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“No One’s Going to Knock at Your Door and Say ‘I Want to Hire You to Be a Filmmaker'”: Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell on MS Slavic 7

MS Slavic 7

As codirector Sofia Bohdanowicz has delightedly noted, MS Slavic 7 has caused a minor flutter of interest among the Extremely Online Librarian community, amazed that anyone would make a film titled after a call number at Harvard’s Houghton Library. 

That collection, from the papers of the Nobel-nominated poet Józef Wittlin, includes two dozen-odd letters sent to him by his fellow poet and fellow Polish exile Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, Bohdanowicz’s great-grandmother and namesake. Within the world of MS Slavic 7, though, Bohdanowiczowa is the grandmother of Audrey, the character played by Deragh Campbell. Audrey is a recurring character in what now must be an Extended Cinematic Universe drawn from Bohdanowicz’s own family history and mythology: sharing traits with some of the filmmaker’s relatives, Audrey first appeared in her 2016 feature Never Eat Alone, alongside old home movies of one of Sofia’s grandmothers, and returned in last year’s short Veslemøy’s Song, another archival deep-dive, this one about a violinist with a connection to one of her grandfathers.

Over the course of MS Slavic 7, which played this weekend and screens again tonight at New Directors/New Films, Audrey pores over the archive, handling the letters before decamping to a corner booth in a nearby bar to talk through—haltingly but eloquently and directly to the camera—about what she’s learned about a relative she never knew, before retiring to a sparse hotel. room. (Bohdanowicz re-created Harvard and Cambridge in a few depopulate interior locations around her Toronto homebase.) The rest of the world falls away, and she’s left with her own thoughts on a relative she never knew, and her musings on life in a new city, creativity and the soul of the artist.

As interpreted, and increasingly authored, by Campbell—now elevated to codirector of MS Slavic 7 for her role in the conception and editing of the film—Audrey by now is almost tearfully sincere, and translucently receptive to her own thoughts and others’ feelings—a humming vehicle for her two creators’ creative explorations. Not much happens in MS Slavic 7, but the interest of the librarians is not misplaced. The film immerses itself inside a fine-grained research project; it makes a contemplative space in which it’s possible to lose yourself in a mix of intellectual inquiry, empathy and imagination.

Throughout, in flashbacks to a family celebration, Audrey alternately sits and watches as her elderly relatives sing old Polish songs, and engages in increasingly adversarial conversations with her aunt Ania (Elizabeth Rucker). Though Audrey is Zofia’s literary executor, Ania is an academic who accuses Audrey of dilettantism over her inchoate desire to do something with Zofia’s archive, and put together, through some undefined Project, a claim to her family and history—the same artistic and genealogical impulse that created MS Slavic 7.

Filmmaker: Sofia, in other interviews, you’ve said you learned about this tranche of your great-grandmother’s archive by Googling around for things related to her, and discovering that these letters were in a collection at a university. I’ve had a similar experience with my grandmother, who’s also from Poland—she gave family photos and documents to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and for various reasons a lot of my own family history is most accessible to me through public sources. It made me think about how weird it is to research your own family, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the complexities and tensions you’re trying to work through here with the public and private aspects of your family history?

Bohdanowicz: It’s amazing that these letters existed in this archive at Harvard because Józef Wittlin’s wife Helena donated them. And it’s a wonderful thing that they’re well-preserved, because some of Zofia’s letters that we used in the film I had found in my parents’ basement and were not properly stored. They were, like, in a grocery bag, and a little bit damaged—we used those letters as props. It’s a wonderful thing to have parts of your family’s history accessible to the public, for it to be preserved, but it’s interesting when the ownership of those documents are shared between public and private, and they do but they don’t really belong to you anymore.

Filmmaker: Is it alienating to learn about your family by researching it the same way a scholar would?

Bohdanowicz: There were definitely feelings of guilt, not being able to ask my great-grandmother permission to publish and share these innermost feelings with the world at large. What she expressed to Jozef was very intimate, very personal. For me, that discovery was a real gift: What she was thinking about my family, about the world around her, about her sense of loss and grief and alienation in moving through WWII and finally settling in Toronto and not really loving the city… But I felt a little bit sad at the same time.

Campbell: There’s something, too, when you’re walking through a history museum, looking at a medieval chalice—I always find it really really difficult to make myself understand a sense of history, and to have any feeling of how old something is, or what that object went through. It’s almost like you have to find these elaborate other angles into making yourself physically understand what something is, what something means. I had this weird experience when I was at the Gemäldegalerie in Germany for a film, Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog, and we got to go back into the bowels of the museum where they were restoring the paintings. Somehow, walking around, seeing all these paintings lying against a wall, broken, in this weird industrial setting, I suddenly had this crazy feeling of how old they were. It’s like they were in repose, or something. It was the most astonishing feeling… I guess that’s part of what Audrey is trying to do, she’s trying to find ways to make these letters real for her.

Originally the segments in the archive were going to be—well, they are—silent, but you weren’t seeing subtitles at the bottom; eventually during feedback sessions with Toronto film people, we realized how important it was to have the narrative of the letters coming through underneath. Whereas before the idea was, first you just see the image of the letters, then you see the letters represented through Audrey’s thoughts about the letters, then eventually you would hear the recital of the letters in bed. But through subtitling we could simultaneously outline the narrative of the letters, and the narrative of Audrey discovering the letters, and then they could converge at the end. Which I think ends up being a more pleasurable viewing experience?

Having always been a really really avid reader, I relate to [Audrey’s monologues]. I would have these incredible emotional reactions to books, but when I would try to articulate these reactions, or in school—and I hated school, although I went to university for English literature, which was probably a huge mistake—whenever I had to articulate myself, I would basically have total meltdowns. I could get to the stage where I could write my initial notes, but if I tried to put it into a cohesive order, I would feel my body physically revolt. I just got so anxious about how, by putting in the effort to truly articulate what you mean, you really come up against how difficult that is; if you say what something meant to you, there’s always just that little bit that you’re not saying, and you just feel a little bit like you’re lying or simplifying things. I think what’s pleasurable about the monologues is that they haven’t been made into perfectly articulated arguments yet—you’re really seeing someone in the process of trying to articulate themselves. I think the minor tragedy of the film—and Sofia and I only discovered this after watching it for the hundredth time—is that in that final scene, where you see Audrey asleep with the letters all around her, you see these two things existing simultaneously together, but not really completely having access to each other. And that’s so sad! [Laughs] I think.

Filmmaker: As someone who tries to write about art I really relate to that. I wanted to ask about the monologues later but I’ll ask about them now: to return to your description of trying to write at university, they don’t seem traumatically unfinished or frustratingly inadequate. They seem like real conversations; it’s a pretty accurate simulation of someone speaking apparently extemporaneously about fairly abstract concepts. It’s really only in comparison to how intellectual activity is—usually, at least—processed on screen that it seems in any way out of step with the process of thought. I wonder if you feel like with those scenes, where we just see a woman thinking, that you’re trying to push back against any assumptions or conventions about how thought is processed, either in the real world or on film.

Bohdanowicz: When I told Deragh that I had found the letters in the Harvard archive, she pitched the concept of reading one third of the letters each day, and that the film would follow a young woman discovering these letters over the course of three days. And then, we decided it would be a process of self-discovery, so one day she would read one third of the letters, then go home, write a monologue, and then go and perform it in a restaurant the next day—

Campbell: But importantly, the monologues are a combination of my reactions to the letters but also Sofia’s own notes which I incorporated. So they are actually a representation of both of our thoughts, not just mine.

Bohdanowicz: Yeah. And logistically, it’s a bit of a nightmare to go back to the same location each day instead of lumping it all together. But it was important to me to facilitate an environment where that natural thought process could unravel. When we were shooting in the restaurant, we were promised that it would be shut down, but it actually wasn’t—they were letting people come in in the morning for coffee, and I felt so bad that Deragh didn’t have this environment that was quiet, where she could feel safe to explore this fully as the character. But when we reviewed the footage, we noticed that it added a really interesting tension, because when you’re trying to find a way to articulate new thoughts, and grasp at meaning, especially in a public space where you’re thinking and taking notes, it’s very realistic.

Campbell: My pet peeve in any book or movie—it happens especially in biographies, I find—is when the biographer’s like, “And then, Gertrude Stein and Picasso and Matisse went into that room and had this really interesting conversation!” And they don’t tell you what the conversation was! It’s just this image of intelligence. Which is why it’s so amazing in a Bergman film, or a Rohmer film, you actually get to hear people discussing ideas, and films using the discussion of ideas as a mode of characterization. To me, that’s actually seeing real life.

Filmmaker: To change the subject a little bit, and maybe to return to an earlier line of questioning, I was thinking about the several generations of Polish Canadians we see in the anniversary party scene: there’s the elderly generation, which still maybe speaks with an accent; there’s the aunt, who has sort of a hardened corporate affect—

Bohdanowicz: [Laughs]

Filmmaker: Maybe that’s a little presumptuous of me!

Bohdanowicz: No, not at all! Corporate academic.

Campbell: Yeah, that’s accurate!

Filmmaker: And then there’s the interior-facing artist Audrey, who’s the heir to this Polish literary tradition, but doesn’t read or speak Polish. We talk a lot about assimilation—how it’s this process that will happen over the course of several generations and aid in social cohesion whatever whatever whatever, but this film shows such a sense of the loss that goes along with that, through Audrey. Maybe I’m reading too much into her there, but are you thinking at all about Audrey’s experience as emblematic of wider issues surrounding migration and heritage and assimilation?

Bohdanowicz: Deragh, do you have any thoughts?

Campbell: I have one but I just wanted to give you a chance—

Bohdanowicz: No, no, you go ahead.

Campbell: Okay. You’re the Polish one, not me!

Bohdanowicz: But you look Polish in the film, which is important. People believe that you’re Polish.

Campbell: The Polish Ambassador said I look Polish.

Bohdanowicz: Growing up with my grandparents, I didn’t feel connected with them—as a kid, I wanted to play Nintendo 64, I wanted all the very modern things. And whenever I would go visit my grandparents, everything was very simple: no cable tv, there was a cassette player, there was the homemade soup. They were very frugal people, because they had been through so much in their lives. And I think what was paramount for them was for me and my family to be clothed, to be fed, for us to get together on certain occasions. Because I didn’t understand what they had been through, when I was young, I had an aversion or rejection of that culture. It took a long time for my family to explain to me what happened to them during World War II—hearing the Polish language spoken at my grandparents’ house growing up, I thought that my grandparents were always yelling at each other. It’s not a pleasant language to listen to. But then I just realized that that’s how they talked.

It wasn’t until I discovered my great-grandmother’s poetry and started talking to my grandmother about her past, and how she came to Toronto—how she had to live through so many different places throughout Europe after she had been in a camp in Siberia—that I began to understand why she was the way she was. It was unfortunate, because just after I really started to understand her and my heritage, she passed away. There’s definitely a detachment that can happen through the generations if you’re not paying attention to who you are, how you got there.

Trauma can be passed down through generations based on what has happened to your family. I always had a really hard time with Remembrance Day every year as a kid; after a Remembrance Day ceremony [one year] I got very confused, I packed up all my stuff, sat by the door and was waiting for soldiers to take me away, because of the story my mom had told me about that happening to my grandparents. I didn’t really understand what was happening, because I was about six or seven years old. I got confused and thought that the past was the present.

Campbell: I’m having the most horrifying experience right now—well, it’s very pleasurable, but also a very horrifying experience—where I’m reading this book called Milkman, by Anna Burns, that everyone’s reading right now. My mother grew up in Belfast in the ’60s and ’70s, and I’m now reading this book about the daily experience of living during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and just like… it’s so precise, even the conversational inflections and attitudes that you hear in the way that Irish people talk, the way they’ll never say anything directly. It’s just so insane for me to realize how different my mother’s life was from mine. I guess that’s important to acknowledge, too, in Canada—where people are immigrating that have a much more recent experience with war—how different people’s experiences of the world have been.

Filmmaker: I think that speaks to to what Sofia was saying; because war is so recent to people, let’s say, of my grandparents’ generation, they don’t want to pass that on to their children; and then the grandchildren are left to sort of… recreate their own family history from the archives.

Campbell: And there is this bizarre thing too where rather than hearing it from your parents, you hear it in history class, and you kind of put it together? Like, “Oh… but they were alive then, therefore—”

Bohdanowicz: “So what were they doing?” And this is something that my grandmother didn’t like to talk about, by the way. When I started to ask her about what happened to her during World War II and coming to Toronto, she was like, “Well it was great, we traveled a lot,” and it was like… “Are you sure?” [Laughs] “That it was great?” I was like, “What was it like coming to Toronto, and seeing that for the first time after living in Europe for so long?” And she was like, “Oh, it was great, you know, opportunities,” and this and that. And then eventually, after we talked for a longer period of time, she eventually said that coming to Toronto was actually really disappointing, and that it was ugly, and people didn’t want her and my grandfather to rent a room in their apartment because they had a baby and they didn’t want a baby living in one of the rented units because the baby would be too loud—it was a little ridiculous, they had a really hard time. But I think it was important for them to bury that and to move on from it, because it was so awful and difficult.

Filmmaker: Speaking of coming to Toronto and finding it ugly, it’s interesting that we have these letters and poems reflecting on exile, and we see Audrey interacting with really anonymous spaces: trying to personalize her hotel room, or sitting in a restaurant that, because of the way it’s shot, could be anywhere. Living, in the film, the circumscribed, only haltingly interactive life of… maybe “an exile” is a bit of a reach, but at least a business traveler. And I’m curious how much—

[Laughter. “It’s funny to think of Audrey as a business traveler.”]

Filmmaker: —of the aesthetic of the film is a response to the achingly lovely meditation on, to quote Zofia, “parting and loneliness.” Is the film trying to build a space that recreates or honors that experience of exile and alienation?

Campbell: Do you want to go first, Sofia?

Bohdanowicz: You go first, I’m going to ruminate. No one’s ever asked us that before.

Campbell: I always thought of the spaces less as paralleling Zofia as contrasting them. Being Canadian is a strange thing because you have this physical proximity to the United States, and then you’re part of the Commonwealth, and it does put you in this position where you’re constantly looking outside of yourself—being an observer and a gatherer. I think it gives you kind of an off-kilter perspective. Directly after university, I went to New York. I loved being in New York, seeing so many movies; people are making really interesting work there. But when I wanted to consider making movies myself—and also considering where I can legally live without any difficulty—it was like, “Oh, no, this is the perspective I’m looking for.” Basically, isn’t it amazing to be from a place that hasn’t told all its stories yet, or hasn’t told that many stories about how it relates to the rest of the world? And then meeting, like, Sofia, and Kazik Radwanski and Antoine Bourges. I want to build a representation of that perspective.

That went wildly off-topic, but the way that that relates back, is that I think Audrey, much unlike Zofia, has the privilege of very free movement between borders, and also just of time, and reflection, to be able to look at these things. Where there’s conflict between Audrey and the aunt—what can be the brattiness of our generation—is that, yeah, we have so much comfort and access to information. Audrey can sometimes be seen as a bit… angsty, I think. The stakes are, for her, whether she’ll be able to articulate herself, and feel like a whole human, or she won’t be able to articulate herself, and she’ll feel alienated from the world. These extreme stakes are very real, but she has constructed them for herself. So I think she’s in a very different place than Zofia.

Filmmaker: I respond really acutely to images of hotel rooms as being loaded with symbolism; I may have watched too many Christian Petzold movies at a really impressionable time in my life, so now whenever I see a hotel room my mind turns immediately to, like, the modern form of alienation and exile and placelessness.

SB: About personifying the hotel room: that was very much Deragh’s idea, to pull out all the objects, and have this scene where she’s setting up her base camp, editing that together with the organ music. Deragh has this reference about it being this very Shakespearean theme where at the beginning of plays—and I think you articulate this much better than I, Deragh—the actors are laying out all the props that are going to be used throughout the film.

DC: Yeah, like they walk across the stage holding the dagger that will murder the person later in the play. [Chanting] “This is the bottle of wine she will drink. This is the t-shirt she will wear. This is the book she will read.” Which I find funny.

Filmmaker: We talked a little bit about processing the letters intellectually, through the subtitles and monologues; it’s also very important that they be experiences as material objects, as tactile things. So, to ask the second half of the question that I had prepared about that before you answered the first half of it, how were you trying to film and convey to the audience the way in which Audrey is processing this history through touch?

SB: When Deragh pitched me the original concept, she had different ways that Audrey would discover the letters. We were shooting at the Polish consulate in Toronto; that home used to belong to the Guinness family, and has this very regal, mahogany-panels look to it—it looks like a very academic place, and they let us shoot there in the summer for free, because it was empty. So we had the luxury of going there every day. We were trying to shoot in order so that you could actually see Audrey going through these movements in as much real time as possible; it was important for me to support Deragh’s performance that way. We would set ourselves up, and again it was just her and I, and we were like, “Okay, how is she going to experience the letters today?” That first day was really about just looking at the letters—discovering them, how do they sound, how do they feel. When we were editing, I took some of the letters that I found in that grocery bag in my parents’ basement and foley’d with them so that you really feel the tactility of the letters—when I was a kind I always used to love to smell textbooks.

Part of it, too, was looking at the letters as as talismans, as objects that hold a lot of weight, power, history and importance. Before her connecting with the material inside, it was important for her to encounter those letters just as what they were—as pieces of paper that had historical value. Before I understood what the letters said, I was looking at them thinking, “Wow, that’s what my great-grandmother’s handwriting looks like,” “That’s the paper that she wrote on,” “That’s the kind of stamp that she used.” We wanted to depict this feeling of elation that she had to have the letters, in her hands.

Filmmaker: Without giving too much away to anybody who reads to the bottom of this interview: there’s drama in this movie, there’s confrontation and a plot twist—the central process of Audrey interacting with these letters also involves a character arc, and somewhat conventional relationships with other fictional characters.

Campbell: In Sofia’s first feature Never Eat Alone, where Audrey first appears, Audrey again is this sleuth of family history, but this time we just wanted to just delve into her psychology a bit more. Why is this young woman so preoccupied with this, and what is maybe missing in her own life? We wanted to complicate the exploration of family history; it is very enriching, but also, part of the reason it’s so emotional is because it is tangled up in the different pressures, support or lack of support, that you feel from your family. Having the presence of the aunt, and that doubt she instills in the validity of what Audrey is doing, is important.

I have very wonderful, but very successful artist parents, and I always thought that I didn’t feel any pressure because of that—but, I realized, it meant that I always thought of myself as an artist without having ever done anything. So I didn’t really build the discipline necessary to finish something. I think I only realized a few years ago, “Oh, maybe I’m still looked upon as a child because I haven’t really gone out and done anything on my own.” I think Audrey feels a bit of that: she has these curiosities, these hobbies, but she hasn’t gone out and made a life for herself. I feel like when you’re in your late 20s, approaching your 30s, or thereabouts, there’s this need to establish yourself outside of the household that you grew up in.

Bohdanowicz: Definitely. That’s very well articulated, and I think, building off of that, when we were shooting the film, this amazing opportunity presented itself for us to shoot at my great-aunt and -uncle’s 60th wedding anniversary. For me it was this extraordinary opportunity to explore the difficulty in relating to the parental generation, to Ania’s generation, because that generation of people have parents who have survived the war, and finally came to a country where they could find and build stability. Both of my parents are teachers, but both have artistic qualities—my dad is a very talented organist, my mom plays the violin and was a really talented singer—but neither of them were encouraged to pursue these as full-time careers by their parents, who had suffered so much and came to Canada with literally nothing. And so they both became teachers. When I wanted to pursue filmmaking, they were just trying to do their best and pass on what they knew best to me. My dad said to me when I was a kid—and I don’t resent him for it, because him saying that I shouldn’t do it just made me want to go out and do it even more—but he just said, “Filmmaking should be a hobby, you really need a practical job, something that will bring in real money.”

This conflict with Ania, where Audrey is seeking to find her calling, is a really difficult struggle. When you want to become a filmmaker, no one’s going to knock at your door and say “I want to hire you to be a filmmaker.” It’s a self-appointed role, you have to will it into being. That’s part of what that struggle is: you’re fighting against yourself, you’re fighting against institutions, you’re fighting against your family. It was fun for Deragh and I to explore that conflict together; there’s something about it that’s really funny sometimes—in editing the film, we were laughing at Deragh’s character a lot, trivializing her, but also at the same time we were kind of like, “Aw, man, that sucks!” [Laughs] “That hurts.” On one hand, we deeply relate with that character, and on the other hand we recognize how she can be a little bit of a brat sometimes. She is a little bit privileged, but I think that’s all a part of the struggle in discovering, in trying to re-appropriate her family history into some kind of an art form.

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