Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: MS Slavic 7, Identities in a Microscope

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Continuing our series, Cathleen Evans delves into Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s MS Slavic 7, looking at the film’s approach to identity and ancestral legacy.

Much of MS Slavic 7 takes place around the edges of an anniversary party. Amidst the din of cutlery and soft drone of conversation, Audrey Benac (Deragh Campbell) watches a live rendition of a Polish ballad sung in tribute to her aunt and uncle. A slideshow parades through images from the couple’s sixty years together, as the pair sit admiring their life, each dressed as if for a debutante ball.

Later, Audrey requests a word with her Aunt Ania to discuss the estate of her great grandmother, the poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, of which Audrey is the literary executor. The two spar about Audrey’s intent to exhibit the work publicly, Ania jeering: “so you’re trying to make a business out of our family history?” Audrey is indignant: “am I hobbyist or an evil capitalist? I don’t even really know what you’re accusing me of.”

Ania’s scorn is easily read as that of the old-guard confronting a recent trend in DIY genealogy: there is scarcely a family today without a self-appointed historian, cataloguing their ancestors’ existence. But humans have always been desirous of their own origin stories. It is this proclivity that Canadian co-directors Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell stare down in MS Slavic 7—revealing the ways in which our understanding of the past is mediated by our present reality, and the role we play in constructing our own ancestral legacy. 

Named for a reference number at Harvard’s Houghton Library, the film—which premiered in this year’s Berlinale Forum—follows Audrey as she visits the archive to view letters sent by Bohdanowiczowa to Nobel Prize nominee Józef Wittlin. The letters date from 1957 to 1964, when the Polish-born writers were in the process of re-settling: Wittlin in New York City, and Bohdanowiczowa in Penrhos and then Toronto. After each session at the library, we see Audrey discussing the letters’ contents over a drink. She is not speaking to anyone in view and her posture—shoulders turned slightly from the camera—winks at the documentary tradition of the talking head.

Such nods are characteristic of Bohdanowicz’s filmography to date, toying with fact, fiction, and her own authorial presence. Audrey’s character previously appeared in Bohdanowicz’s films Never Eat Alone (2016) and Veslemøy’s Song (2018), serving as a proxy for Bohdanowicz, whose own family history is the recurring thread. MS Slavic 7 marks the first time that Campbell has been credited as both lead actor and co-director. Participating in a roundtable for cléo journal in 2018, Bohdanowicz cited Agnès Varda, and her concept of cinécriture—filmmaking through collaboration rather than singular vision—as inspiration, and it is evidenced here in her partnership with Campbell and their holistic approach to the literary estate of Bohdanowiczowa (Bohdanowicz’s real-life great-grandmother). 

While Audrey’s analysis is often preoccupied with grammar, she is most fixated on the letters as a means “to record and to communicate.” In Bohdanowiczowa’s absence, she seeks to understand the minutiae of what her great-grandmother was attempting to articulate; it is clear she wants for a similar means of self-expression. Even so, as Audrey strives to identify the “true” meaning of Bohdanowiczowa’s words, her futility is what provides MS Slavic 7 its greatest strength: in place of definitive interpretation, it gives equal authorship to all involved. 

At the close of the film, Audrey lies asleep underneath a mountain of her great-grandmother’s letters. One excerpt reads, “Toronto (in my opinion) is a very sad city.” This declaration is made humorous when contrasted with the intercut scenes of the anniversary party just outside the city, which were shot at Bohdanowicz’s aunt and uncle’s real-life anniversary. Bohdanowicz’s relatives toast to lives well spent (sad city be damned!). Their joy, in turn, provides an epilogue to Bohdanowiczowa’s letters, and an origin story for Audrey herself. 

Speaking to Cinema Scope, Bohdanowicz expressed a raison d’être for this cinematic style: “I like trying to refract different things against each other, like identities in a microscope: my identity and the people in my family, and trauma that they’ve been through.” In eschewing orthodox approaches to genealogy, MS Slavic 7 affords space to its predecessors, while acknowledging that individuals, in death as in life, are aggregations—existing wholly as reimagined by those who succeed them. 

Cathleen Evans is a documentary researcher and writer currently based in Amsterdam. She is currently the web editor of cléo journal.

MS Slavic 7 screens on September 9th at Regent Street Cinema.