Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell's MS Slavic 7, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from June 4 - July 4, 2020 in MUBI's The New Auteurs series.
It’s odd, the places we find the dead. Audrey Benac (Deragh Campbell) is at the Harvard archives looking for letters written by her great-grandmother, the poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa. Having become the literary executor of the great-grandmother’s estate, Audrey’s quest to put her family’s affairs in order ends up more complicated than anticipated. MS Slavic 7, the third collaboration of Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell (though the first where they’re credited as co-directors), is a kind of archival detective film, looking for one’s family among the fragments.
Through shorts and features Bohdanowicz has created a body of work which is well aware that no letter is ever just a letter. The ones in MS Slavic 7 are part of a correspondence with Polish poet Jozef Wittlin, and are held in his archive (under the titular call number MS Slavic 7), in a country Bohdanowiczowa never lived in. What few items Audrey has of her great-grandmother belong to someone else now, her poetry forgotten, letters held underneath another man’s name, and her whole work absorbed into someone else. For Audrey, being a literary executor is something she approaches with a single-minded focus. Her work is solitary, alone in a hotel room and archive, but through this process her great-grandmother becomes more than just a text.
There’s an abundance of language in MS Slavic 7, not to be unexpected from a film whose title is a call number. Zofia’s letters are braided throughout the film, subtitled, as Audrey reads and researches them in the archives. We see Zofia’s handwriting, the addresses, the stamps; we read the subtitles of her language, but there’s no voice speaking. Since Audrey only has the text, it’s what the audience is given as well, and the gap between the word and the living is made all the clearer by Bohdanowicz and Campbell. We never hear Zofia’s voice, or Wittlin’s responses, but we have Audrey’s as she wrestles with the meaning of these letters. She has them translated from Polish to English, in the process of trying to discover a whole person, and a whole relationship, through these texts. Audrey and Zofia both speak to an absent interlocutor, both their projects paralleling. With monologues improvised by Campbell, where she questions the nature of letters, and writing, and who her great-grandmother was. There’s also what these letters don’t talk about: her great-grandmother’s immigration for Poland to Canada, her family, the poetry she wrote.
Jozef Wittlin and Zofia Bohdanowiczowa were both real people, and the latter is Sofia Bohdanowicz’s real life great-grandmother. Audrey works as a stand-in for Bohdanowicz, part of the recurring element of doubling in their films, and with this doubling there’s a gap in which to explore. In Never Eat Alone (2016) Audrey helps her grandmother, played by Bohdanowicz’s real life grandmother, Joan Benac, try to find a long lost love after watching a recording of her on a long lost TV show. She also appears in the short Veslemøy’s Song (2018), where she travels to the New York Public Library to find a recording of Kathleen Parlow, who mentored Audrey’s (and Bohdanowicz’s) grandfather. In both these films, like MS Slavic 7, there’s a search for a lost history through items spread out across archives, a kind of totem to summon the dead.
This also isn’t the first time Bohdanowicz has made a film a family affair. In her earlier Last Poems trilogy (Wieczór , Modlitwa , Dalsza Modlitwa ) Bohdanowicz creates a mourning ritual for her recently deceased grandmother. Projecting an earlier film onto the spaces it was filmed in, we have the image of Bohdanowicz’s grandmother sitting at a table which is now empty, creating ghosts to say good-bye one last time. There’s a gap, again—this time between the living and the dead, the image and its subject—and for Bohdanowicz, film is the bridge between them.
The greatest obstacle for Audrey’s inheritance ends up being a more intimate opponent. Audrey clashes with her aunt (Elizabeth Rucker), who’s dismissive of Audrey’s interest in her great-grandmother, and the work which she is trying to do. There’s an intimacy in her abrasiveness—blood relations can mistreat us in ways others can’t. For her aunt, Audrey's role as literary executor is a pet project; there’s no value in her writing, Zofia’s letters were simply papers to get rid of rather.
But Audrey’s insistence on her work is about maintaining a family legacy, and the responsibility she has to the dead. This clash happens at a family party, a 60th wedding anniversary taking place at an event hall in the suburbs. Here Polish songs are performed, and family members share recollections. This is a celebration where descendents of immigrants are maintaining the homeland in a new city, something which Zofia herself was concerned about. As Audrey takes the bus back into Toronto, a city which Zofia thought of as “very sad,” her aunt’s voice echoes through Audrey’s head. Her aunt’s chastisements ring out loudly, keeping Zofia’s voice from speaking.
It ends up that Audrey’s inheritance is as shaped by her great-grandmother as it is by her aunt, and Audrey comes up against another obstacle with the archive itself. The archivist, fussy in his demeanour but reasonable in his requests, is a block to these letters, and they’re trapped behind walls and copyright laws for the time being. Like with Zofia’s letters, it seems like Audrey cannot get the responses she needs, whether from family or institutions. Audrey can only make a copy of a letter in a language which she doesn’t understand, and has to turn to others—the archive, a translator—to begin the work she wants to do with her inheritance, her great-grandmother’s voice still lost.
It’s not that a copy is inherently derivative, but rather that Bohdanowicz and Campbell are interested in how the copy has its own meaning, and the tension with maintaining the past. Though she’s lost the rights to these letters, Audrey’s work as executor has created a bond between these two women across generations. The abundance of text and speech that have filled up the film now have a speaker, Audrey. The gap is bridged, for the connection to a relative can come about in more ways than just ownership of property. MS Slavic 7 continues the project of tracking down the splintered remains of Sofia Bohdanowicz’s family, a project as involved in mourning as it is in embodiment. These pieces become whole in the context of the films. Now Deragh Campbell and Sofia Bohdanowicz can have found Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, and rather than a copy, the three of them have created something new.