Reading that book propelled me to make the film. I didn’t know about the phenomenon of magical thinking, nor did I possess the language to investigate it or to describe it, but when I read that book, I realized, “Oh, this is the virus that I’m sick with right now,” and it gave me an entire spectrum and palate to start expressing myself.
Q: Didion has a gift for examining realities. Play It as It Lays says so much about Los Angeles. The Year of Magical Thinking says so much about love, grief, and attempts to rationalize both.
A: Contrary to what you may believe about me after seeing MS Slavic 7, I don’t read as much as Deragh does. Audrey’s literary references in the film all come from Deragh. The Year of Magical Thinking is the first Joan Didion book that I have ever read, but I hope to continue to read more.
Q: I know getting time to read between living, working, and seeing cinema is hard. I think it’s harder now than it’s ever been.
A: It’s such a challenge. Deragh said to me recently that books are like friends—you just have to nurture the relationship, so that’s something that I’m working on right now.
Feature photo: Still from MS Slavic 7