Women’s Day: The Limits of Intimacy and Language in the Genealogical Cinema Of Sofia Bohdanowicz

by Ruairí McCann

Over the course of three features, several shorts and an amalgamation of fiction and non-fiction, Canadian filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz has deepened her expression of how family wields a powerful and complex influence over an individual’s sense of self. To establish yourself necessitates comparison to those who play a part in your life, whether the connection is long standing or brief. A spectral presence through the dead can also find a material afterlife through landmarks such as letters, music and in images – both still and moving. For Bohdanowicz’s antecedents, this is the case to an unusual degree; her maternal grandmother, Joan Benac, was a singer and actor.  Joan’s husband, Anthony Benac was a violinist. Meanwhile, her paternal great-grandmother and namesake, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, was a renowned poet. Instead of merely illustrate this inordinately talented and storied family tree, Bohdanowicz highlights one of the root problems of art-making; a practice that can spring from a desire to bridge the gap between perspectives – between the artist, the viewer and the subject or subjects. Yet Bohdanowicz, through how she constructs her disparate portraits of her kin and their kith and the depiction of the process of archival work and its often inconclusive results, highlights this as a flawed pursuit ,no matter how intimately felt. That another human life is too much of a – to mangle a Mount Eerie line – ‘galaxy of subtleties’ to ever offer a complete catalogue. Despite this, there is something vital in trying, even for what it says about intimacy when run through the gauntlet of filmmaking and how another person’s memories or even their very selves are altered not only by time’s decay but its preservation; by presentation and the act of onlooking.

Her first feature, Never Eat Alone (2016), is a work of fiction and documentary sewn together and guided by the subject to which Bohdanowicz is most tightly tethered; her grandmother Joan, who also co-wrote the film. We are introduced to Joan through a visit by her screen granddaughter Audrey Benac. Sofia’s surrogate is played by close collaborator, Deragh Campbell. Their conversation – acted with a movingly naturalistic intimacy, and shot on DV with a fly on the wall view – reveals that Joan has been nagged of late by a specific set of memories, associated with a a particular gig she did as a jobbing performer: a starring role in a TV special aired live by the Canadian broadcaster CBC in the 50s. It was musical comedy that kicked off in the present and then turned into fantasy. Specifically, a medieval romance where a light and fluffy case of amour fou binds a roguish baritone to a coquettish soprano. She played the soprano while the baritone was another performer called Don Radovich. The two of them hit it off for real and dated seriously for a time but he broke it off with Joan, instead marrying Audrey’s would-be grandfather. Governed by the urge toward self-reflection  which presumably grows less inhibited late in life, Joan asks Audrey if she could track down the original programme. The implicit request is to find out whatever happened to Don, who she hasn’t seen since the lead-up to her wedding. The former proves quickly achievable while the latter less straight forward, with Audrey suspecting that Joan’s Don is a retired author (George Radovics) who she finds out about online.

In between this conversation and a second visit where Audrey returns with her findings lie the bulk of the film’s sixty-eight minutes, where it forks and cross-cuts between four strands. Between Audrey’s investigation, excerpts of the original programme and the day-to-day of both Joan and Mr. Radovich, whether he is the right Don or not. The results are a tangle of two divergent forms and tones. One is a  detail-oriented and steadily-paced observational documentary style in which a legible impression of Joan and Don, where their respective personalities and rhythms are imbibed. The second can be found in the programme, which is shakily composed, black and white and acted and sung in a high-strung classical style. This comparative cross-cutting throws a lot into relief. By linking the Joan in the present with the young woman on the screen and the young man with his broad figure and megaphone delivery with the frail-seeming elderly man that is his potential future form, it does not just highlight the physically transformative effect of time passing, but how one’s memory, as its contents retreat further into the past, can become increasingly strange and ill-fitting to its present owner. This is expressed in the film by separating the past and present into disparate sets of aesthetics as well as by Benac herself when she finally watches the programme and finds it ‘difficult to watch’ because of the distance. Yet by placing both Joan and Don side by side, the film fields an attempt to counter this feeling. A desire not voiced but seemingly felt by Audrey who wants to believe this man she has found is her grandmother’s old mother, thereby achieving a resolution that is likely not possible or even necessarily wanted. Yet Bohdanowicz gives shape to Audrey’s desire in the edit. For unlike reality for their real-life counterparts, the characters in the programme occupy the same space, the same frame even. They are entwined on a crash course to love at its most hysterically wish-fulfilled, in that it runs at an accelerated pace on a straightforward path, taking them from combatants to lovebirds, contrary to life’s circuitry and loose ends. On the other hand, they are treated by the programme’s narrative as if fated and eternal. A fairy tale couple.

In this light, the parallel and contrapuntal position of their two routines becomes an intentionally foisted attempt at constructing an alternative future in line with this fictional past: one where the programme was the germ for their eventual reunion, to age and eat together. The intervention becomes particularly pointed in one moment where Bohdanowicz cuts from Joan deciding to ignore a ringing landline, in order to relax in front of the television, to Don hanging up his phone after a call he has tried to make has rung through. In actuality they are unaware of each other, montage has stepped in to contravene and rectify reality.

Never Eat Alone (2016), dir. Sofia Bohdanowicz © Lisa Pictures

It is key that this match cut intervention depicts a failed attempt at communication. The film may be trying to bring them cheek to cheek through its cutting, but this artificial closeness only seems to further entrench that life has landed them in different places. Both may be in and around the same age, retired and either widowed or divorced, but their personalities and their routines are at odds. Joan is lucid, sociable and keeps herself busy with cooking, choir singing and swimming, while Don’s twilight years are spare and isolated. He converses with no one (he doesn’t even speak) and his chief pastimes seem to be sleeping and waiting for his meals to microwave. So, by the end, doubt over Don’s whereabouts prevails, the two remain separated and the memory of their affair returns, inconclusive, to the mist of time – though Bohdanowicz opts to end optimistically, with a reaffirmation of one bond that persists. As she gets Audrey to try on some old clothes in the ancient intergenerational ritual of hand-me-downs, Joan recounts her favourite memory of her granddaughter as a child: all bright and boisterous, one that she “likes to remember”. A memory which she voluntarily possesses, rather than intrudes before slipping through her fingers.

For her 2nd feature, Maison du Bonheur (2017), Bohdanowicz step towards what could be more conventionally described as a documentary and dispenses with surrogacy as she herself is present through voiceover. She ‘appears’ throughout, first at the beginning where she introduces the film as one made on unfamiliar terrain. Shot in sun-dried 16mm over the course of a single summer month in 2016, the film is a sixty-two minute portrait of Juliane Sellam. A septuagenarian and astrologer who lives in a scrupulously maintained and beflowered apartment in the Montmartre quarter of Paris. Juliane is the aunt of a friend who, despite not really knowing her, Sofia decides to go live with and shoot for month. The resulting film is compromised of Juliane talking about herself. Her present routine – made up of reading stars, baking and a detailed beauty regimen—including her idiosyncrasies and peccadillos and her past, spent growing up in a working-class Jewish household and an adulthood where through marriage and opportunity she became solidly middle-class. Her account occupies the sound mix with the events on-screen remain silent – save for the occasional bleed and interruption—while presenting prepped but documentary analogies to what is being described. We occasionally hear from Sofia herself, in diary entries sounding her thoughts on the production, its purpose, and her own activities while in Paris. 

The cine-portrait has a long history and given their relatively small scale has been seen by many filmmakers as the perfect testing grounds for confronting ethical quandaries potentially inherent in non-fiction filmmaking. The most striking example is perhaps Shirley Clarke’s masterpiece, Portrait of Jason (1967). Unlike the dynamic in the Clarke film, the relationship between Sofia and Juliane isn’t one of animus and there isn’t a class or racial imbalance—though on the theme of class in general the film is on par with Agnes Varda’s Daguerréotypes (1976) when it comes to being an affectionate index of Parisian petit bourgeois mores and clutter. Still the film is pointedly concerned with the potential pitfalls of this type of documentary filmmaking and how a neutral director-subject configuration is in part constructed and – like any relationship – not set in stone.

This is signified near the beginning by a brief scene where attention is drawn to a certain absence. As Juliane’s account begins, we hear Sofia directing, telling her she will ask questions about her life but since her questions will be cut from the final film could Juliane respond in full sentences rather than in a more naturally abbreviated style. Therefore, whenever Juliane speaks, it is in the context, usually unspoken but here made intentionally palpable, that this isn’t a monologue of her own design but instead steered and amended by another party. The parallel presentation of clashing personalities also plays an important role, with Juliane a consummate extrovert who has attained a comfort with herself, including both an openness and a peace with her ‘complexes’, which is juxtaposed with how Sofia presents her own self as an introverted and insecure presence. It is in the difference in diction; between Juliane’s voice, high as a steam whistle, confidently prone to exclamation, and Sofia’s voice, whose register sits barely above a whisper and whose rhythm is halting. Indicative of someone speaking a second language – for the whole film is in French – but also of a lack of surety.

Maison du Bonheur (2017), dir. Sofia Bohdanowicz © Lisa Pictures

While Juliane’s life is clearly delineated, Sofia remains a bit of a mystery, not secretive but buttoned up. She is arriving in Paris in the shadow of a previous trip which went south, though she fails to elaborate on this ominous statement. The only information about her movements that do not involve Juliane consists of a single prosaic description of a walk one afternoon which lasted several miles and whose denouement was a terrible-tasting éclair. The gulf between the two is brought to the utmost fore in a funny scene where we hear Juliane read Sofia her star chart. Now Sofia is up for exegesis, sounding agreement or chuckling nervously as Juliane describes her, both appreciatively and cuttingly, as being shy to the point of anxiety, and as a perfectionist who is perceptive but prone to overthinking, which Juliane declares a vice. The tables have been turned; the dynamic challenged in a playful but significant way.

Though only time will prove otherwise, it would seem, for now, that Maison du Bonheur is an outlier in Bohdanowicz’s feature length work; her third film, MS Slavic 7 (2019) marks a return to digital and the mixing of narrative and documentary – with the former bearing the greater weight this time around. It also brings back a specific character and a doubling down on Bohdanowicz’s work as an interconnected endeavour. Though not insignificant, the character of Audrey in Never Eat Alone was not its principal so much as arbiter in her supporting role for Joan Benac and as instigator of that film’s plot and preoccupations. But her return in the short Veslemøy’s Song (2018) – where the focus is on Kathleen Parlow, the composer who taught her grandfather – not only marks her as a recurring character but the actual process and roadblocks in uncovering and analysing  person’s life as the main dramatic focus for Bohdanowicz, along with crediting Campbell as co-director.

Like Parlow, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, the subject of MS Slavic 7, is deceased and so not a person with whom Audrey has an existing, or even pre-existing, relationship. Instead she must contend with what is both absolute and interpretable, the written word. This includes Zofia’s poetry – which, going by the excerpts given – is heavily influenced by romanticism and fuelled by the belief that a communion with the natural world is the key to personal and creative fulfilment. This is not the literature in which Audrey is most interested. Instead she pays the most attention to what was once private: a series of letters written to fellow Polish poet Jósef Wittlin, between 1957 to 1964. Both poets were displaced by the Second World War, but while Zefia first went to Penhros, Wales and then on to Toronto, where she settled, Jósef ended up in New York. Thus, their chaste yet intense bond was maintained via correspondence.

As the literary executor of Zofia’s estate, Audrey travels to Harvard’s Houghton Library, where the letters have been housed following translation, to take on the task of inspecting them and attempting to understand the experiences of her great-grandmother, while also feeding the idea to present them in a public setting.  She soon faces the difficulty of sorting through the complex feelings and ideas contained within, along with a flesh-and-blood hitch in the form of her aunt, Anya (Elizabeth Rucker). Acting as a quasi-villain, she is an uptight, relentlessly negative patrician who objects to Audrey’s plans to exhibiting letters on grounds that appear shaky. Their awkward and increasingly antagonistic encounters interject the main spine of the film, which is devoted to the process of accessing and then interacting with the actual texts along with exposition scenes where Audrey gives voice to her still percolating analysis.

One such observation is that our words are imbued with an additional sense of importance when placed in literary form, no matter how private, as it grants an enduring form to what is ephemeral and often less worked-over when spoken, then lost to the ear and air the moment it is sounded. Bohdanowicz emphasizes the former through the letters’ materiality, seen in numerable extreme close-ups of Audrey handling them or as scanned images, covering the entire screen and thus becoming it. Making the context – not just its content – impossible to ignore, we can see how Zofia’s obvious aptitude for turning a phrase and confidence of expression, even when in deep despair, can be amplified by forms such as written prose or verse are sculpted and so prepared over time rather than in the heat of the moment.

This is in contrast with Audrey’s own looser extrapolations, which first take place in what is either a café or bar with Audrey seated, talking, shot in close-up, almost head-on. She is presumably speaking to an acquaintance but since they are never seen or heard, her rhetoric is off-the-cuff lectures, delivered with the hesitance of thoughts still forming without the filter of Zefia’s ingrained and trained exactitude. The setting as well has an effect: rather than the the hermetically-sealed universe of a letter, Audrey has to talk over the noise of a busy eatery and then is paused by a waiter. Outside forms of contentions are reinforced later in the film for when discussion of the letters moves to what is definitely a bar where Audrey is now talking with an identifiable second party, The Translator, played by Mariusz Sibiga. Here there is the obstacle to streamlined expression in the shape of another person who – while they are not at loggerheads – is still comfortable disagreeing with her, and so adds to this less boundary-defined form.

Their discussion leads from the inexact science of translation to vagaries of the heart. Namely, the nature of Zofia and Jósef’s relationship. Whether it was an extremely close friendship or an affair – they were both married to other people – that could not be acted on because of the distance and so crept onto the page. Whatever it was and could now be called, the intensity of emotions contained gets a comic juxtaposition when Bohdanowicz smash cuts from Audrey and The Translator talking in the bar to them continuing their discussion in a bed littered with photocopies, after having hooked up. The disjoint between her ancestor’s long running and deeply felt series of experiences with another to this brief and casual encounter is part of the film’s – or the films’ – expression of dislocation. The lack of connection, while trying to form one, with a personage because they are not only at a remove but developed in accordance with ideas and events of a very different time and culture.

MS Slavic 7 (2019), dir. Sofia Bohdanowicz, co-dir. Deragh Campbell © Lisa Pictures

Not only does Zofia’s deeply held belief of the country’s spiritual superiority over the city cross over from her poetry to her letters – which in turn reminds how Audrey rarely leaves the film’s series of anonymous and closed off modern urban spaces – but her pride as a Pole, which remains steady even as she moves further and further west, is not reflected in Audrey’s mood at a Polish-themed family get together. She looks bored rather than interested in the folk songs being performe; perched finally on the periphery of the function room like a child skirting the edge of a pool, avoiding the deep end.

Unlike in her two previous films, dislocation is not just summed up through compare and contrast but by this film’s overtly dry, distancing and comic tone. It is most present in the characters of Anya and The Librarian (Aaron Danby) – a man about Audrey’s age whose condescending demeanour is symptomatic of someone too suited to a job where they get to regulate other people’s behaviour. Their respective affluent dunderheadism and indulgent cynicism make them seem like creations of Evelyn Waugh, if he were a Canadian transplant. Or it is in the use of Bach, whose ornate and baroque compositions score such antiseptic locales as the cheap but not too cheap hotel room where Audrey struggles with a coffee machine and the clinical quality of the Harvard Library rooms and its bureaucracy. The atmosphere drummed up then, when its eyes and tongue are not rapt by the letters and its analysis, is that of a world as cold as a mortuary slab save for its stewing hostility. Audrey’s experience of it is an anhedonia in which the desire to connect with the past is perhaps a chance at an escape though. Whether it provides a fulfilment to match the one Zofia felt from poetry, is left hanging.

One memorable scene near the end of MS Slavic 7 feels directly linked with one from her first: a petty castigation which is the negative image of Joan’s remembrance, lovingly recalled, near the end of Never Eat Alone. Both have a similar rhythm and the same object; Audrey as a child. But what they convey is contradictory. In MS Slavic 7 she is painted as a lazy, ungrateful brat while in the other, she is industrious and adorable. Though the two films are separate, these scenes are intrinsically linked, yet entertain impressions of the same person, poles apart. It’s a state symptomatic of a filmmaker dedicated not to presenting people as summable and solid objects but fragmented and sometimes paradoxical. Yet the compulsion to glue it all together, to make it holistic, is one which Bohdanowicz has consistently at turns accepted and interrogated.


Ruairí McCann is a graduate of English Literature with Film Studies (BA) from University College Dublin and Fim Studies (MA) from Queen’s University Belfast. He sits on the board of the Silgo Film Society and has written for Photogénie and Berlin Film Journal.

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