Natural Histories: Sofia Bohdanowicz Discusses Her Debut Feature

Exploring the deeply personal cinema of an emerging Canadian filmmaker.
Lawrence Garcia

Wieczór (An Evening)

“Those are the kinds of things I like to remember,” says an elderly widow reminiscing about her granddaughter’s first communion at the end of Never Eat Alone, Sofia Bohdanowicz’s tender, touching feature debut. It’s a line that reverberates not just through the film itself—which is premiering in Future//Present, a new program of the Vancouver International Film Festival dedicated to emerging voices in Canadian film—but also throughout Bohdanowicz’s small, but distinctive body of work thus far.

The infinities of a life, whether shared or solitary, remembered or forgotten, lived or imagined, seem to be at the heart of the Toronto native’s cinema, which is certainly true of the three shorts she directed in 2013 and which are screening alongside her debut feature. All shot in the Etobicoke home of her paternal grandmother, the films are at once formally rigorous and intensely personal, tracing a life as it moves into death and finally into afterlife and memory. The first, Modlitwa (A Prayer), made before her grandmother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, is a lovely domestic study overlaid by a recording of a poem written by her great-grandmother, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa. Wieczór (An Evening), the first made after her grandmother’s death, tracks a single night in the now-empty house. Lovely compositions of personal objects and spaces are filmed with natural, fading ambient light and backed by the repeated, ever-slowing strains of a record player. No two shots are ever the same, the home practically presenting itself in infinite variations; it’s the immensity of a life in cinematic form, and the sorrow of its fading. Dalsza Modlitwa (Another Prayer) revisits the home one final time, literally recreating the first film by projecting it, life-size, onto the house’s various surfaces; it’s eerie, haunting and—like the trilogy as a whole—ultimately moving.

Never Eat Alone

Never Eat Alone is, at least in form, something quite different. The narrative, a documentary-fiction hybrid, is based on the experiences of Joan Benac, Bohdanowicz’s maternal grandmother (who also stars in the film), and her desire to reconnect with a former lover (played by George Radovics, the grandfather of Bohdanowicz’s partner) that she’d met while starring in a television show back in the 1950s. Joan’s granddaughter in the film, Audrey (Deragh Campbell), reaches out to the man in an attempt to reconnect the two, while actual footage from the show—filmed at Casa Loma (a Toronto landmark) and which Bohdanowicz tracked down in the archives of the Canadian General Electric—is interspersed throughout. But the film isn’t as concerned with narrative incident as it is with the minutiae of daily life—a frozen lemon loaf, slides of vacation photos, a stack of dusty, handwritten letters—and the near-imperceptible accretion of memory and experience that occurs over time. It’s a film more content to observe a grandmother passing on her wardrobe to her granddaughter than with tracking the arc of a conventional (non-)romance. And in its understated elegance, it becomes all the more poignant for it. In that sense, Bohdanowicz’s film feels like a restoration of what’s so often elided in cinema—the loneliness of a solitary meal, or the warmth of a few minutes of casual, perhaps even banal conversation, or the memory of a child running through the backyard after her first communion—the irreducible infinities of daily life.

NOTEBOOK: From watching your films, the three shorts and Never Eat Alone, it’s clear that your relationship to your grandmother is important to you. Despite being fictionalized, Never Eat Alone still feels quite personal. Could you talk about how your relationship with your grandmother or your family history in general has shaped your work?

SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ: I started by working on making films about family members. It all started off as a test. I had watched the film Jeanne Dielman by Chantal Akerman and I’d always had this fascination with the way people eat—how they eat, and what they make. My grandmother Maria, on my father’s side, always cooked lots of really interesting things, so I just thought it would be really interesting to make a documentary about her domestic life—what kinds of traditional foods she likes to make at home, but also whether she still bothered to do that since she was recently widowed. So I decided to go over to her place one afternoon to do a test, to just follow her around and see what that would look like. When I brought all the footage back to my partner, Calvin, who produces all of my films, he looked at the footage and said: “This could actually be a short film. You should try putting it together.” So I did. I edited it all together, and recorded a poem that my great-grandmother Zofia had written. I’d done a study on some of her poetry and turned it into my previous film, Dundas Street. I just wanted to see how it would work and it just seemed to capture a very real slice of what it was like to spend the afternoon with her and what her life looked like, in a very natural way.

It was very serendipitous that I shot that film with her that afternoon, because not even a month later I found out that she’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. So it was the last afternoon that I really got to spend with her and have these last natural moments with her, and it just so happened that I filmed it too, which was very eerie—but very lucky as well. When she passed, I realized how important her home was to me and how it held this whole world that I grew up inside of. It held a lot of memories. We moved a lot when I was a child, but I always had that home to go to, and it held a lot of significance to me.

After I made that whole series about my dad’s mom, I was still really interested in what domestic life looks like for elderly matriarchs. There’s something really important to me about telling those stories and making those films where we’re lingering with those people. We’re listening to their stories and we’re spending time with them. Because I think that the histories of elderly women can sometimes be ignored, not listened to, sidelined. It’s not very often that you have elderly women featured as main characters in films. I was very much raised and influenced by both of those women in my life, so I feel like telling their stories is kind of like telling my story as well. It becomes a little bit biographical, if that makes sense.

Dalsza Modlitwa (Another Prayer)

NOTEBOOK: That definitely comes through. You already mentioned Jeanne Dielman, and I certainly thought of Chantal Akerman while watching your films: No Home Movie, but also News From Home, because of the letters. Her films seem like they're putting a spotlight on subjects that cinema ignores, and as you said, that’s also a running theme through your work. Was she a conscious influence for you?

BOHDANOWICZ: The first film of Akerman’s that I saw was Jeanne Dielman and it just felt so revolutionary to me, that you could do that—to make a film that’s about being with this character for three hours, and to build tension in such an interesting way. I love the idea of being in someone’s home, looking at those little details. How do they make tea? How do they wash dishes? In a way, I love anthropology—studying the way people live and the way they do things—but especially women. And I love stories where you can just watch a woman live—especially an older woman, who wouldn’t often be the focal point of a narrative—for their sole purpose to not just be an accessory to another man, or for a love affair. You’re with them, and you’re watching them live. That being said, there’s a love interest in Never Eat Alone, but I think it comes across in a different way.

NOTEBOOK: That’s one thing I found really interesting about Never Eat Alone. If you summarize the plot, an elderly widow wanting to reconnect with a former lover, it creates a certain expectation for the film. You expect them to maybe get in contact, meet up or something like that. But the film doesn’t really go there. Was that a conscious choice to buck that expectation?

BOHDANOWICZ: I just think that’s just the way the world works. Sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. I liked the possibility that maybe she chickened out. Maybe she doesn’t want to see him. Maybe she realizes that it’s him, and she’s too afraid, and she doesn’t feel like opening that book again. Maybe she felt like exploring it, and turned that page, but was like: “I don’t want to be here anymore.” Maybe it was just a strange man that got a letter in the mail and is very confused about it, but is, incidentally, very lonely, but also becomes sad because he’s not making contact either. I really liked that open-endedness. Because you don’t know if they finally do connect in that world, after the film ends. Maybe it is him. Maybe he’s a stranger. I felt like that was just so much more satisfying. If they had met each other, it would have been too tender. It would have been too ideal, because that isn’t what real life looks like.

Never Eat Alone

NOTEBOOK: Those scenes that your actress, Deragh Campbell, had with your grandmother, did you write those completely? Or were they variations of conversations that you’ve had with her? There’s that scene towards the end with the clothes. Is that something you had experienced?

BOHDANOWICZ: Oh, no. That’s happened. I didn’t write any dialogue. The way that I work is with a lot of cue cards. I had scenes on different cue cards where different plot points happened or different things happened. So I would say to my grandmother and Deragh: “OK, in this scene, Grandma, you’re going to have Deragh try on this clothing. Deragh, you want to take this clothing because you don’t want to make her feel bad. But at the same time you don’t really want more crap in your very, very tiny apartment.” So I just told them that that’s the way they should play it. At one point, there should be a confrontation, but at the end she ends up taking the clothing. I felt that this was a very good way for them to work together. And it had the most natural outcome because Deragh is such a natural actress. And in filming with my grandmother so much, I discovered how natural she was as well. I really wanted to keep that very casual, natural vibe. I felt like it would be very easy to write something that could feel very contrived or fake. So a lot of those moments that I took, like the clothing and the [photo] slides… I have a very sentimental family. That happens a lot.

NOTEBOOK: So your films—especially the trilogy, which was filmed in your grandmother’s house, and Never Eat Alone—they seem very attuned to the spaces that they’re in, and I guess that’s from them actually being your grandparents’ homes. Could you talk about how you approached filming these places that you were already familiar with?

BOHDANOWICZ: I think that I got a lot of the sentimentality from different family members, because we’re very sentimental people. I have a lot of old Polish scarves that were passed down to me from my grandmother. I have lots of jewelry. A lot of my other family members are like that, but in a way that becomes really comical. We’re like hoarders. My mom still has a lot of her furniture from her childhood room. They just won’t get rid of things. So I grew up with a very strong attachment and sentimentality to spaces and objects that have historical value in our family.

Shooting in spaces that I was already familiar with, I wanted to get people to see my subjective perspective—how I see the space. I don’t really plan much, in terms of the way that I’m going to shoot… It’s usually just me, Calvin, a camera, a boom [mic] and some gaff tape. It’s very low key. Because I shoot that way, I have the luxury of improvisation and flexibility. When I’m in those spaces, I’m just filming what’s right—what feels good, what looks good, what I feel will achieve the certain goal or tone that I’m going for. And also just to capture the general mood of the space. I wanted to shoot Never Eat Alone on a little HV20 camcorder because it had a very drab look. It’s not a good looking film; it’s a very sad looking film. And that’s not to say that my grandmother’s house feels that way, but in the winter it can feel that way, and it can have that certain melancholy. So I felt that that was a very appropriate format for that film.

Never Eat Alone

NOTEBOOK: So when you made the transition from the trilogy of shorts, was it a conscious choice to make the jump to a feature film? Or did you just start doing tests and think that it could be something more?

BOHDANOWICZ: These short films came out of me very organically. I was grieving, but I also felt compelled to make them. Because I felt like I was losing something and that unless I captured it, it was going to disappear and I wasn’t going to have any memory of it. So those films poured out of me—it felt like an out-of-body experience. My grandmother passed away and suddenly I had three short films. It was very intense and fast, the way it happened.

Never Eat Alone came out of this feature film idea that I had a long time ago… I got this idea that it would be really hysterical to have a DVD of different people eating different meals at different times of the day, so that if you were ever alone or by yourself, you could have a visual accompaniment while you’re eating. There was something really funny and really interesting about that, and I had always wanted to do this project. So I researched it and submitted it to theOAC—the Ontario Arts Council—and I got the funding. It was to shoot and film with people inside my building. So it was supposed to be a portrait of people inside my building eating different meals at different times of day, just to get a perspective of how a community eats. Because our building is a mixed-income building, I thought it would be interesting to have all those different perspectives. But when I started filming and looking at it, it started to turn into this socio-economic commentary of how people were eating and if they knew how to make certain things or not... It just had these class undertones that I really wasn’t ready to take on. It was also the first time that I was working outside of my own family and with a community, so I started to realize the responsibilities of a documentary filmmaker. If you’re filming in a community, you can’t just drop in and drop out. I realized that I was really going to have to invest myself with the people that I was filming. There’s a fine line between being a filmmaker and a voyeur, as well, and I wasn’t comfortable with what I was making. And I’m also a very private person, so it was hard for me to see myself continuing to invest in this community and make this film and still keep my private and home life.

So that’s why I decided to keep the idea, but film with my grandmother and with Calvin’s grandfather, because those felt like safer spaces. They felt like spaces where we weren’t exploiting the people that we were filming. It just felt more authentic and true. That’s often the way I work. I can’t explain exactly why I feel that something is right, it just is, and it works—and I’ve learned to trust that. That’s where it came from. And after my paternal grandmother’s passing, those undertones of being a widow, being an elderly woman, looking at that home life and what that looks like, kind of bled through into the feature.

NOTEBOOK: It’s an interesting transition, because if you look at the films in the trilogy—the structure must have come to you after—but it’s a very clear progression of life… death and then afterlife or memory. And Never Eat Alone seems like an extension of some of those themes—the infinities of these daily objects, family histories, of a life being lived. Do you see these films as part of a larger project?

BOHDANOWICZ: I think that my work will always have to do with families and our histories—how we relate to one another, those emotional relationships, and the significance of them. Because my family has had such a strong impact on my life… It just feels like such a natural thing to explore.

In my newer work, I’m starting to work outside of that, but still in spaces that I feel familiar with. I worked on a film with my friend Gillian Sze called A Drownful Brilliance of Wings. The short film is about this stamp collection that she has. It’s based on a poem she wrote called Arriving. She has this huge collection of stamps that her grandfather had sent to her father. Her grandfather was writing because he’d abandoned Gillian’s father when he was quite young. He wrote a lot of letters when he was travelling around... So this stamp book is this visual history of that correspondence. That’s what this film explores, and it felt like a natural next step to make in terms of my filmmaking.

Then with Maison du Bonheur, which is the film that I made in Paris last summer, I lived with my colleague’s mother in Montmartre… So I just went there as an experiment to kind of get myself out of my element, to film the same kind of themes that I had been filming with both of my grandmothers, but with a complete stranger, to see how that would turn out. It explores her career and life as an astrologer, but also her importance as a community member living in the Montmartre neighborhood. So I think that the themes of family that I cultivated in those films let me explore different things in an environment that made me feel really safe and let me develop my style in a natural and organic way. But now I’m able to branch out. I’m still within familiar territory, but I’m shooting with people who aren’t relatives of mine.

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