Talk Wordy to Me: Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s “MS Slavic 7”
MS Slavic 7 (2019) is deceptively simple. Opening with the image of a poem by Polish writer Józef Wittlin, it continues the character of Audrey Benac (co-director/writer/editor Deragh Campbell) from Sofia Bohdanowicz’s 2016 film Never Eat Alone. Researching her roots, the Canadian woman travels to Harvard to read their collection of letters penned by her great-grandmother, the poet Zofia Bohdanowicza. The film is structured around three scenes in which Audrey talks to a man in a café about her findings and efforts, as well as her archival work.
Zofia is Bohdanowicz’s real great-grandmother. She and Wittlin moved to Toronto and New York, respectively, after World War II, and she died there in 1965. Their correspondence is also real, and the film is based on Bohdanowicz’s own discovery of their 25 letters at Harvard, with the title referring to its library call number.
Aspects of the directors’ work evoke micro-budget North American peers like Ricky D’Ambrose, particularly the on-screen text and unabashedly intellectual setting. MS Slavic 7 doesn’t refer overtly to Eric Rohmer, but like his films, it understands how people use conversation about literature as a means of flirting and scoring social points. When we see Audrey speak in a café the first two days, the camera represents the perspective of the man she’s talking to. He seems like a device rather than a character, and Bohdanowicz and Campbell depict Audrey talking in long takes from a single angle. The third time they return to this scene, it’s a shock to learn that Audrey’s having a conversation with a real person who can speak — her translator — and that Bohdanowicz and Campbell are willing to use shot-reverse shot editing before finishing with both actors in the frame.
Audrey doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about herself or her actions, but the film sure does. It develops a story that builds over three days (possibly teasing at the idea of a three-act narrative). However, it cuts after a new development at the 65-minute mark, exactly where a feature would decide that it was just getting warmed up. Afterwards, it ends with an ambiguous image of Audrey on a train. Is she on the subway in Cambridge, continuing a story that the spectator won’t be able to see, or heading back to Toronto, having decided that she’s finished her business (in both senses of the word)?
In her novel Disoriental, Iranian-French author Négar Djavadi wrote that the concept of integration into a country requires immigrants to disintegrate from their homeland, a process whose pain is never taken into account by a culture demanding quick assimilation. The alienation she describes is reflected in Bohdanowicza and Wittlin’s letters. The film also shows the distance between the poet and her great-granddaughter, as well as Audrey’s desire for connection across the boundaries of time. There’s no reason why a fourth-generation Polish-Canadian woman would know Polish without actively learning the language, but the man she hires in Cambridge can read her relative’s letters more directly than she can. This doesn’t prevent her from extensive theorizing about the importance of letters as physical objects. She’s not off-base, and one suspects the directors agree, but her tendency to fall in love with her own words is more a product of the social media age.
Throughout, the directors layer non-diegetic dialogue over their scenes and subtitle silent images. The device of reading from letters, as well as the references to the Holocaust and emigration from Poland, distantly recalls Chantal Akerman’s News from Home (1977). However, Akerman’s film had a far more easily recognizable connection to her life, with the letters from her actual mother being read on the soundtrack. Bohdanowicz has an ongoing interest in the lives of elderly women and the legacy they leave for future generations. Interviews with her typically use headlines like, “A Young Filmmaker with an Old Soul.” Her solo documentary Maison du Bonheur (2017) profiled a French astrologer. MS Slavic 7 feels different; while Audrey does interact with older women, her relationship with her family is tense and diffuse, and her late great-grandmother is a more vivid presence than her living relatives. Campbell, in character, attended the real 60th wedding anniversary of Bohdanowicz’s aunt and uncle. Bohdanowicz ultimately built a character and story from her own experiences, turning them into a carefully structured film. If hybrid films swiftly became a formula, MS Slavic 7 points to the real life behind it without being non-fiction.
Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s MS Slavic 7 will screen at New York’s 48th New Directors/New Films on March 30 and April 1.