With her poignant short film Veslemøy’s Song, Bohdanowicz collaborated with Deragh Campbell to revive the autobiographically inspired character of Audrey Benac, introduced in Never Eat Alone and now bound for New York City to listen to a rare recording of the titular piece performed by a little-known female violinist who taught and mentored Bohdanowicz’ own grandfather. The search for inspiring women from the family past continues, expanded, in the remarkable MS Slavic 7, whose title derives from a collection in Houghton Library—the crown jewel of Harvard’s vast library system—that includes correspondences between Bohdanowicz’ great-grandmother Zofia Bohdanowiczowa and poet Józef Wittlin. Resourcefully using the Film Reference Library of the Toronto International Film Festival as a stand-in for Houghton, MS Slavic 7 follows Audrey’s efforts to read closely between the lines of the letters and to understand her responsibilities as literary executor of her great-grandmother’s estate. Structuring the film are scenes with Audrey discussing the meaning of the letters and reflecting on interpretation with an interlocutor only disclosed at the end, a device that places awkward and revealing pressures on the young woman’s words. A fractured flashback, meanwhile, recalls Audrey’s confrontation with an embittered aunt who reveals another thorny branch of the same family tree explored by Bohdanowicz.
For more interviews and talks, visit the Harvard Film Archive Visiting Artists Audio Collection page.
September 16, 2019. The Harvard Film Archive screened MS Slavic 7. This is the audio recording of the introduction and the conversation that followed. Those participating are filmmakers Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell, along with HFA Director Haden Guest, and Leslie Morris from the Houghton Library.
HADEN GUEST 0:22
...in any case to find another means of giving access to the intimate worlds contained within the archive. Now before MS Slavic 7, we're going to see another film, a poignant and a comically inflected short, directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz in 2018, Veslemoy’s Song, which touches on many of MS Slavic 7‘s major themes. It again features Campbell’s Audrey, visiting a major US library, in this case, the New York Public Library. Tonight’s screening’s especially meaningful, because we're going to be joined afterwards in conversation by a dear colleague. And that is Leslie Morris, who is the Gore Vidal Curator of Modern Manuscripts at Houghton. The Harvard Film Archive is, of course, a division of the Harvard Library, and we really prize these collaborations such as tonight's. I want to give special thanks to Houghton Library, for so generously supporting this screening and visit by these renowned artists. And I want to give special thanks to Tom Hyry, the Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton. Let's give a special round of applause and thanks to our friends at Houghton.
HADEN GUEST 1:38
Now, adding an extra layer of meaning, I think, to Sofia and Deragh’s time here at Harvard is the visit that's planned tomorrow to Houghton, to view the actual Wittkin papers, as well as other treasures selected by Leslie Morris. Now, once you see tonight's films, you're going to understand the—really, I think, wonderful, resonant, poetic irony that Houghton is actually under renovation. And so there's been so many, I think—these films deal with this kind of—ohhhh…this desire to get ever, ever closer to the elusive object in the archive. And so it's, I think it's quite wonderful that, that Houghton itself—is symbolically, let's say—inaccessible, while its collections, of course, remain ever accessible and, in fact, in a wonderfully renovated, new temporary reading room in Widener Library. So I really want to celebrate Houghton's ability to pull that off. At the same time, acknowledge again, what I think is quite poetic irony. I want to ask everybody to please turn off any cell phones, electronic devices that you have. Please join us for the conversation that will follow, with myself, Leslie Morris, and the two filmmakers who I ask you now to join me in welcoming Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 3:12
Thank you, Haden, for such a beautiful introduction, so eloquent. I'm so, so touched. And thank you for coming here tonight to see our film. We're really, really excited to be here today. Thank you to Amy. Thank you to John. Thank you to Leslie. Thank you to Houghton Library. We're so excited to be here tonight, to share the film with you. When I discovered my great-grandmother's letters online, I was Googling around and saw that they were in a Houghton Library collection. I was like, Whoa, this is really interesting. What could they say? What could they be? And then when I got them scanned, I don't speak Polish, so I had them translated by the Polish consulate in Toronto, where I have a very good ongoing relationship with, and the contents were so rich, they were so interesting. My great-grandmother Zofia was writing to a man named Joseph Wittlin. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize. And to me, this kind of seemed like love letters, or just like gestures for connection, because they were two people that had both survived World War II, hailed from Poland, both poets living in different places in the world, exiled from their country, and looking for connection. And I found this beautiful relationship that I was really excited to depict in the film, but I wasn't exactly sure how to do it. And I've collaborated with Deragh Campbell, who's become a partner in crime, we collaborate on all of our films together, and we've developed this character named Audrey, who kind of like searches to make things right within my family history on the maternal side and paternal side, and she pitched this beautiful, interesting concept for me, about a young woman who would go to Houghton Library and pour over these letters every day.
Now we're from Toronto, we're from the North. And we knew that we couldn't shoot at Harvard. So [LAUGHS] we needed to stage that to the best of our capacity. So we used the Polish consulate in Toronto. And that home is owned by the Guinness family, so it had this, very like regal, academic feel, as well as the TIFF Reference Library, and just kind of made do with what we had. But we never imagined that we would be here presenting it, with Houghton Library just over there. When we released the film, I was so excited to see John Overholt tweeting about the film, about a film that was named after a library call number. It just—my, my heart just kind of burst, and I was like, oh, oh, I hope I'm not in trouble! [LAUGHS]
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 5:50
But we can't tell you how thrilled we are to be here to present the film. I feel like the film has a very important home here, and I can't say enough how touched we are to be sharing this story with you tonight.
DERAGH CAMPBELL 6:10
Yeah, I guess as Haden called it, like the elusive historical object. I think when you, when you encounter a historic object in an archive, I mean, you have—maybe, hopefully—an immediate emotional experience with it. But then, I think, comes the anxiety of trying to express that. And I think the monologues that you'll experience, and also, maybe, the driving thrust in the film, is this idea of trying to pull upon material that you have—maybe things you've read, things you've experienced—and kind of compiling those things together, to express what you haven't been able to express in that encounter.
Yeah, I always found it difficult in university…sort of being filled with the desire to express something. But that period between when you have an idea of what you want to say, and then your ability to actually say it. So I think there's a bit of an interesting emotional movement there, you know, of the, the struggle to figure out what you even want to say—which is maybe depicted right now, I don't know! [LAUGHS]
DERAGH CAMPBELL 7:46
[LAUGHS] But, so to be here, in the place that we simulated is very interesting.
It’s blowing our minds!!…..[LAUGHS]
DERAGH CAMPBELL 7:59
But yes, Thank you all for being here. We're really excited.
And thank you to John, who's projecting the film tonight. I’m not sure that we said thank you to John, and to Brittany as well. We're so thrilled to be here. Thank you, and we’ll be here afterwards. Please stay. [FILMMAKERS LAUGH TOGETHER]
[BREAK FOR FILM SCREENING]
HADEN GUEST 8:19
Thank you both, Sofia and Deragh, for this really wonderful pair of films, which I think are so beautifully complimentary, and I wanted to start the conversation with a few questions amongst ourselves before opening the floor to the audience. But you know, in MS Slavic 7, you speak, or you—Audrey—speak
Both of us….. [LAUGHS]
HADEN GUEST 8:44
Exactly—about letters as objects. You speak about their objecthood as having a kind of a meaning, an essence that you know, one that Audrey is trying to understand. And in the film, there are many moments where you actually show us the letters as objects. Even at the end, where the translator is reading them, when we see the letters themselves there. Similarly, in Veslemoy’s Song, we have the record as object, and as object that has a limit beyond which it can’t be played. And I'm wondering if you could speak a bit about this idea of objecthood and the way that film itself is able to render, to give that object shape and form, and in the first film, Veslemoy’s Song, you've chosen to hand-process the film and give it this kind of auratic quality that recalls like—you know, the record itself, in a sense, as sort of scratched and pulsing with a different kind of life than of just a recording. And so I was wondering if we could start, maybe, the conversation here, because I think this is definitely something that is of real concern to us as—and interests us as archivists, and perhaps as librarians as well.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 10:03
That's a great question, actually. Yeah, thank you, for such a thoughtful question to start things off. I just took a course on archiving at York University—I'm just finishing my MFA right now. And we talked about Walter Benjamin, and how he was talking about how, with technology, how we have the capacity to reproduce an original, like what happens to the aura of that object. And what I loved about Deragh’s pitch to me, when we were conceiving this film, was having three days of looking at these objects, so one would focus on the object itself. So the container of the letter, how does it feel? How does it sound? You know, so I worked a lot to kind of like [?fully?] those letters: what is the experience of holding a letter in your hands and looking at it, and an object that carries so much weight, and there's also that layer of translation, too, right? Like Audrey doesn't understand what the letter says. But does that essence, even though she doesn't understand, does it still carry outside of her, is the weight of history still on her shoulders, even though she can't exactly understand what that letter means? And then the other aspect that she'd pitched to me was like the spirit, I guess—like the aura of the object. So when she's looking at the letters on a projector, we were trying to kind of like, hit at—what is the spirit of an object? How does that feel, even if you can't understand the contents? And then there are the contents of the letters themselves. So we had another segment where we actually are getting closer to the translation, to Zofia's words, and Audrey is kind of ingesting that in a more intimate way. So that was something that Deragh and I worked on for that. I don't know if you want to add anything to those components, because it was your beautiful structure that inspired me to get this project going in the first place.
DERAGH CAMPBELL 12:03
Yeah, maybe I'm going to very quickly get myself in over my head. But, so we just had TIFF and we're just– It ended yesterday, and–
We're very tired. [LAUGHS]
HADEN GUEST 12:15
Toronto International Film Festival, yes?
DERAGH CAMPBELL 12:18
Yeah, just ready to be together and be in this thoughtful space. It's a very nice contrast. But one of the last films [LAUGHS] that I saw was as Sergey Loznitsa’s….
Oh, State Funeral.
DERAGH CAMPBELL 12:32
State Funeral. [LAUGHS] See what I mean about getting in over my head? But I think that film says something so interesting about…
DERAGH CAMPBELL 12:43
The limits of images? Like the amazing way that film shows you the image, and because we know so much of the history of what's behind those images, you feel this vibrating intensity of all the information that the image isn't expressing. And I think that the character of Audrey is like a fairly anxious person. She can't just look at the object. She has to kind of almost desperately try and find different access points to it. You know, and I think that that the film is sort of like a survey of different attempts to access what that letter is, you know, whether it is like working with limitations, like just seeing the image of the letter and not understanding what the content is. Well, it was an interesting thing actually—originally, in the concept of the film, it was that you would see the image of the letter and you wouldn't understand any of the content of it. Then you would see Audrey's monologues, so you would understand them as interpreted by Audrey. And then finally, you would see those monologues and get the actual content of the letters. But then, we found that the narrative of the letters was really interesting. So we started finding ways to bring the narrative in, throughout. But what ends up being really nice about that, I think, if you can speak about your own film that objectively [LAUGHS] is that you end up, I think, with those subtitles, seeing the letters speak for themselves, you know? Those are not subtitles of what the character’s understanding, they’re subtitles of what the letters are expressing. And then that recurs when she's sleeping in the bed, beside the letters. And I think there's something quite tragic there, that the letters keep speaking for themselves, without Audrey ever being able to completely comprehend them.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 15:23
I always wonder, like at that last shot, like is she truly connecting with them? Or is she not, you know? The essence of the letters is in the air, and she's striving for intergenerational connection to understand her own history. And I always wonder in that last shot that we--and I remember when we made that edit together, we were like, Oh my gosh, I can't believe we didn't think about this before. Like, it just fit so perfectly. That's not where that shot was, originally. But I wonder, you know, if she does seek to make connection, I think she's starting to find her voice. And she's starting to move into the zone of authorship in this film.
DERAGH CAMPBELL 16:05
Yeah, or be a bit more comfortable with not completely understanding.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 16:12
Yeah. And as far as the materiality of film, in Veslemoy’s Song, so—you know, we're in an age where we have iPads, cell phones, etc., etc.—we're moving further and further away from tactility, texture, which is, I think, a very sad thing. And I learned how to hand-process at a non-for-profit in New York City called Mono No Aware. And it was this amazing experience. Like, it's magical, you throw chemicals onto these black strips, and you have images that appear on them, like what could be better? You know, it was a gift being taught how to do that. And so, when I was making Veslemoy’s Song, I went to go hand-process it myself; I thought I could do it by myself. I was taught and I was like, I can do this, no problem. But then I was given a Lomo tank, and I couldn't load it—it took me nine hours to figure out how to load it, I had blisters on my fingers….I was just like, dead set on figuring this thing out, and you know, what ended up happening is there are these streaks…
Right, the scratches and
Yeah, that go across Deragh’s face, and at first, I was like, how tragic, such a beautiful shot, Deragh gives such a stunning performance. Then I started to think about it, and I was like, Wow! Well they look like a violin bow. This looks like a score. Like, how perfect, or you know, the marks on a record. And I think that there's something to materiality, to process cinema. Janine Marchessault, who’s a professor at York University, has a beautiful book on process cinema. You know Janine…???
[LAUGHTER] Yeah…..she's great. Has a beautiful book about process cinema. And it's about instead of working against the variables in the world around you, you look at them as gifts. So when I make a film, and when Deragh and I were making this film, as things arose, we asked ourselves: How can we look at these variables as gifts? So when I saw those scratches across your face, of course, I was like, well, it's not ideal. But then I thought, Oh, this is a gift. And there's something really special about, I think, the materiality of film, in that I think it kind of absorbs the aura, and I guess the atmosphere that you're creating in? And I think there's always something really special that happens. I can't exactly articulate it, but I think it's very important, which is why I love working on 16-millimeter
HADEN GUEST 18:37
Well you speak about tactility, and we have all these shots of fingers, and you know, touching, and then even I feel like the organ music itself is this music that's played by fingers, and I mean, feet as well. And it seems that this tactility is really important. And then this whole encounter with the translator I find actually quite comic, you know, this idea that there's such meaningful contact, or search for meaningful contact with the letters, and then it results in this physical relationship, yet that one that seems to be of a particular nature, where they don't seem particularly close--now they’re separated on either sides….
[INAUDIBLE] Audrey herself, seems….
HADEN GUEST 19:22
Do you have a microphone?
LESLIE MORRIS 19:25
Oh, sorry….So Audrey herself has focused so much on the object.
And the translator tells her, "Stop thinking about the structure. Think about the words." And this may sound odd, coming from a curator, but particularly with books and manuscripts—letters—you can't completely divorce the content from the object. And I think Zofia's words are so beautiful, when you include them in the film, that it really– It's very emotional. And Audrey has almost isolated herself from that emotion. And it's only the translator who tells her, "Look, let me read this to you."
And then when they're in bed, they're reading the letters to each other.
But still, Audrey—there's still this shell around her that I found very affecting. She reads this beautiful letter. And then she turns to him and says, "Well, I have a train to catch."
So, so you, you kind of hope that she's making this breakthrough.
And she's not quite there. So maybe the next film that we see Audrey in, she'll…????
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 20:51
Great question! Yeah, I mean [LAUGHS]
HADEN GUEST 20:54
You have said that this is an adven– You do want Audrey's adventures to continue, correct?
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 21:00
We do. Yeah, she's kind of like Antoine Doinel. [LAUGHTER] In a way…you know?
She just keeps going, growing, trying to set things right. And there's a new project that we're working on, that stems off of the short film Veslemoy’s Song, that you saw, where she's trying to get this 112-year-old concerto performed that was dedicated to Kathleen Parlow (who you learned a little bit about in Veslemoy’s Song), in Toronto, which hasn't happened. So her—I think, mission—the crux of Audrey's journey is to kind of set these injustices right. She really cares about history—elderly matriarchs—and really cares about drawing attention, and I think, giving them, I guess, the attention, and home, and love they deserve. So in that film, what we're working towards is her completing a task, I think she's always ghost-hunting, she's chasing, you know, to try to restore people's legacies that have been forgotten, and kind of swept under the rug. So we are working towards that, in our next film. I feel like I just plot-spoiled a little bit. But, yeah, we are on our way.
LESLIE MORRIS 22:19
So I feel obliged, since there are librarians and archivists in the audience. So in both films, librarians don't come off terribly well. [LAUGHTER] And, you know, it wasn't as negative as I was expecting.
But on the other hand, I can't help but ask: does this reflect actual experience, when you've been to libraries and archives?
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 22:52
Great question. Do you want to start first or would you like me to? Okay, cool!
No, I mean, not exactly. I hope that none of you take offense. I'm looking forward to our talk tomorrow. But the thing is, Audrey is a very anxious, internal person. It's not just the archivist that's against her. It's everyone that's against Audrey. She can't connect with anyone. She's striving for connection intergenerationally, but has a really hard time speaking to other people—and I guess, reaching out in meaningful ways. And I think that her, I guess, foil—with the archivist, played by my high school friend Aaron Denby—was necessary. Not because that has ever been my experience with archivists—I actually really admire them, in a really big way—but it was necessary for her character, because this film is all about living in the past and present, and remembering things right? So she's at Harvard, looking for these letters, but she's remembering this experience at a party. Or she's at the party, and she's remembering being at Harvard maybe. But a lot of these interactions, the way that we're seeing her world, is very internalized. So it might not necessarily be the way that it's playing out, but it's the way that she feels. And for us, plot-wise, because Audrey is such a tight and intense character, who's having a really hard time opening herself up, it was necessary for us plot-wise. But then the other aspect of it is, is that I don't think this archivist is like a terrible person. I don't think he's–
LESLIE MORRIS 24:45
No, I found it completely understandable, everything that he was telling her.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 24:48
Yeah, okay! Good, I'm glad because this is a dissonance that I'm completely fascinated in, and this is something we were asking yourselves when we were making the film: Who owns, you know... history? Who owns these objects? You know, just because you care more, does it mean that it belongs to you? Not necessarily. And institutions, this wonderful institution has been here, housing my great-grandmother's letters, and I'm so grateful for that. Because if my family ended up with them, they might be in a garbage bag in the basement. I don't know, they're not really great at taking care of historical objects. But there's a certain dissonance there, you know, that's my family's history, but I don't own them, I can't have them, and yet they're preserved in the way that they should be, and honored in that way. And I think that there's something really, really fascinating to me about it, and I don't resent it, but it was something that we wanted to explore. And it was the best way for us to do it.
So we suffered from the stereotype again.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 25:52
Yeah, I mean, you know what? We'll work on it in the next film. There will be more [LAUGHS] archives?
LESLIE MORRIS 25:58
There’ll be a positive image of a librarian?
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 25:59
Yeah, yeah, yeah! I will, absolutely. And I think that—well, one thing that we did when we were making the film, is I was calling Houghton Library to get information for the film. So, you know, asking about the library privileges card, because I wanted to try to make it as realistic as possible. And at one point in the plot, Audrey was going to steal the letters, maybe?
I asked someone at Houghton Library, I said, "Has anyone ever tried to steal letters from your collection? And if they did, like, how did they do it?" And there was this big pause…
HADEN GUEST 26:38
Who did you talk with?
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 26:41
I don’t know!!!......And the poor person on the other line of the phone said, “This is becoming a security breach.”
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 26:49
And they said, “Why do you want to know?” and I said, “We're making a movie,” and they're like, “Okay…”
“Well, good luck…”
Everyone was very nice with me and very generous with their time, you know, there's no reason why they had to spend all that time, answering all these ridiculous questions. So I'm actually very grateful. I don't know if you have something to add.
DERAGH CAMPBELL 27:11
In the next film, we'll have someone aid Audrey in such a way that it'll force her to confront her own limitations, and maybe take some responsibility for them, and not project them onto the librarians.
LESLIE MORRIS 27:28
I’m so glad to hear it.
HADEN GUEST 27:31
But there is the sticker, the “Property of Houghton”—I mean to me, that moment…
Yes, yes…that was a little bleak?
That moment, where he has the smug look on his face [LAUGHTER], and we don't even know what he's applying it to, but he's about to put his, his stamp on then. I feel like that's the moment where really, the film is so challenging ideas about—you know, like you said, what does it mean to own something, and this sacred aura—objecthood—that, you know, Audrey is so drawn to, and here seems to be imperiled, perhaps. And so I was wondering if you could talk– Because it seems to me that's the strongest moment where it seems the film seems to offer kind of critique of the archive, the library.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 28:11
Yeah, I mean, again, it's not something that I resent, it's something that I'm really grateful for. I guess I'm always really interested in access and access to objects. And I think that, you know, even the opening hours to an archive or a library is a kind of curation of your experience. You know, if you have a busy day, you might not be able to make it, because you can't make it within those opening hours. And tthat's really interesting to me, like, even like the room that you're experiencing these objects in. It totally skews your perspective of it. And it's funny, because I guess accessibility has been something that has haunted me personally, as a person--and, you know, in my filmmaking, too, it shows up. So when I went to the NYPL, I wasn't allowed to listen to that record…
As much as I wanted. But Deragh and I actually listened to that recording today, in the Loeb Library, twice. It was…
HADEN GUEST 29:14
Hey, there you….[LAUGHS]
So cathartic! [LAUGHS]
[SOMEONE CLAPS] [LAUGHTER]
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 29:19
We’re becoming less cynical.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 29:22
We're becoming less cynical. Yeah! [LAUGHING]
Everybody’s so nice to us. [LAUGHS]
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 29:24
[LAUGHS]. We are. We're very lucky. We're very lucky. But you know, I went all the way to Russia to go to the music conservatory to do research, and I got there and the library was like, "Sorry;" the conservatory was being renovated. It was covered in scaffolding. I brought a 16-millimeter camera and all this footage to shoot it, and it was covered in scaffolding, and I couldn't do anything, and the building was relocated. And then again, we're here to visit Houghton Library on this like, epic pilgrimage, and it's under renovation. [LAUGHTER] You know? And there's something funny about that. I think it’s hysterical. And—I don't know—I love this tension, or electricity between, I guess, Audrey just wanting to own the objects and have them together. Like in my mind when she says that, I'm like, Why do you want them? Why do you just want to own them, is it for the sake of owning them? Can you not figure out what you want to do with them unless you have them all together? I think it's a little silly what she wants to do, you know?
DERAGH CAMPBELL 30:30
Like when you have work to do and you just clean your desk, or something, you know, like organize your desk. There's a certain, I guess, something almost beside the point that Audrey does. I guess maybe that's her obsession with obstacles, and those being the things that keeps her from being able to express what she wants. But um, I feel like I have always really, really loved label makers.
And I think, it originally really was just a joke, about label makers and printing labels, and sticking them on things. But…I think what is funny about Aaron's performance there, too, is that he's a bit bored by the idea of ownership but kind of like, ownership is [?an end?], and kind of conducting that is his job, and it's not actually something– I don't think in that moment you see him enjoying his power, if anything, he seems kind of bored by it, or something.
LESLIE MORRIS 31:56
Well, I found it was interesting that when you first see him, the opening scene, he's actually reading a biography of Jean-Pierre Melville, French resistance fighter, auteur.
French film director, and I don't know if you know this, but he adopted the name from Herman Melville, because he admired him so much. But the Melville papers are actually at Houghton Library as well. So it was kind of this…
[LAUGHS] Yeah, yeah--no, I thought that was clever.
This, this joke, and
I didn’t know that….that’s amazing!
I didn't know if it was meant, or not.
DERAGH CAMPBELL 32:38
No, that's just what Aaron was reading at the time.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 32:43
It was a book that was on the counter of the film reference library.
Oh, it wasn't even!
Yeah, no, we just saw it there. And I was like, I like Melville, this is great, I think this works. And it's funny, because I think it was like a reviewer who came up to us at the Berlinale and was like, “I wrote that book!”
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 33:02
And they were like, “How did you find it?” and “That's amazing!”, and “Why?” And we were like, "It was there. We like Melville."
We thought it was really interesting. But yeah….
LESLIE MORRIS 33:12
But you also worked Emily Dickinson into the film.
Which is also at Houghton.
So I don't know, I mean, I saw it immediately. But when–
Yeah, the envelope-poems. Audrey has this book on the bed, and she's leafing through it. That's actually a book by Marta Werner that reproduces Dickinson's fragments. I thought there was some significance in that, as well. So, a poet, famously a recluse, very private, as Audrey is very private.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 33:55
Yeah, no, I think that's really perceptive, and I think for us, when we were looking at the envelope-poems book, which is just so stunning, we were thinking about, I guess, like, the geography of a letter, and elements of a letter, and how you can examine them. And I think that that book of envelope- poems with, you know, just like these little poems, and little things that she had written on envelopes that are honored in such a beautiful way, were such a nice, I think, study for us to include in the film, because Audrey is thinking about, you know, the objecthood of letters and their importance and significance. And again, you know, Audrey is working with fragments. She's working with the fragments of her great-grandmother's life. I never had the opportunity to meet my great-grandmother. She died about 18 years before I was born. And I think that's the beautiful thing about archives, is that you get fragments of people's lives. You try to kind of exhume the aura, and piece together their biographies. And we thought that this book was just a really beautiful addition to Audrey’s study in her quest to piece together her great- grandmother's biography.
DERAGH CAMPBELL 35:24
Yeah, so the way that those monologues were constructed are, so, we got scans of the letters from Harvard. And then Sofia had a pre-existing relationship with the Polish consulate, and had him and his family translate the letters. Then we had these translations—which is kind of part of the way that Sofia and I work together. It's the idea that the actor and the director, they have different information, and different vantage points, and together by exchanging that information, you craft the scene. So the way we did it was that Sofia had read all of the letters, and had in one notebook written down what she found interesting and important about those letters before shooting. I hadn't read the letters. And so we had like three days of principal shooting setup. And at the end of each shooting day, I would read a third of the letters, take notes on the letters, read Sofia's notes on the letters, write the monologue, and then the next morning, perform the monologue, based around both of our notes, which was for us– This character of Audrey, which was originally—I mean, if you see Never Eat Alone tomorrow—was originally a stand in for Sofia in these interactions with her family. It was a really interesting way for the character to very literally be a fusion of both of our reactions. But that's just to say, I took notes before reading the letters on books that I loved or was interested in that I thought could potentially relate to the letters that I had not yet read. And one of those was Emily Dickinson's envelope-poems. Which, you know, Emily Dickinson is so famous for her line breaks and…
And dashes. And so it was such an amazing thing to look at those envelopes and the construction of an envelope which, you know, they're torn, but then there are also the different creases in the envelope and how her– Almost the line breaks are created by the structure of the envelope, and how the envelope is torn. And actually, that first shot that you see of Audrey in the archive, when you see her, like looking at the way it’s…
Folding and unfolding the,,,,,
It’s torn, because she's trying to see, because if you just opened up the letter like that, the way those envelopes are constructed is the envelope is the letter. Right? That when you lay the envelope out, the letter out flat, it's actually in a completely confused order.
So I think that was her trying to understand how a narrative is broken up even by the structure of a letter, how maybe the person's thoughts change in response to even being on the other side of the paper, or something, and that even the way that someone ends up telling a story to someone else is, is dictated by the response to this page. You know?
HADEN GUEST 39:35
I mean, I don't know, in terms of thinking about the ways in which there's a real irony here that, you know, these are letters, this is a means of communication and yet, right, there’s a stubborn resistance or desire to find another kind of meaning, to delay, to linger in those delays, those hesitations. And I feel like there's both an appreciation of the object, as the letter as object, but in the same time, there's a sense that, you know, there's a different kind of personal meaning and investment that's being placed into it as well. So in a way, the letter becomes a different kind of communication, like a medium of communication with Audrey herself. No? And so I feel like it's a really fascinating line of inquiry into, sort of, research methodology and poetry in a sense, right? Poetry as a means of communication here, kind of private, like poetry of objects as well. Kind of a rosary of sorts, we could say. I was wondering if we could take some questions or comments from the audience. I know I'm tempted to give John Overholt the microphone [LAUGHS], ‘cause he's here today. But no, seriously—and I don't mean to put you on the spot, John—but any questions or comments that people might have? I think that we'd certainly appreciate them.
HADEN GUEST 41:11
Yes, here in the front, Jake.
AUDIENCE 1 41:16
Thank you guys for the film, and apologies because this question has nothing to do with archives, or letters, or anything. But I was curious about what I felt was kind of like an element of artificiality in your staging? Especially, like, you mentioned Truffaut, there was almost like a very early French New Wave quality to, say, the way we're looking at people talking, and not seeing who they're talking to, especially during the monologues. Even just the beer looks fake. [LAUGHS] It's real, but it has a certain cinematic flatness.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 41:46
Well it was non-alcoholic. We were shooting that at 9am.
Before the restaurant opened.
AUDIENCE 1 41:51
Well, to wit, exactly.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ? 41:53
Sometimes it can be flat. Have you ever had a cider?
AUDIENCE 1 41:55
So yeah--was it a cider? No, it was…
HADEN GUEST 42:01
No, but describe it….
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 42:02
No, but you want to know about, I guess…
Just that quality of the work on a compositional level, on a staging level. If it's intentional, if it's something that comes with just the means of production?
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 42:13
I don't know. That's a—hmmm…. That's a great question. I don't get that one very often. No, it's great, though. And I'm going to try to answer it better this time. I was showing my work at Cooper Union, and I have a series of short films made about my grandmother's passing. And this one student in the classroom was like, "Yeah, it was really interesting! But your grandmother's home looked fake." [LAUGHTER] "Looks like you art-directed that." And I was like, "Nope! That's where she lived, that's what it looked like." But then I was just like, also trying to encourage his opinion, because that, I guess, was his experience of the film. And I think that's valid. I think your experience of this film is valid. So, I don't know. I mean, I can tell you that we make films, Deragh and I, with very limited means. We made this film for about $5,000 with a line of credit, because we had the urgency to make it; our schedules were open, they were free. We locked down all the locations, we pulled every favor that we could to get it done. And I think that, for us in making this film, you know, like. art-direction wise—we didn't have an art director. It was me and Deragh doing everything. So Deragh figured out her own wardrobe, which is what you know, we collaborate on in a lot of our films; she thinks about what Audrey is going to wear, everything that's going in her suitcase. So that was something we decided together, like the bottle of wine, the books. The Future's bag that she has—Future's is like a famous bakery in Toronto. That's where we found my great-grandmother's letters, was in that Future's bag in my parents’ basement, which was a horrific thing to see. But in terms of, I guess like, to the artificiality that you're speaking of, I think for us, it was important for us to have, I guess, like clean staging, for it just to look neat and tidy as possible. Because Audrey is such an intense, austere person, who feels a lot. She's very sensitive, and keeps a lot of that inside. But I think that Deragh’s such a talented actor that she's able to, I guess, embody this resistance within her. I don't know. I think it makes sense that the world outside of her kind of mirrors that because it gives more space, I think, for her performance to stand out, because Deragh is such a talented actress. No, it's true! It's true. So I mean, you know, artificiality or not, I think we're working with what we have, we're working with an aesthetic that we want to kind of keep consistent with what we have, but also find a way aesthetically for the performance to thrive. And I'm exploring this a lot, like personally in my filmmaking, especially with the work that Deragh and I are doing. We're planning on continuing to make more work, and deepening this practice, because it's autobiographical. I used to call it reenactment, but I don't like the word reenactment, because it reminds me of like, an A&E docudrama. And that's not what I think our films are. So I call them “acts of restaging,” where I've experienced something and then Deragh kind of reinterprets it, so I think, you know, this film isn’t a documentary, but it exists in this liminal space. It's this like weird kind of Lynchian space, I think, sometimes, in a way. So I think that's the best way that I can kind of describe our aesthetic--it's out of utility, it's to be economical, and it's the best use of the resources we have around us.
DERAGH CAMPBELL 46:07
Yeah, I also, I also really like a space within a film where you don't completely get to decide– I mean, where it is in time? But you also don't really get to decide, you know, is she talking to someone? Is this kind of a recital of her thoughts? Is it just—yeah, like, basically, her notebook speaking, you know? Yeah, I kind of almost think of it as like a space for something not to be defined as one thing, or another, you know? That it can be all three at the same time, I hope.
HADEN GUEST 47:18
Kind of an open forum.
AUDIENCE 1 47:19
If I could just like, very briefly follow up. I was just--certainly didn't mean to imply cheapness, but actually yeah, like…the opposite, like a–
No, no!….I didn’t get that sense at all.
–very careful sense of construction, and maybe better than artificiality, would be like, there's kind of a sense of unrealness, like even the bed scene, as you mentioned, there's such a clear demarcation to them that has a stagey quality to it, or–
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 47:40
That was real, though.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 47:42
That was my great aunt and uncle's 60th wedding anniversary.
–that we crashed. Is that what you’re talking about?
AUDIENCE 1 47:49
I'm sorry—I meant the scene in the bedroom.
He meant the scene in the bed at the end…
HADEN GUEST 47:53
Where there’s that line between the two of them—right, yeah, yeah. That was staged.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ 47:54
Oh yes! That was totally staged……absolutely!
HADEN GUEST 48:02
Good. We'll take a couple more questions….[INAUDIBLE] Yes!….in the middle here, please.
Oh, there's a mic on the other side—there you go.
AUDIENCE 2 48:11
Hi. Yeah, I thought that was really beautiful, though I think sort of the same thing that this gentleman is talking about, particularly in the café, or restaurant, or whatever, because the monologues are so intense, that just having the bricks behind, and the salad—whatever, the pepper grinder, whatever, the–behind
Oh…the coffee maker?
That obscure, sort of translucent, behind to—
Oh, the glass..
To the side, it looked like, yeah. Yeah. But it was simple and aesthetically pleasing, but the monologues were so emotionally intense that it was useful just to have, like, in a therapist office, or just kind of, you're experiencing the emotion, but if you get too overwhelmed, you just look at, you know, what's around, but there's not too busy, it's not distracting. It lets you just emotionally process what this person is, and think with her, which is, I mean, the whole film is about sort of transmission of meaning through words, meaning and feeling and connection—whatever, through words. I also thought it was a beautiful expression of having gone to other continents, and to visit archives, and then gone somewhere and written down, you know, not had anybody to go “ARZZZHHHHH!” like, to get all of the things that are in your head, and that, as you said, the grasping for meaning, and what you're going to do with this, that you've found, and discovered, and may be really excited about, but you can't just yell to the people walking down the street “Oh, my God!!! Do you know what I just found in this archive?” So yeah, I like that—what you just explained about—that it could be anything, could be your notebook speaking, it could be a conversation, and then it turns out to be that there is a conversation at some point, but not necessarily the whole time. So—thanks!
DERAGH CAMPBELL 50:12
Thank you. So when, uh, Sofia and I were editing the film together—and it's a pretty unique experience as an actor, to be involved in the editing of your own performance, and I mean, I think I was talking to another Canadian actor that edits himself, Matt Johnson, who does maybe Nirvana—the band, the show—I don't know if anyone knows that. But you can be such an authoritative judge of like when you're being false, and when you're being present, and I found it really interesting to watch that. You could see me become absorbed in what I was talking about, and then you could see me become distracted. And that became, I think, just like an interesting emotional journey to chart, because, to me, being absorbed and being engaged is the ultimate pleasure, and you know, having no focus or not being able to follow your train of thought... I had a horrible bout of anxiety last month, where I would forget what I was talking about at the beginning of my sentence, when I got about halfway through, and would just have to stop talking. [LAUGHS]
No, I just mean that like so, to watch this character get excited, when she could follow a thought, and then really, I think, become devastated [LAUGHS] when she lost the train of thought, and I had a nice conversation with my friend once about how when you're affected by something you've read, and you try and talk about it—this thing that meant so much to you—you almost, as you're trying to express it, you fear losing it, or something? And sometimes by trying to articulate something, you almost lose it in a way. So I always think that by trying to lock down your thought, trying to really explain yourself, maybe trying to find the sources to back up what you're saying, there's a certain... I mean, yeah, it's a struggle, I think.
HADEN GUEST 53:06
Well, the evening is drawing to a close, and I want to thank you both for being here, and tomorrow you have an encounter at Houghton Library itself, and…..
Yeah…we can’t wait….!!
Yes, so I want to thank you for being here. I want to thank Leslie Morris as well, for her intervention, as well.
I want to thank you all, as well, for coming, and tomorrow night, at Mass Art, Never Eat Alone, will be playing at 7 pm. You can check out the details on the website. And now with no further ado, please join me in thanking Sofia Bohdanovicz and Deragh Campbell.
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