Passage(s) of Time: An Interview with Sofia Bohdanowicz
On life and death, intimate family portraiture, and documentary that becomes fiction.
A docu-fiction that grew out of an unlikely project (more on that below), Never Eat Alone is a portrait of Bohdanowicz’s maternal grandmother that incorporates footage from an episode of live 1950s hokey-melodrama TV in which Benac starred. Now widowed and in her 80s, she wonders what happened to a baritone from the show’s choir who she was involved with romantically, a man who actually tried to stop her wedding. Shooting in static, low-res digital images, Bohdanowicz sweetly captures the relationship between Joan and her fictional granddaughter, Audrey (Campbell), who digs out the footage from the archives and tries to locate this long lost lover. Taking place mostly in domestic spaces, the film focuses on quotidian details, mundane interactions, the passage of time, and the dignified solitude of Benac. Meanwhile, footage of an old man alone suggests that the lover may be out there, waiting to be found. Simple and elegant, the film quietly aches with the weight of memory and the inevitable twilight of existence, while also articulating the beauty of a life lived. Benac is a warm and infectious presence, and the subtle naturalism and maturity of Campbell’s understated performance lends charm and delicacy. Outwardly the film might seem slight, yet in its modest sixty-eight minutes it accumulates real power and insight.
Playing alongside Never Eat Alone in Vancouver was Bohdanowicz’s stunning Last Poems Trilogy—consisting of Modlitwa (A Prayer), Wieczór (An Evening), and Dalsza Modlitwa (Another Prayer)—which was completed in 2013 and previously screened as part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look series. Modlitwa (A Prayer) captures her paternal grandmother going about her daily chores, narrated with a reading of a poem by her great grandmother, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa. Wieczór (An Evening) is shot in the house that's now abandoned after her grandmother’s death, as if suspended in time and in a limbo between presence and absence. And finally, Dalsza Modlitwa (Another Prayer) is shot in the home after it’s sold and emptied, with images from the first short hauntingly projected throughout the house in an act of cinematic resurrection.
Bohdanowicz has a mature and patient eye, rare in this indie generation, and one would hardly guess these are the works of a young filmmaker just starting out. With another great feature already under her belt in Maison du bonheur (coming in 2017), she’s all but poised to be a major Canadian director sooner rather than later. I spoke with Sofia about the trilogy, Never Eat Alone, turning the mundane into poetry, and creating intensely personal portraits of her family.
Adam Cook: Can you talk about what attracts you to filmmaking as an art practice?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: I started being a filmmaker when I was a teenager because I didn’t like public speaking. [Laughs.] I found it to be a hard thing to do—I had a hard time talking in front of people. I would start shaking or feel humiliated, even when people told me I did a good job. I started to realize that by making films with my dad’s JVC camcorder, I could stitch together presentations or make videos that were more engaging, and not be worried about it because I could control all of those elements. Wanting to be a filmmaker came from wanting to control and refine how I present myself to the world. I felt stronger; it was a way of getting people to listen to me.
Cook: It’s interesting that it’s this instinctual thing. I think most people of our generation come to cinema through loving movies, loving specific films and filmmakers.
Bohdanowicz: In terms of film culture, it didn’t come to me until way after. I came from Barrie, Ontario, and lived in Northern Ontario growing up. I wasn’t exposed to much. There weren’t auteurs that influenced me; it was the magic and means of doing it, the motions of going through production.
Cook: With the Last Poems trilogy, could you talk about how it took shape as you were making it?
Bohdanowicz: I found my great grandmother’s book of poetry, and wanted to make a series of films based on it. I had seen Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, and I was interested in filming my paternal grandmother at home, the way she eats and goes about her days, and seeing what that looks like. I was interested in filming people from an anthropological perspective, so when you’re watching you really feel like you’re there. So the first short, Modlitwa (A Prayer) was a test for this, and I even thought maybe I could make a feature. I followed her over the course of the day. I tried overlaying her reading one of the poems, and it worked. Unfortunately, not long after she was diagnosed with cancer, and passed away six months later. The magical thing was that I captured my last normal day with her.
I had a hard time and it was a difficult loss. I realized I was going to lose this place that was really significant with me when her home was sold. So I documented every room in the house, capturing the space as it was over the course of afternoon to evening as the light disappeared. There were lots of haunting details: a dead bug in a basin, her underwear still hung up, a note that says 'cancel the nurse,' and 'C and C will take care of me,' and C and C are my parents.
Cook: You capture this place frozen in a suspended moment, without closure.
Bohdanowicz: Precisely, and no one in my family had the time to clean the place up after she got sick.
Cook: The trilogy feels like a process of grieving and reflecting. Did the idea for the third part, where you project images from A Prayer over the now-vacated home at night, come after shooting the second one?
Bohdanowicz: Yes, the house had been emptied and sold, and it just came to me. It was creepy; it felt like a resurrection or séance. My family is very Catholic, and I felt very weird about it. That footage and those memories will outlast what happens to that space.
Cook: Never Eat Alone, your first feature, is more narrative-based but features similar dynamics.
Bohdanowicz: It came from wanting to find a different way to engage and interact with my family. One time, I wasn’t able to attend my grandmother’s birthday dinner, and I joked that I should send a video of myself eating to play at the table. From that, I thought it would be interesting to make a DVD with different shots of people eating, see what people eat, where and how, so that if anyone was eating by themselves they could put it on to not eat alone. I eventually got an Ontario Arts Council grant. I was going to shoot people in my building, but when I started filming it, it felt wrong, that I was examining people, and became a socioeconomic statement about what people were eating or not eating. My producer and partner Calvin Thomas and I started filming my maternal grandmother, Joan, preparing food to see where it went. She started telling us stories, and one of them was that she sang in a choir on a show by the Canadian General Electric, and hadn’t seen the footage before, and wanted to check it out. I found the episode and discovered she was actually the star, as a damsel in Casa Loma, and couldn’t believe it! She told me about this ex-lover she had in the show and regretted not staying in touch with. I tried to find him. So I wanted to add this to the films somehow. Calvin started filming his grandfather too, and I started editing it and putting these pieces together. It took several months.
Cook: So you were shooting and editing still without knowing the narrative and how it would come together?
Bohdanowicz: Right, just playing with how it could fit together. And I figured out Calvin’s grandfather could be the long lost love, but needed something to drive the narrative, so that’s when I cast Deragh Campbell. I considered putting myself in, but I was more interested in blurring the lines between documentary and fiction. Once we cast her, we shot her scenes in four days.
Cook: And she’s a main character, the film feels like it’s structured around her, but it was just a matter of fitting it to what you had shot already. So it’s documentary that became fiction.
Bohdanowicz: Yes, it was about filling in the blanks. I would write the scenes out that would describe what I needed Deragh to do in order to stitch things together.
Cook: So, their conversations in the film, were they rehearsed or discussed beforehand?
Bohdanowicz: Some of them were similar to conversations we had already had. I would tell them specific things that needed to happen or be said, and where a scene needed to end. They would memorize the main points and then just riff off each other.
Cook: Never Eat Alone and the trilogy screened together for the first time at VIFF—what was that like, having such intimate but contrastive portraits play side by side?
Bohdanowicz: Emotionally it’s really hard. The trilogy is still hard for me to screen and the feature… I like forcing people to be present. Nathaniel Dorsky talks about absolute and relative time. Making people reckon with absolute time is an important thing, like in Akerman’s cinema, one of the things I think she wanted to do was make people feel the passage of time.
Cook: There’s a lot of compassion behind all of your work, but at the same time your work is quite frank and unsentimental in its views towards death, solitude.
Bohdanowicz: I want to embrace the reality of what that looks like because I don’t see representations of life and death that I see in real life. I don’t relate to them. It’s interesting to me to uncover the banal moments of the everyday. If filmmaking is a medium where we’re meant to be capturing life, then why aren’t we privy to those moments? That’s what amounts to our existence. It’s important to me to be honest and frank. I want people to see it the way I experience it.
Cook: What was it like working with your grandmother and asking her to play herself?
Bohdanowicz: It was a lovely, organic thing. It never felt like we had to strain to get her to do what we wanted. Her natural way of being is interesting enough to capture, nothing was a stress, we wanted how she is everyday, and she was game for it. This whole narrative about her ex-lover was a generous gift. it started out as something she said 'you can’t tell anyone about...' to being in a film screening at festivals. This personal story is now public. Her courage has been touching. Unfortunately, the man she was looking for did pass away, and I had to tell her right before VIFF, and the festival experience was quite healing for her. The set was me, Calvin, Deragh, and her—it was hard to sense we were making something real, it didn’t feel like a film for her as we were making it. Having it screen and winning an award, it gave her a validity I think.
Cook: Never Eat Alone has a lo-fi digital aesthetic that really suits the film, but you’re also accustomed to working with 16mm. Could you talk about those visual choices?
Bohdanowicz: The HV20 camcorder is one that has a lot of sentimental value—especially the one we shot on. I shot my first film on that. It’s dead now. The way it outputs aesthetic images, they’re very flat and melancholic, especially in my grandmother’s apartment, and in winter. It facilitated the tone I was going for. It was a good mix between an image you can project in a cinema and still have be elegant but also has a home-movie vibe. It has this smallness and a sense of intimacy. If we used a bigger camera, I don’t know how my grandmother’s performance might have been affected.
Shooting on 16mm is something I love to do, it’s just very expensive. I got lucky working with my friend Gillian Sze on a short called A Drownful Brilliance of Wings [which screened recently at the Reel Asian International Film Festival]. I’ve always been a fan of her poetry, and she asked me to make a film based on one of her poems. We both like to explore narratives around our family and generations. I found expired film on Ebay—it expired the year we were born. I learned how to use a Bolex and how to spool off the reels of film. It was very handmade and crafted. It yielded a sense of nostalgia, the film is about Gillian discovering that she has a grandfather she didn’t realize was still alive. Her father was a small child in China when he ran away to Malaysia with a mistress; he wrote letters to her father, and kept each stamp from every letter he received. This stamp collection is the focal point of the film and serves as a visual history that traces their correspondence. It was interesting to delve into someone else’s history.
I was attracted to the permanence of 16mm. Digital is flexible and impermanent—you don’t have to use what you shoot—but film forces you to be more precise. I only had thirty minutes of footage, so I had to think it out. I like working under that pressure and the methodical way of working by myself, using a light meter, and thinking carefully about what I’m shooting and why.
Cook: Speaking of materiality, objects are very important in your films, whether it’s something precious, or food, or something mundane like dishes, or the note you mentioned. It can be the memories they embody or how they come alive by touch—or the reverse, if they’re left dormant.
Bohdanowicz: My family is very sentimental. I’ve always been given jewelry that I didn’t necessarily ask for but that I’m asked to care for in an important way. When I was a kid I was given these expensive gold earrings, and I lost one, and it was such a big deal because they were given to me by my great grandmother, but then at the same time why are you giving that to a seven-year-old child? There was pressure to look after objects—a scarf that was my grandmother’s when she was in Poland, it holds this significance: My family came out of poverty, my grandparents had a hard time establishing themselves when they came to Canada. My great grandmother ran a gin distillery in her basement during prohibition times. There was a sense of wanting to preserve and hold on to things. There’s a comfort, objects can hold a mythical power. I have my great grandmother’s cigarette case that I always bring with me to screenings whenever I’m nervous, and inside it says, 'Therefore we shall smoke.' Holding onto hand-me-downs in my family is important. There’s a sense of history and nostalgia.
When I had my first holy communion when I was young, my whole family came up north from Toronto, I remember walking down the aisle in white dress... I remember looking at my family from both sides and feeling this sense of history and responsibility, and having profound respect for my elders. I feel a responsibility to represent my family.
Cook: Can you tell me more about your next film, Maison du bonheur? It’s another portrait of an older woman, and her domestic rituals, which maybe you could speak to, but this time it’s a stranger, in Paris no less.
Bohdanowicz: There’s an under-appreciation for elderly matriarchs in our society. I think that our grandmothers and mothers didn’t necessarily choose their roles. By capturing these women, I think about whether they wanted this for themselves—were they happy in these roles, how could their lives be different if they had other choices?
Maison du bonheur is a study of the day-to-day life of an elderly French astrologer, named Juliane Sellam. Juliane has resided in the same apartment in Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood for over fifty years. In the 1970s, Juliane was the protégé of a military general who was also the astrologer for President Charles DeGaulle. The film is constructed from thirty narrated segments, each one featuring different relationships, memories, and traditions that are integral to Juliane's life. The opportunity came from a friend of mine who had seen my short films and thought that I might be interested in meeting and filming her mother in Paris. I took out a loan, ordered some film, and a Bolex, and set off to France. I hadn’t seen a photo of her, or her apartment before I left. I just had her address and showed up.