An unclassifiable filmic object that sprang out of a long-distance creative partnership, A Woman Escapes brings directors Sofia Bohdanowicz, Burak Çevik, and Blake Williams together in an intimate and playful collaboration that mingles different formats, aesthetics, and experiences. In a nod to Robert Bresson’s classic A Man Escaped (1956), the film accounts the flight of a young woman—Bohdanowicz’s regular persona Audrey Benac, played by Deragh Campbell—from an emotionally paralyzing grieving process. We witness Audrey’s life being deeply impacted by the death of her elderly friend Juliane, whose apartment, along with its souvenirs, shared memories, and some images, are left behind to the devastated young woman. In the minuscule kitchen of this time-worn Parisian apartment, Audrey sits and vainly ruminates on the past while feeling speechless, lethargic, and trapped in an eternal stagnation.
When Audrey’s friends Burak and Blake—also fictional personas of Çevik and Williams—start to send her video-letters from different corners of the world, all of which bear distinctive artistic sensibilities, she finds a way to take a break from her own existence through their personal experiences and images. Burak, while traveling across Turkey, confides to Audrey a similar experience of grief and loss while his dreams and travels mingle, reflected through alternating bucolic and urban landscapes. Blake, in turn, takes her on a virtual voyage in the realm of images from artists, such as Nam June Paik and Anthony McCall, and even makes a stop at her street on Google Earth. Though Audrey continues to sit in her secluded place, new possibilities open up in her imagination, leading her to open a window on Premiere Pro. Sometimes mixing, sometimes muting the words, images, and memories of her friends, Audrey forms a three-layered artistic and intimate dialog in the image of the Shabbat challah that garnishes her kitchen table, made after a communal recipe of mourning, forgetting, and dreaming.
While A Woman Escapes follows a self-reflexive story about image-making, communicating, and sometimes miscommunicating with one another, it also documents the long-distance yet long-running dialog and collaboration between three notable filmmakers in the contemporary audiovisual landscape. Their culminating video exchanges sit somewhere between fictional and real, yet are always faithful to aesthetic and formal concerns that characterize their respective artistic practices. Bohdanowicz’s images come in her usual grainy 16mm style, tinted with bright-saturated yellows and reds in a way that mirrors Audrey’s introspection after Juliane’s death. Çevik’s videos in 4K, on the other hand, give the impression of an immediacy and being-thereness aligned with his diary-like musings, while the sterile color palette of his landscape shots reflect the filmmaker’s distanced and self-analyzing posture towards his own dreams and memories. And finally, Williams’ trademark use of a 3D-camera offers a playful, metaphysical counterpart to these personal perspectives, while also challenging the potentials and limits of the audiovisual image.
After many months of remote collaboration, Bohdanowicz, Çevik, and Williams finally met up in person for the film’s world premiere at FIDMarseille. I joined them to talk about the multidimensional, highly unusual—and unusually made—film that is A Woman Escapes.
NOTEBOOK: In terms of form and structure, A Woman Escapes is a complex and multifaceted object that exceeds any simple definition. How did you approach the creative process as filmmakers? Do you consider it as a collaboration, a correspondence, or as an autofiction?
BLAKE WILLIAMS: Since it was born from two alternative correspondence films, the DNA of A Woman Escapes is definitely a correspondence film. It is also a fiction, a psychodrama, an essay film—it is many things. But I don’t know that it really needs to be categorized. In reality, we were just setting out to make a movie that is emotionally fulfilling for each of us with respect to the different situations that we were all living through at that time. Sofia was going through the death of her friend Juliane, who was a subject of one of her previous documentary films [Maison du bonheur]. Burak was feeling heartbroken after a break-up. I wasn’t going through anything particular—other than what everyone in the world was going through, which is the pandemic. So, we were just trying to establish some communication with friends and create a meaningful dialog with one another.
SOFIA BOHDANOWICZ: I really enjoyed our ability, desire, and curiosity to make a narrative film that had suspense, abstraction, and anything that was interesting to us, but also that connected us. We were really interested in discovering and uncovering things about one another. I think the baseline for the film was Burak’s video letters that he had sent me in September 2020, which I found to be incredibly poetic, articulate, deep, and intuitive, but also effortless. There was a narrative script dramatizing my own heartbreak over the loss of Juliane that Blake and I revised together, which worked in a transcription I made from Bresson’s A Man Escaped. From there, Blake developed his video letters, and Burak revised and added on to some of the videos he had already sent me. The point of succession was interesting because after a period of editing and re-editing the material, Burak and I spent a month together in Istanbul developing the film further, looking specifically at Blake’s material and reacting to it. We were trying to find different ways of connecting themes of memory and disintegration between the three of us.
BURAK ÇEVIK: From my perspective, I think I’d describe it as a diary film because my letters were rather about how I’d been spending my time those days, and I really wanted to share my feelings with someone. All of my letters were like diaries for me, though when you write a diary on your own, you always bear in mind that someone in the future will read it. You’re writing for yourself while wanting someone else to read these words. And it was the same feeling: I sent my video letters to Sofia, and at the same time I wanted people to see them. The letters were quite personal and honest, but at that point, those images were what I needed to share.
NOTEBOOK: The autofictitious aspect of the narrative is often present in Sofia’s work, but Burak and Blake, I believe that the act of self-representation is quite new for your respective approaches. How do you think this form of vulnerability affects your work?
WILLIAMS: It was one of the main challenges for me, especially because I have only made one film that I would describe as personal—which was my previous film, a 12-minute 3D short called 2008. But even then, with regards to any specificity about my personal life, it’s very cryptic. The subject matter of my films tends to be either object-oriented, or, earlier on in my practice, made using found footage from the Internet. I’ve never used actors or spoken words. So, when I have to work in a mode that’s related to correspondence or diary films, I felt that there was an expectation that I would engage with more overtly personal or personable themes.
Early on in the making of A Woman Escapes, I altered Sofia’s narrative idea so that there would be an implied past relationship between Audrey and Blake’s characters, and because of the heartbreak that still existed between them, Audrey would mute her laptop during his letters, unable to bear the sound of his voice. Any voice-over that I included with the videos would then become silent, which would have rendered my videos to be non-lingual and solely image-based, where I’m more comfortable. But comfort is a terrible thing, and when I started making video-letters, writing dialog for them, I found that I really enjoyed storytelling, whether I was rambling about Nam June Paik—an artist who has meant a lot to me throughout my career—or meandering through Juliane’s neighborhood on Google Earth. So, we ended up getting rid of that narrative device.
ÇEVIK: I consider all my films to be personal. Even though The Pillar of Salt doesn’t seem to be, it is personal. I wrote the script in a period when all those bombings and terrorist attacks were happening in Istanbul. The story revolves around a pregnant woman who cannot die and who tries to decide whether she should give birth or not. Similarly, I was then haunted by questions of life and death. Belonging was significantly personal, too. Even my video piece A Topography of Memory contains the voices of my family members and myself.
Though A Woman Escapes is the first film in which I put myself in front of my camera, I have acted before. I was a child actor, and I also did performances in Turkey twice. So, I always liked to play with the boundaries regarding the self and its fictional representation. I actually feel ashamed in every screening, because it can be too personal! I don’t know what to feel when I have to share these intimate details with the audience. Structurally, Blake and Sofia were more involved in the editing. We talked about and shared our ideas through the process, but the editing transformed my letters into a narrative. That’s why I felt protected, because the raw material had become something else.
NOTEBOOK: Audrey, who is kind of like the central figure in A Woman Escapes, belongs to a larger set of films directed by Sofia, in which the actress Deragh Campbell has unquestionable contributions to the characterization of Audrey. Can you talk about Deragh’s, and consequently Audrey’s, merging into the narrative in relation to your own interactions as filmmakers?
BOHDANOWICZ: Listening to Burak and Blake speak about putting their own narratives into the film while creating distance through personas is really interesting to me, especially since the film is now complete. I realize how much of an incredibly courageous act this is—one that I am not quite ready to put into motion. When Burak started to send me these letters, I tried to send him one, too. I narrated something that was very intense and made me feel quite vulnerable. It was a shot that I took from the hospice where Juliane was staying before she passed away. For a piece that was intended to fit into the narrative line of a film, I thought it was too raw, like a piece of meat that you couldn’t cook and wouldn’t want to eat. I was completely unable to respond to Burak’s letters as myself.
But as far as Deragh goes, since she’s my best friend, a lot of the experiences that I have in my life are filtered through the conversations that we have. I remember talking to Deragh about a little joke that we had with Blake where I’d start stealing things from his work and he’d send me video letters which would sound like Audrey’s voice. Deragh found this idea very funny and encouraged me to develop it. Deragh always interprets our conversations into this Audrey character we created together. In every film, she’s there, thoughtfully building a wardrobe or thinking about books that she should be reading. You’d think this was rather easy for A Woman Escapes, but I believe that the life experience, support and care she provided me as a friend when Juliane passed away moved into the grieving process that she restaged as Audrey.
NOTEBOOK: Since the narration varies between three distinct voices—and sometimes blend into each other—we feel like the temporality of the images are constantly subverted and manipulated. How did you proceed to build this convolute temporality?
WILLIAMS: There’s a lot of temporal fudging going on. Part of the challenge was making it seem credible that everything was created for this film. One of the interesting differences between my contributions to this film and Burak’s is that Burak made most of his video letters before the project became A Woman Escapes, whereas all of my video letters and dialog were created after we developed the idea for the film. They’re much more fictional, in that way, while Burak’s diaries are more genuine communications.
NOTEBOOK: I feel like the film also ponders the temporality of mourning. While days go by at a rapid pace akin to the films of Éric Rohmer, Audrey seems to be stuck in a perpetual stagnation.
BOHDANOWICZ: I think Audrey’s frustrations with time come from the sensation swirling around me when I was trying to respond to Burak’s video letters. I saw Belonging at the Berlinale and I was really impressed by the film’s duality and structure. And here I had this opportunity to connect with a filmmaker that I admired, but also who was putting extraordinarily unique and personal things in his video letters. I felt like a vacant tin, a container. Everything that was coming out of my mouth sounded empty and superficial. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe my pain. It became impossible to articulate, to contextualize what was happening to me, because time moves far too quickly while you lose yourself in thoughts and gestures. The attempt to materialize your experiences when you are grieving is an arduous one.
One thing that I find quite interesting in running this narrative line, which was based on A Man Escaped, was to show the frustration and progression towards the escape, but also Audrey’s effort and difficulty of being in this liminal, ambiguous place. Audrey is a character who’s ultimately trying her best but failing, and the way out of this situation is to plagiarize or to morph her identity, because she can’t be in her body. As a filmmaker, I felt the same way. “Sofia” in the film needed to be Audrey, and similarly Audrey needed to transform, regenerate her identity, and move through other bodies in order to survive her own circumstance.
WILLIAMS: One of the big themes of the movie is communication, on a plot level as well as conceptual and even spiritual level, which means it is essentially about intersubjectivity, about people sharing themselves with other people, and our ability to perceive ourselves being perceived by someone else. Since one of the core, off-screen events of this movie was Juliane’s death, the heart of the movie is based on the severance of a communication. When you lose someone with whom you intimately shared a part of yourself, what do you do with the parts of yourself that you reserved for them? How do we re-map our relationships with other friends, and forge new outlets? Audrey has to find a way to share herself with people, even if it’s not the people that she wants to share herself with, and the film depicts her bizarre and fascinating solution to this problem.
NOTEBOOK: Some parts of A Woman Escapes were shot in 3-D. But beyond this technical feature, the images incorporate multiple layers of meaning and, especially in Burak’s video letters, the landscape, the dreamscape, and the filmic space form a different kind of three-dimensional experience.
ÇEVIK: In the videos that I shot for this film, I don’t have any people in front of the camera, except for the man and the stray dog he interacted with. Back then, since I was struggling with problems in my personal life, I preferred looking at the outside world, at the landscape itself. I was trying to understand my gaze and perception in different spaces, and this habit gradually became a part of my existence. The transposition of my dreams onto these spaces actually reflects both the link and contrast between what you hear and what you see. It is one of the cinematographic ideas that Deleuze refers to in his conference, “What is the Creative Act?”Deep down, all of my letters were about memory itself. I kept forgetting things, while knowing that this was something inevitable. That’s why I’ve started keeping video diaries, and externalizing memories through text or images helped me to forget those memories in a peaceful way. Maybe at the beginning it started as a resistance to forgetting, but then it led into a therapeutic and cathartic path to forgetting. It is a repetitive process. You’ll watch it again and again; you’ll talk about it, and your feelings regarding those memories will inevitably alter.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of this ongoing cathartic experience conveyed by the film, I wanted to ask you about the grammatical and temporal shift that you made in Bresson’s original title. What does this present tense mean to you and to Audrey?
BOHDANOWICZ: I think that Audrey still has some work to do at the end of the film. It is more like the beginning of a realization that she’s been transmuting herself into different identities in order to escape her own present reality. At the end, we see a promise that she maybe wants to move back into herself and into the world. For us, it is a title that suggests her reliance on another person’s text, but also the kinship that I felt with Bresson’s work. And I think the film is about the very process of escape. We see how she maturely does this through plotting and scheming, and witness her present reality.
WILLIAMS: The movie means something different to each of us, which is what we strived to achieve, to make a complex and complicated object that can mean different things for different people. But also, the film is strongly about the nature of influence. Influence is, of course, very much a past tense thing that is manifested in the present. You remember something that someone else did, and redo it in the present in your own way, with your own voice. This can lead to the question of the future tense.
We had our own discussions, even disagreements, about the role of temporality in the movie, and whether or not there is any sort of symbolic manifestation of past, present and future in the characters. I decided to address this in my writing, though. I wanted to conclude my character’s presence in the film by having him channel Burak’s style of monologues, which all dealt with dream temporality and imaginary spaces where you never really know whether it’s the past, present or the future. So, I deliberately combined the “future unreal” tense—which describes imaginary events that haven’t happened yet—with the past tense, before showing the audience what I was describing, on screen in the present. I think it encapsulates the way Sofia, Burak, and I were caught between temporalities during the making of this film. We never knew where to be, so we tried to vanish.