A Conversation with Sofia Bohdanowicz
By Leonardo Goi
Sofia Bohdanowicz’s is a cinema of ghosts. Whether forgotten artists, family ancestors, or some combination of the two, the Canadian filmmaker’s singular body of work is haunted by a large pantheon of phantom-like presences and people striving to rescue their legacies from oblivion. Her first trilogy, a triptych of shorts from 2013 (A Prayer, An Evening, Another Prayer) offered a deeply affective and ingenious study of absence, centered on her maternal grandmother’s passing. Her second, starring actress Deragh Campbell as the director’s stand-in, Audrey Benac, allowed Bohdanowicz to dig deeper into her family exhumations, tracking down an old flame of her grandmother’s (Never Eat Alone, 2016), shedding light on the work of a Canadian violinist who taught the director’s grandfather (Veslemøy's Song, 2018), and uncovering the correspondence of her great-grandmother and poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa (MS Slavic 7, 2019).
It’s a filmography that straddles documentary and fiction, resolutely committed to both rescuing and interrogating the tenuous link tying Audrey to her ancestors. And even in those rare occasions when the focus moves beyond her immediate family, as in the 2017 Maison du Bonheur, a portrait of a 77-year-old Parisian astrologer, Bohdanowicz’s reverence for her grandparents’ generation remains intact, as does the belief that filmmaking can morph into a séance in its own right.
Nowhere does that feel more acute than in Bohdanowicz’s latest short, Point and Line to Plane, which homes in on Giacomo Grisanzio, a friend and former producer of Bohdanowicz’s who passed away at 37. Written by Bohdanowicz and starring Campbell as an unnamed narrator, it’s a lacerating chronicle of the director’s mourning process. When we spoke for the following interview she described this period to me as one of magical thinking—a state of heightened receptivity to the lingering presence of the departed. I suspect this is what accounts for the serendipitous aura Point and Line to Plane radiates. For even though Grisanzio never appears in the short, Bohdanowicz suggests that something of his spirit may have survived in the countless, mysterious coincidences Campbell unearths along the way, in a journey that shuttles her through New York, Vienna, and St Petersburg. Time and again, the deceased is invoked through the paintings of Hilma af Klint and Vasily Kandinsky. We’re told that both artists were preoccupied with how to “depict the invisible,” and in a film so painfully concerned with the need to materialize Giacomo’s ghost, their struggles are Bohdanowicz’s own.
“Erstwhile mute surroundings begin to speak a language that becomes increasingly clear,” Kandinsky wrote in the 1926 book from which Point and Line to Plane borrows its title. And this may well be the ultimate epiphany Bohdanowicz arrives at: our only chance of helping the dead outlive their passing is to remain open to the unexpected or inexplicable traces they so often leave behind.
Halfway through this year’s Viennale, one of Point and Line to Plane’s many stops along the festival circuit, Bohdanowicz and I sat to discuss her latest work.
Reverse Shot: Even as it doesn’t focus on a family member, as your previous films so often have, Point and Line to Plane struck me as your most personal to date. I was wondering how you felt while bringing to screen something as harrowing as the loss of a friend.
Sofia Bohdanowicz: Well, my whole filmography is built upon the need to explore my family history as a means to understand my own identity, and situate myself. But one thing I learned along the way is that I can also use that as a tool to understand and process. The film came from a very vulnerable place. I’d known Giacomo since film school. He was my first film producer, the first to really support and encourage me, and we’d been great friends. He passed away so suddenly that my brain just couldn’t grapple with the idea. I went through what Freud called a period of magical thinking, where I was under so much pain that everything I looked at reminded me of his passing. And I tried to tether all these coincidences together, and compile them into this vehicle that represented everything I was thinking, so that I wouldn’t feel the pain anymore. I learned that no film can ever fix that, of course, but what it can do is bring you to a place of understanding, and diminish that sense of rupture. It was a very hard film to make and to reveal to the world, but it’s been a cathartic experience, too.
RS: Early into the short, Deragh Campbell’s voiceover says: “Words don’t come so easily to me…”
SB: It’s true, they don’t! [laughs]
RS: And yet I think your script makes this the most lyrical of all your films. Can you tell me about your writing process?
SB: I never work with scripts. Obviously each film has a basic architectural foundation upon how I operate. But what was especially difficult here was letting myself be guided by these unknown forces orbiting around me. It all goes back to af Klint and Kandinsky’s own practice, who strived to make the unknown visible, to give visuals to things which we know are there but cannot fully articulate. There’s this story about Kandinsky’s “Composition 6.” He’d done a lot of studies in preparation for the painting, but was really struggling to get started, until his assistant said: just say the world “flood” over and over to yourself. He did, and the painting just poured out of him. That’s how the writing felt for me here: words just came and moved through me. The film started as a letter I wrote to my grandmother, who knew Giacomo as well. I was writing the letter and tying together all these coincidences I had encountered, when I realized that the footage I had been collecting would match really well what I had written. It was a matter of being open to what came my way, of intuitively collecting and articulating things, and then piecing it all together in the edit.
RS: I guess that’s what explains the serendipitous quality of the whole film. Watching it, I felt as though I was discovering those coincidences together with Audrey, in real time, so to speak…
SB: But that’s because this is a film that happened to me. You see, I actually started working on it while Giacomo was still alive. When I first went to the Guggenheim and tried to get into the af Klint exhibition, he was in New York too, and I just didn’t know. It was the last trip he took before he passed away. I filmed that show without knowing any of that, but something told me it would be very important later on, even though I couldn’t quite explain to myself why. And then, about a week after Giacomo had died, I realized he passed away on af Klint’s birthday. His sister said this thing at the funeral: “People will forget what you said and what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” And that was what led me to construct this film in this particular way. Whenever I look at Kandinsky’s work I remember how Giac made me feel. It is all inextricably linked, all tied together.
RS: Let’s talk about magic. Aside from being an artist, Hilma af Klint was also a medium. She’s not the first character in your filmography to work with the occult—I’m thinking here of Juliane, the star of Maison du Bonheur, an astrologer. Could you tell more about your fascination with magic?
SB: No one’s ever asked me that before. But I guess the whole film is a little bit of a séance, a resurrection. And when you’re an astrologer, or a medium, someone whose work is commissioned by spirits, so to speak, you have to teach yourself to operate intuitively, and trust yourself. There are forces around us that are here to guide us, but they can only do that if we’re open to them. And this is something that speaks closely to my own practice. My whole filmmaking process is very spontaneous, and meaning often comes during the edit. I don’t believe Hilma af Klint was thinking much about what or how or why she waspainting—she just intuitively felt it was right, and only contextualized it at the end. And I suspect there’s an interesting parallel to be made between Juliane’s practice as an astrologer and af Klint’s practice as artist. They’re both women relying on their intuitions for their work, and that’s what drew me toward them.
RS: I was hoping we could touch upon your interest in our grandparents’ generation. Come to think of it, Point and Line to Plane may be the first in which they don’t serve as protagonists.
SB: Well, the first stories that brought my mind to life were stories my grandparents told me. My desire to become a filmmaker and tell my own stories came from the fascination I felt for theirs, essentially. And I love the idea of examining this dissonance between generations, and doing it through Audrey, who thinks that by unearthing her grandparents’ history, she’ll be able to understand her own identity, her calling in life. But there’s a lot of privilege in that quest, too.
SB: Yes. There’s a moment in MS Slavic 7—the first time in my work where I touch upon our parents’ generation, actually—when Audrey is accused by her aunt of profiting from the family history, of romanticizing the past. I can understand the point. Here’s a luxury Audrey and I share: neither of us had parents who had to endure the atrocities of World War II. See, on one side of my family, I have grandparents who went through the horrors and hardships of the war, and on the Polish side, I have grandparents who were put into camps in Siberia. And I am not surprised that our parents aren’t able to look at that history with the same romantic eye Audrey has for it, considering how vivid those memories must have been in their families still. It’s all too easy for Audrey to look down on her parents’ generation for refusing to examine their past. If she’s so desperately drawn toward that history, it’s only because she didn’t have to process its traumas in quite the same way.
RS: You end Maison du Bonheur with a framing device that feels plucked out of Agnès Varda’s Daguerréotypes, where you ask yourself what the film is—is it a journal, a letter, portrait, a travelogue?
SB: And that’s exactly where I borrowed it!
RS: I was wondering if you had the same kind of taxonomical concerns about Point and Line to Plane.
SB: That’s interesting. More so than ever, as of lately, I seem to struggle to categorize my films. Some filmmakers are very good at labeling theirs, but I have a very open way of working, which makes categorizations a lot harder. I hope my films, if anything, will be closer to breathing organisms, with their humanity, flaws and vulnerabilities. They’re not perfect, they’re fragile, but for me what’s important is to make something that feels like it’s alive. I’d rather that the work reflects the energy with which I made it instead of being this still, contrived thing. If the lines are blurred, it’s because each film is a conglomeration of all the different elements that stream together to give the image you see on screen.