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64 min. English.

Between 1957 and 1964, Polish poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa wrote 25 letters to Polish author Józef Wittlin. Both were in exile in North America. The correspondence is part of the Houghton Library holdings at Harvard University, call number MS Slavic 7. A woman has come there to examine the letters, days of pencils, creased paper and faded envelopes, nights at the bar, speaking to someone off-camera, trying to articulate how the work makes her feel. It’s only in the scenes in Canada, at the anniversary celebration for another couple of Polish immigrants, that we even learn who she is, the great-granddaughter of the poet, the literary executor of her estate, a role which causes tensions with her aunt. But other tensions are just as, if not more pervasive, like those between two people separated by history, the content of a letter and its material form, process and psychology. Zofia’s words flash up on screen, as subtitles, as handwriting, as print, in the reading room, on the projector, in the hotel room, and their sentiments seep into the unadorned spaces, merging with silence and organ music alike, the melancholy of what still is and what is no longer, the melancholy of the archive. (James Lattimer)

Sofia Bohdanowicz was born in Toronto, Canada in 1985. She is currently completing her master’s degree in Film Production at York University in Toronto. In 2018, she participated in the Berlinale Talents. Sofia Bohdanowicz started making short films in 2012. MS Slavic 7 is her third feature-length film.

Deragh Campbell was born in Toronto, Canada in 1989. She studied Creative Writing at the Concordia University in Montreal until 2013. Since then she has been working as an actress as well as a screen writer. MS Slavic 7 is her first feature film as co-director.

Conversation with Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell: “A letter is a monologue in which you present your most articulate self”

Adam Cook: What inspired you to make this film?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: It began with the discovery of letters that belonged to my great grandmother, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa. I had already worked with her poetry and was doing research online to see if there was any more material. I came upon the archive of the Houghton Library at Harvard, where I discovered 24 letters written in Polish between her and a fellow poet, Nobel Prize nominee Józef Wittlin. I contacted Harvard, got them to scan the letters for me, and spoke with Deragh about making something out of the material. She then came up with a concept for a film that unfolds over three days.

Why did you choose to revisit the character of Audrey Benac from NEVER EAT ALONE (2016) and VESLEMØY’S SONG (2018)?

Deragh Campbell: For me it has something to do with observing the process through which a fictional character is created: how she becomes concrete over the course of the film, as a person and a character, how she develops from a stand-in for Sofia to an amalgam of Sofia and I, finally becoming an independent being. We were interested in how this process relates to performance, how an actor’s actual experience can be captured in a film. We wanted to keep developing the idea of me and Sofia as doubles by reproducing her discovery of the letters, which we did by filming my own discovery of them.
I did not read the letters before we started shooting. I would read them in the evening and the next morning I would do a monologue based on those readings. I wrote these monologues the night before based on a combination of two notebooks: one with my responses to the letters, and one with Sofia’s responses. She underlined what she found most important and I knew what I thought was important, so the monologues are a hybrid of our reactions to the material. It was such a great experience. When I was in university I loved preparing an essay: doing the research, compiling ideas – but I hated the actual writing. The monologues have the rawness of such preliminary research, they contain the love for raw material and the first associations that you make. After NEVER EAT ALONE (2016), we wanted to better understand why Audrey was looking into her family history and what she gained from this engagement. What she was looking for, and what was she maybe running away from?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: When I saw François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, I loved being able to watch this character grow over the years. What I like about our work with Audrey is that she has separate adventures, exploring parts of her family history in different ways. She is trying to assert herself, develop her own voice and gain a more concrete understanding of her beliefs.

Could you talk about the obstacles Audrey faces in trying preserve Zofia’s legacy, from both her family and from the archive?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: Archives are there to preserve, store and restore various objects and artefacts – that is something very positive. However, what I find difficult when I am doing research, whether on my family or Kathleen Parlow (the subject of VESLEMØY’S SONG – Ed.), is that institutions have control over our access to various historical objects. At some point, this becomes problematic. It is something we wanted to point out, because there is an incongruity with regards to Audrey’s family history: this history is in an archive and it is being preserved, but she only has limited access to it. If there were no archive, then no one would be taking care of it, but what is the point of doing so if no one has access?
In a family, there are always some members who feel like they have ownership over its history. Just because a family member, like Audrey, cares about it more, does not mean they have greater ownership. Since Audrey was appointed executor of the estate, and not aunt Ania, it creates a situation wherein jealousy plays a major role, leading Ania to question Audrey’s competence. There is this hierarchical structure in families where the younger members are automatically patronised. Even as an adult, you are still treated like a child. Ania is a curator, so Audrey is encroaching on her territory, thinking she can just step in and do it.

Deragh Campbell: We want to show the extent to which family is part of your identity, which can be positive and fulfilling, but can also cause a lot of pain. By researching her family history, insecurities arise in Audrey that are largely due to her family’s expectations of her. For Audrey, reviving her great grandmother’s work is a personal mission, whereas Ania regards it as presumptuous. There is a strange kind of dignity in leaving family history untouched, in referring to it without digging too deep.

How did the shooting go?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: It was important to shoot as much as possible in chronological order, to allow Deragh to develop an authentic performance from her reactions to the letters. Across three days we alternated in shooting the monologue at the Union Restaurant, the archive sequences at the Polish Consulate, and the meetings with the archivists at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. We only decided the day before that we would shoot my aunt and uncle’s 60th anniversary party and include it in the film. We had not fully figured out the structure yet, so we shot Deragh doing different things in different situations so that we then ended up with a wide selection of reactions to work with. Everyone acted very naturally without knowing what we would do with the material. It was really interesting to watch as Deragh started to structure her performance, and how this performance fit into the world we create in the film.

Can you talk about the use of music in the film?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: I do not like to overuse music in films, but it is important to choose the right piece in order to create the right atmosphere and provide a scene with the right tonal palette. I come from a family of musicians, I played the piano as well, and my dad suggested the Adagio from Bach’s BWV 564 on the organ. He said, ‘It starts out soft then there is a tonal shift and it gets psychedelic and weird.’ Deragh and I really responded to this. It functions like a hero’s theme, but introduces some horror and intensity to her journey. Dealing with your family history is not always nice, there are areas in your own ancestral gallery that are overshadowed by dark events, which weigh heavily on the whole. This is paralleled in Audrey’s journey, as she initially just scratches the surface, then becomes absorbed and suddenly finds herself out of her depth.

There is a beautiful sense of tactility in the film. How did you approach the letters on a formal level?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: Audrey first looks at the letters as physical objects, focusing on their materiality, really hearing and feeling the sounds they make as she handles them. I spent a lot of time recording the rustling and crackling of paper to really convey how brittle they were, how delicate and fragile. That was important, because Audrey is more interested in the letters as objects than in their emotional content. We wanted to explore the objects as talismans. What kind of special powers do they hold? What have they experienced and absorbed? It was important for Audrey to experience the weight of that history and what it means to hold the letters in her hands, even if she did not yet have an understanding of their meaning.

Audrey refers to the letters as ‘heartbreakingly desperate’ and ‘horrifyingly raw’. Was it important for you to not over-romanticise them?

Deragh Campbell: A letter is a monologue in which you present your idealised and most articulate self, not necessarily the most honest version of yourself. It feels like a plea. You write it and send it off, saying, ‘See what is inside of me!’ It is an incredibly vulnerable thing.

Sofia Bohdanowicz: In the film, Audrey does say it is ‘almost like the very effort of turning everything into language’. It is a struggle to be heard and seen, fought by people who have gone through so much, survived WWII, endured discrimination for being Polish, and who then want to build new lives for themselves in the UK and North America. There is something really special about the fact that my great grandmother and Józef Wittlin, who was Jewish and survived the Holocaust, had the energy to connect and meet after everything they had been through.

Deragh Campbell: And by adding a third party, in the form of Audrey, we create access to two narratives: the narrative contained in the letters, and the narrative of Audrey experiencing the letters. By dealing with her great grandmother’s letters, Audrey faces her own insecurities, her own inability to articulate exactly what she feels. Audrey and her great grandmother therefore pursue the same goal of self-expression, which results in a very intimate exchange between them, even though they are separated by time and several generations. One of my goals with the monologues was to show that when you write or work as an actress, you go through similar ups and downs and phases of extreme self-doubt. In the film, you see how she struggles with herself, how excited she gets by an idea or an association and then suddenly becomes disappointed to the extent of having an existential crisis. One tries to grasp meaning, then it gets lost again, and it feels a bit like the whole world is going to fall apart.

Sofia Bohdanowicz: There is something sad but also deeply romantic about this struggle to connect to others and to fully communicate who you are through language. Before we started working on this film, we saw Ruth Beckermann’s THE DREAMED ONES (2016), about the correspondence between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. It was one of the most beautiful screenings I have ever experienced, because we were so in synch with our reactions, so devastated. There is something similar about Zofia and Jozef’s physical distance, about the fact that they met in person only once, yet managed to grasp the essence of each other’s being and hold on to it.

(Interview: Adam Cook)

Production Sofia Bohdanowicz, Deragh Campbell, Calvin Thomas. Production companies Sofia Bohdanowicz (Toronto, Canada), Deragh Campbell (Toronto, Canada), Lisa Pictures (Toronto, Canada). Written and directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz, Deragh Campbell. Cinematography Sofia Bohdanowicz. Editing Sofia Bohdanowicz, Deragh Campbell. Sound design Elma Bello. Sound Matthew Chan. With Deragh Campbell (Audrey Benac), Elizabeth Rucker (Ania Bohdanowicz), Marius Sibiga (Grzegorz), Aaron Danby (Noah).

Premiere February 12, 2019, Forum


Sofia Bohdanowicz: 2012: Modlitwa / A Prayer (7 min.). 2013: Wieczór / An Evening (19 min.), Dalsza Modlitwa / Another Prayer (6 min.). 2015: Never Eat Alone (67 min.). 2016: Maison du Bonheur (62 min.). 2018: Veslemøy’s Song (9 min.), The Soft Space (4 min.). 2019: MS Slavic 7.

Photo: © Lisa Pictures

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur