Interview: Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell on the Voices That Carry in “MS Slavic 7”

If it’s true that as Mark Twain once said, “History never repeats itself but it often rhymes,” Sofia Bohdanowicz has become quite a poet, though naturally that’s something that’s been passed down in her family. Distinguishing herself with the depth of her personal investigation, the filmmaker has used rigorous explorations of her family’s past to answer questions that she’s grappled with in the years in which she’s begun to start a life for herself, most poignantly in her latest film “MS Slavic 7,” in which a trip to Harvard’s literary holdings reveals the romantic longing between her great-grandmother Sofia Bohdanowiczova and Józef Wittlin, a fellow poet who moved away from their native Poland during World War II.

As with her debut “Never Eat Alone,” Bohdanowicz collaborates with the multitalented Deragh Campbell, who plunges fearlessly into playing an on-screen variation on her director named Audrey as one would expect of an actress who last could be seen jumping out of a plane in Kazik Radwanski’s “Anne at 13,000 Ft.” Even if trips to the library don’t seem as treacherous on the surface, they are fraught for Audrey, who can easily lose herself in her research when it’s easier than dealing with the people that are right in front of her in the present and may overthink all the information she’s taking in when it may be more casual in meaning than the permanent ink on the letters would suggest. However, her fervent belief in the ongoing vitality of the words that were written nearly a century before proves infectious, particularly when Bohdanowicz and Campbell (as the film’s co-editor and co-director) find ingenious cinematic ways to bring them to life beyond Audrey’s recitation and analysis of them.

With a wry sense of humor and a curiosity about one’s family tree that is relatable no matter where you are in the world, Bohdanowicz and Campbell have cracked a common language in “MS Slavic 7” that has traveled well since premiering at last year’s Berlinale and the film will now be available everywhere, making its exclusive premiere online here today on MUBI. The co-conspirators were kind enough to talk about how they’ve found such a creative kinship, literally making Audrey a member of Bohdanowicz’s family at times and the unexpected connections that have come about as a result of the film’s festival run.

How did this come about?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: Previously to “MS Slavic 7,” Deragh and I had made our first feature film titled “Never Eat Alone,” which explored my maternal grandmother’s history and her desire to reconnect with an old lover from her twenties, and I had made several shorts films based on my great-grandmother’s poetry. Her name is Sofia Bohdanowiczova – I’m named after her – and I was Googling around online and I was trying to find out more information about her, curious as to what might pop up. I noticed that she had 24 letters in an archive at Harvard named Houghton Library, so I contacted the library at Harvard, I had those letters scanned and I had them translated by a friend of mine who worked for the Polish Consulate in Toronto. I was really fascinated by her letters to this man, a Nobel Prize-winning author Józef Wittlin, and the way they spoke to one another and exchanged a lot of really interesting ideas and sentiments about being immigrants post-World War II from Poland.

We discovered this beautiful friendship and love story and shared some of this with Deragh and she came up with a really beautiful three-act structure about a young woman who goes to an archive at Harvard and would discover the letters over the course of three days. Her pitch was really exciting to me. It was a great experiment and a really interesting thing to try out, especially the monologue portion of the film where she pitched to me that she’d look at one segment of the letters every night and then on set she would perform a spontaneous monologue that came from a collection of her own remarks on the letters, as well as the notes I had given her and my thoughts on the letters, so really my thoughts and her thoughts combined to make this character named Audrey. We didn’t plan it too much. There was a lot of momentum and spontaneity that came with the idea.

Deragh Campbell: It’s a very rich experience to be able to interact with Sofia’s family history in that way because of the scenario that Sofia sets up, especially in “MS Slavic 7.” We could really work together and Sofia could anticipate the narrative arc and the themes contained within the letters and then we could also get my first genuine reaction and have this hybrid monologue in that way. We end up creating the kind of character that is a combination of both of our instincts and becomes a bit of a hybrid of us.

Is it true that actually is your great-aunt and uncle’s anniversary party that Audrey finds herself at?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: Well, Deragh had proposed this fabulous idea to me and then honestly, the invite for this thing just popped up and I thought, “Wow, how curious, how interesting.” The party was happening at this place that had a lot of significance to my family, the Polish Combatants Hall in Toronto, and I said to Daragh, “I think it would be really interesting to use this party as a location.” It was before we had this all fleshed out in detail, but I asked my aunt and uncle if we could set up at that table and I kind of plopped Deragh in there. It’s a testament to how open and skillful she is as an actor, but also how trusting she is and how willing she is to throw herself in any kind of situation that I was able to make it work because this was a film we shot with a production budget of about 5k on my line of credit, so I’m able to get away with those things. Deragh’s so great at working in naturalistic environments and it enhances the life of the film because you really have this amazing document where you can see elements of documentary interacting with fiction onscreen, so I was really, really lucky she was down and game to do it when I proposed it to her.

Deragh, I think I asked a variation on this before about your amazing performance in “Anne at 13,000 Ft.” but is it difficult to hold onto the character when it is a real situation like that?

Deragh Campbell: I don’t find it especially difficult. The way that I think of character is not especially psychological — I don’t “get into a character,” as they say. It’s much more I find the character is formed from the situation that they’re in, so as long as I’m just reacting to what’s going on around me, that’s actually how the character is built and how I get to know who they are.

Since Audrey is a recurring character, does she immediately come to mind as a vessel for the story or do you start the story and she finds her way in?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: That was the concept with “Never Eat Alone.” I shot with my grandmother Joan for a long time — and my producer’s grandfather actually — and collected all this footage. All of these gifts started popping up, like my grandmother confessed that she was still in love with this man from her twenties. Then I found all of this archival footage and I started to find this narrative between these two people, so there was this lost love story, but we needed something to stitch all of these pieces together, so the character of Audrey was formulated for this need of the narrative. For “MS Slavic 7,” there were certainly different pieces of information and ways we wanted to explain language and putting text on screen. It evolved from a film school project that was a lot more Audrey-focused and it became more of a collaboration between Deragh and I, which is why she’s a co-director of the project.

Did you have a handle on how you’d express the letters from the start or did it evolve as you saw Deragh’s interactions with them?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: Yeah, with Deragh’s pitch, each day thematically, we were setting out to explore a different aspect of these letters, so on the first day, it was really about exploring the letter as an object, as a carrier of history and information and sentiment and what she does very eloquently in her monologue and you see in the way we shot it with these macro lenses is exploring the materiality of the letter. On the second day, it was really about exploring the spirit of the letter, the erratic qualities that emit from the object as a result of history, and on the third day, it was about an examination of language and translation and how Audrey comes to understand those different words, exploring [that] with this subtitle device that you see in the first act of the film and the last bit as a different way for the audience to relate to the text. So it wasn’t planned from the get go, but within the edit, we started to play around and experiment together and use these different techniques to find different ways to tell this story.

Did you want Deragh to be more involved in that process from the beginning?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: Yeah, I started editing the film three or four months after we shot it and I had just finished my first semester of my masters. I just decided I’m going to use my holidays to start editing the film, which seemed like a fun activity for me at the time, and I started doing it and it was interesting, but I felt really stuck. I wasn’t really sure what the voice of the film was and I wasn’t really sure where it was going to go. I sent the first 20 minutes to Deragh and I [said], “I don’t know what the footage is telling me.” And Deragh watched the first 20 minutes and right away helped me not take it so seriously, but she also had this very assured quality in her reactions to footage. I could see right away that she knew what the film was and what it wasn’t.

I knew intuitively, she had a lot of answers in terms of the pacing and how the film should come together, and it was very generous of her. She said, “I’ll come in once or twice a week and we can sit down and hash this out without a fee.” I don’t think I could’ve edited that film without her. The sense of humor in the film and the sensibility and the pace and the timing of the edit came out of our interactions. Our friendship really shined through and I think that you can see an evolution in our collaboration together in just the different voice and the different themes that pop up.

Deragh, was it interesting to be able to shape your performance in that way or see it from that perspective?

Deragh Campbell: It was super interesting. People don’t point that out too much, but I remember talking to my friend Matt Johnson, who of course edits himself as well on “Nirvanna the Band the Show,” and when you look at raw footage of yourself, you have such an intense awareness of when I’m immersed and when I’m not, or when I’m self-conscious and when I’m not. Maybe being that self-critical isn’t totally helpful, but in this case, it was a nice extra way to find different moments within the performance so that maybe we could make her feel like, “Oh yes, I think that moment really expresses her anxiety and focus on that.” It was really exciting for me. I was really happy to be included on it.

I loved the music choices, particularly accompanying Audrey’s strident march towards the library with the pipe organ. How did the music come about for this?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: My father’s an organist, so I grew up going to church every Sunday and listening to him play, which was a really wonderful experience for me and because he’s a music director at this church, he just has a really good knack for choosing pieces with the right tone and resonance. I explained to him what I was looking for and he suggested this Adagio and Fugue, so I started listening to it and he said, “You know, it has this interesting hero’s theme where you can hear this person or melody making progress, but it’s this really slow climb where there’s this explosion of dissonance and notes and chords that just make you feel really unsettled.”

It’s a really weird piece of music and I listened to it and I felt like the theme of the film really matched really, really quite well. I feel it at once took Audrey’s sentiments and feelings seriously, but sometimes a little too seriously, and as a result, it pays homage to existential quandary that she’s feeling and pokes fun at her as well. It makes the film a little bit light, but it also enhances these strange narrative moments that pop up throughout it, so I knew it was right from the beginning. But I wasn’t sure how integral the piece of music would actually become [until] the edit because the theme comes back again, but it’s not with an organ, it’s a recording done with a Dutch marching band, which is really, really amazing. That last rendition is a lot more fuller and orchestral sounding and we have this character is working on finding a voice and is about to self-actualize, so the music at the end mirrors that journey.

What was traveling with this like?

Deragh Campbell: It’s been the best. [laughs] The film really feels a little bit enchanted and Berlin, the forum, was the absolute best place for it to start. Its exploration of narrative experimentation really put it in the right context and got the film off to the best possible start, and then getting to do New Directors/New Films and being in Walter Reade Cinema and MoMA – that was extraordinary. And we got to do the Viennale and we have now Jeonju coming up [online], and a nice theatrical [run] here in Toronto. It’s a horrible time now obviously, but we’re lucky that we’re having our online release now when everyone’s online.

Sofia Bohdanowicz: Yeah, I was really excited about it because I was really proud of our experimentation and collaboration. I felt we brought it to a new level, but I also felt really self-conscious about it because I think this film moved more into the realm of autobiography than ever before. I really wasn’t sure how it was going to be received by audiences. I was really proud of it, but I was also a little scared as well because I wasn’t sure how it would go. But for a film that is so intensely tied to its subject about connection and spontaneity, but also the struggle to self-actualize and find [one]’s voice, there are so many wonderful and great remarks and points of contact no matter where we went.

I agree with Deragh, the Berlinale was the perfect platform for us to present the film and in that year, they also had a theme of archives within the foreign programming, so it was really, really wonderful, but we also had a lot of incredible and serendipitous things happen. At the premiere of the film, this woman during the Q & A said, “I bring greetings from the Wittlin family,” so it turned out she was a friend of this woman named Elizabeth Wittlin, Joseph Wittlin’s daughter who lives in Madrid who heard about the film. Then last fall, Deragh and I were in Madrid and I was actually able to meet Joseph Wittlin’s daughter and it was interesting because many generations later, this connection that my great-grandmother had with this man has transcended. Now Elizabeth and I have started corresponding. So sharing with audiences was a really special experience and just seeing how much the film has traveled over the last few years has been really moving and we really forged a lot of really beautiful relationships along the way, so I’m nothing but grateful.

“MS Slavic 7” makes its exclusive streaming premiere here on MUBI starting June 4th.