MS SLAVIC 7 (Sofia Bohdanowicz, Deragh Campbell). 64 minutes. Opens Thursday (October 10). See listing. Rating: NNNN
For nearly a decade now, Toronto filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz has been making movies about her family’s history and her relationship to it, recently through the perspective of a fictional alter ego named Audrey Benac, played by Deragh Campbell, who interacts with Bohdanowicz’s real family members on the director’s behalf.
It’s less complicated than it sounds, and it clearly works over several projects, including the feature film Never Eat Alone and recent short Veslemøy’s Song, they’ve forged an essential collaboration. Their latest project bills Campbell as Bohdanowicz’s co-director, and both women share writing and editing credits.
One of Bohdanowicz’s lodestones is her great-grandmother, the poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa. Sometimes Bohdanowicz uses Zofia’s work as a jumping-off point for her own story, and sometimes Zofia is the focus of a piece, even if she’s not there in the flesh.
MS Slavic 7 sends Audrey to Harvard to delve into Zofia’s correspondence with another poet, Józef Wittlin, after the Second World War. Wittlin had moved to New York City Zofia was living in Wales and preparing to emigrate to Canada. The letters are part of a collection, and Audrey – who has recently been named Zofia’s literary executor – is determined to wring deeper meaning from them.
The movie cuts between Audrey’s efforts to access the letters – and, once she’s transcribed them, to understand them – and a family celebration back home in Etobicoke, where Audrey has a very tense conversation with an aunt (Elizabeth Rucker) about Zofia’s papers.
Audrey wants to know her great-grandmother’s heart, and the world keeps getting in her way, whether it’s a family grudge, an institutional restriction or a language barrier. Bohdanowicz and Campbell let us see her frustration mounting at each new limitation or obstruction, as if by degrees on a thermometer. In a repeating motif, Audrey tries to deconstruct Zofia’s text in speculative monologues that may or may not comment on her own isolated situation.
The movie offers no catharsis, just empathy by the end of MS Slavic 7 – which takes its title from the catalogue designation of Zofia’s papers – we feel just as stymied as Audrey does. But the existential questions linger. Can you understand a person’s life through their correspondence with someone else? Can we ever know someone we haven’t met, even if their existence led directly to our own? Veslemøy’s Song explored similar territory, with Audrey digging into the provenance of a century-old ballad at the New York Public Library, but that was a short and this is a feature, letting us steep in the ideas at play.
Bohdanowicz, who shot the film, establishes a disconnected tone with a few visual references to Chantal Akerman’s Les Rendez-vous d’Anna – another film in which the director was represented by an actor – though she’s not simply replicating that work. MS Slavic 7 is its own thing, packing a sly sense of humour (and one very funny jump cut) inside its modest, meditative self.
And thanks to whatever symbiotic alchemy Campbell and Bohdanowicz have achieved, Audrey seems more real with each appearance – stubborn, thoughtful, focused to the point of fixation – and as ever, I’m curious to see where she goes next.