What’s Left Behind: An Interview with Sofia Bohdanowicz

Photo: Calvin Thomas

When I answer the video call from Sofia Bohdanowicz, the first thing she does is hold up a bowl. Between the films she has playing the festival circuit, others still in various stages of production, and working on a master’s degree at York University, supper at her desk isn’t exactly uncommon these days. The constant filmmaking isn’t new, she insists—she’s been shooting and editing for 20 years, a hobby she picked up on her dad’s old JVC camcorder—but the rest of her work adds up.

Things really started picking up for Sofia in 2016, after her debut feature, Never Eat Alone, earned her the Emerging Canadian Director award at the Vancouver International Film Festival. The docu-drama stars her grandmother, Joan Benac, as a woman living alone and considering a lost love. Often screened with the Last Poems trilogy of shorts (Modlitwa, Wieczór, and Dalsza Modlitwa), the four films reveal a theme of memory and identity strongly tied to where we live. Her latest documentary, Maison du bonheur, continues that thread through a portrait of a French astrologer and her grandiose home in Paris.

For this month’s “Home” issue, Sofia and I dug into her obsessions with family and domestic spaces, and how people both make and are made by them.

You’ve been travelling a lot lately.

I was at four different film festivals. I was at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, with a short film, and I was there for five or six days, which was really great. After that I was in Vancouver with Maison du bonheur and I went from there to Iceland for the Reykjavík International Film Festival. Then I was in Montreal for Festival du Nouveau Cinéma. It was a really, really great experience to travel with my films, but it was really intense in that it’s really hard to be living out of a tiny suitcase.

How does it feel to be home?

It’s been great to have the opportunity to show my work that much, but I didn’t realize how exhausting and taxing it would be. It’s funny, I was away for so long that even walking around on my concrete floor felt nice on my feet. You miss those things that bring you comfort. It’s really good to be back. I just started packing my bag again, though, because I’m going to New York tomorrow to screen Never Eat Alone and three of my short films. I’m really excited to go, but for the first time I’m feeling jostled by travel.

Is it possible to choose a highlight from such a busy trip?

Iceland was a cool experience; I’ve always wanted to screen there. I’ve been there a couple of times, once as a tourist and once to shoot a short film, so this was my third time back. I’ve always wanted to play that festival. They were giving an award to Olivier Assayas this year, and the festival is so small that we actually got invited to the president of Iceland’s house for the award ceremony. That was a pretty big trip, to hang out with Assayas and the president of Iceland. If that was happening at a festival here in Toronto, you’d need to go through 10 people just to access him.

I can’t continue this interview about “Home” if I don’t ask what the president of Iceland’s house is like.

It’s very white. It’s on this inlet right beside the ocean. He’s married to a woman from Ontario, actually, which was pretty wacky. There were about 50 people invited and he shook everyone’s hand. There’s a lot of nice art. It’s essentially the bunkie to their White House, so it’s as you would imagine a government home. Lots of white walls, a really cool library with Icelandic sagas. It was lovely.

Did you see anything else while you were in Iceland, or were you just in and out for the festival?

I was at a dance party with Björk! I didn’t meet her, but they invite her to a lot of public events. She’s like their national treasure. She was wearing a powder blue spacesuit and silver platform shoes, and I just danced and looked at her. I think I got the full Icelandic experience. I was also invited to a sheep’s head dinner where I was serenaded by Icelandic men in big sweaters.

You ate a sheep’s head?

I ate parts of my partner’s sheep’s head. I was a little too intimidated.

Sounds like something from a horror movie.

Yeah, it was pretty nuts. They give you instructions on how to eat it. I did have a really good time, though. The last thing I’ll say is that I’m a huge nerd about Icelandic cinema and I got to meet one of my favorite directors, Friðrik Þór Friðriksson. He made this amazing film called Children of Nature about two elderly people who meet in an old folks home and decide to run away together to live in the countryside. It was the first film I saw that portrayed elderly people as not just senile and confused, but as full people with wants and needs and desires.

That seems like something you’ve really internalized and put into your own work, especially with women. How did that develop?

I first came to it when I found a book of poetry written by my great-grandmother, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, who immigrated to Canada in the 1960s. She fled Poland during the Russian invasion and lived throughout the European countryside and northern Africa during World War II. She never really had a home after that. Coming to Toronto was her first experience with an urban landscape. She had never seen streetcars or big buildings, and her apartment was right next to a slaughterhouse, which was hard for her. She ended up writing a lot of poetry about Toronto from a negative perspective. She was broken and didn’t want to be living there, but the way she wrote was still very relatable to me. I felt a strong connection to the words of a poem called Dundas Street. I ended up shooting a film about that poem in her old neighborhood and my mom, who I was lucky to have doing craft services on my set, pointed out that we were right around the corner from where I was first brought home as a baby. It was totally by coincidence that my first short film ended up being shot around my first home.

I think that adds an interesting layer to the film, which feels like it’s about being in a place that both is and isn’t home. For your family, obviously, that became your home, but for your grandmother, home was an idea more than a place in that film.

It was, and the film is also about how we strive to make our homes. A sense of home can be collected by warming to your community and growing into it, and I think she did that. In my research around that neighborhood I initially found it to feel very cold. There’s not a lot going on there. But once you go into some of the businesses—I shot in a Maltese bakery, a laundromat, a restaurant—spending time with the community shows you how alive it really is. I think she definitely had a hard time acclimatizing but I’d like to think that she eventually warmed up to this great neighborhood.

Did she stay in Canada?

Yeah, she did. My great-grandfather died within eight months of being here, and she died six years after that. I think it was really hard for her. As a side note about her time in Toronto: I discovered letters that she had been writing to another poet in New York City named Józef Wittlin, a Polish man who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. They had a longstanding correspondence over the course of eight years. I found the letters in an archive at Harvard and had them translated by the Polish Consulate in Toronto. I made a film about them this summer that I wrote with Deragh Campbell. That’s an ongoing project right now.

So your great-grandmother is a still a big part of your work. Is that what inspired you to work with your other female relatives?

Yes. That’s why her poetry was an important piece of the trilogy about my grandmother, Maria. As a kid, I moved around quite a bit and had to rebuild many times. One place that was always very constant for me was my grandmother’s house. It was like a time capsule. No matter how many times I had to rebuild my universe, I could always go to her place and feel like one thing made sense. That was the only fixed thing from being a baby into my adult years. When she got sick and passed away and I realized that I’d be losing that place, I had this really awful panic because her home was very much my own as well. In a lot of ways, I really took that for granted. I guess I assumed it would always be there, which is naive. Knowing it was going to be dismantled gave me an urge to document it so that I could revisit it whenever I wanted or needed to. I’m really glad that I did, because I recently found out that the house has been leveled out to make way for an up-and-coming neighborhood. They’re tearing down all these brick bungalows to build monstrous Scandinavian houses, so I’m glad to have such a strong document of that world that doesn’t exist anymore. My memories can transcend whatever happens to that plot of land.

The trilogy, and especially Wieczór, is such a precise examination of what made that house a home. When you were cataloging all these objects in very detailed frames, how did you overcome the inherent voyeurism of digging into somebody’s personal space?

Are you asking if I feel guilty documenting my grandmother’s home to be shown to a wider audience?

I’m not, but I think that’s a good question. Maybe you can answer that and I’ll try to rephrase what I’m asking.

Well, I made the first film with her was before she was diagnosed with cancer. I shot with her as a test run for an idea that I had and a few weeks later found out she had stage IV cancer. She passed away six months later. I had accidentally ended up filming the last normal afternoon we had together. I edited quickly and was lucky enough to share it with her. She really liked the film and gave it her blessing. Consent in filmmaking is really important to me, making sure that my subject knows how and why I’m capturing them and that they have an understanding of how an audience might perceive them. She really loved that I was starting to dig into my history and heritage, and that I was curious. Obviously I didn’t get her permission to document her home again later, in such a detailed way, but I have the feeling that she would be okay with that. She was such a generous person and I think she would have been really proud to share with people because the home that she built was part of her own history. She moved to Toronto barely speaking English. She and my grandfather had a hell of a time renting a place and finding work, but were able to build a life for themselves and their kids. I think home was the only thing that mattered to them because it was such a struggle. Their priorities in life were to take care of their family, spend time with them, and create a space where everyone felt comfortable. I think that home for them was a big success story and a point of pride. I think that she would have been okay with me sharing that part of her life.

Modlitwa (A Prayer)

Voyeurism was a loaded term for me to use.

No, nobody has asked me that. I’ve never had to think about that before…she didn’t actually give me permission to do that. Who knows what she would have thought? I assume she would have dug it, but we don’t know.

What I was trying to ask was more about capturing someone through their space and their possessions, and how difficult that is. You’re bringing your own point of view and pointing your lens at them, which is the voyeurism I spoke of. I think that’s there in Wieczór, but also in your other work. There’s a really careful consideration of the space in A Drownful Brilliance of Wings, and in Maison du bonheur; you’re as much taking in this really vibrant character as you are her surroundings. How do you gut check and ensure that what you’re capturing is what makes this a home to them?

No one has ever asked me that, either. That’s a deep one. I shoot very intuitively, mostly by myself. Shooting Wieczór was about examining the traces my grandmother left behind and finding what felt good and felt right to document. There was a letter she left by her bedside: “Cancel the nurse. Get C & C to take me to the hospital.” She hated having a nurse come to the house and wanted personal family care. That notepad, left on the table with the pencil, with a rosary, a bag of lavender, some painkillers—that was such an intense snapshot of this moment. To me, it was so compelling in telling the narrative of her passing. Her house had become frozen in time. There was a bin with this rag rotting in it, and an awful millipede. That was a scary discovery, but you can very much see in the way that she left her home how you don’t really get to decide when you’re going to die. Life is really delicate and mysterious and swift and can take you out at a moment’s notice. I wanted to communicate that through the traces left behind.

I was at a gallery in Montreal and I read a quote from a photographer that I love, Lynne Cohen, that kind of sums up my obsession with home and materiality and how people live. She said she wasn’t interested in photographing people, she wanted to photograph traces of people, to capture how they move through spaces and what they leave behind. I certainly love to make films that are portraits of people, but I’m also interested in their possessions and what the material narrative of their home is. What do they like to have around them and why? How does that become an extension of their personality? It fascinates me.

That really comes through. Did that change for you on something like Maison du bonheur, where the person you’re studying is present? Did your subject, Juliane, take the lead in shaping the narrative of her space?

Yeah, I felt like I had pulled an Allan King and was living with my documentary subjects, which is what he did with A Married Couple. I really wanted to be as respectful as I could of her space and to earn her trust. When Maison first came out, I was asked if Grey Gardens was an influence in any way. I was like, “No way! Absolutely not!” The only thing in common is that both are about elderly women, but I don’t think that film was collaborative in the sense of those women understanding that they were being exploited. I’m glad Grey Gardens exists and it’s a really important film in the history of documentaries, but I don’t think they understood how they would be perceived. They were ill, they were hoarders, they had a lot of issues. There are problems with that approach.

With Juliane, I would ask “What do you want to talk about? What are you interested in sharing? What aspects of your life are important to you?” I think it’s more empowering to let your subject lead the way. You have to listen and hear what they have to offer instead of digging around. There were a lot of directions we could have gone, but didn’t. Her husband had passed away eight months before and I could tell she didn’t want to talk about it. It was just something she didn’t bring up, which I took as a sign not to go there. I also came across some astrological work she had done with some very notable French figures, which I so badly wanted in the film, but she was just like, “You can’t. You just can’t.” Talking about what the boundaries were and respecting them was important for me. I think when you respect the person you’re working with, they inherently sense that and feel more comfortable to share intimate parts of themselves. I was really lucky to have that with Juliane.

You can feel that intimacy in the film, which I think creates a sort of inseparability between Juliane and her home, almost like she might not exist beyond that space. It keeps bringing me back to a line in your earlier work, that “place becomes myth.” How did you construct the myth of Juliane?

I only knew a few things about Juliane going in. She’s an astrologist, she lives in Paris, she’s been in the same home in Montmartre for 50 years—all these simple ideas made the idea of a documentary appear very rich to me. I knew her home must have so much charm and an incredible history of people passing through. In terms of capturing this place that’s so epic, it was just about spending time there and being open. The first scene I shot, with her watering her plants, was within an hour of arriving there. It was a really beautiful day and the light was coming in so nicely as we were chatting that I immediately started seeing ways I could shoot it. There were a lot of places in the house where I would spend a lot of time deciding what to use. She had so many shoes in her shoe closet and I was so focused on which ones would look the most interesting. I would look at the way she moved through the space and interacted with it to try and find an intuitive way to document that.

I know that you only took a limited amount of film stock with you. Do you think having to be so selective helped you in cutting to the essence of the space?

Yeah, I think so. I recommend it to all filmmakers. It’s scary, for sure, to have a limited amount of footage, but it really forced me to focus and hone in. For me, that kind of pressure is very productive. It forces me to be present and think about what I’m doing in a space. I think it also helps that I’m an editor, so I’m already thinking about how things are going to come together when I’m shooting. I’m still a digital filmmaker, though. People asked me after this if I was only going to shoot on film and the answer is no. I think there’s a right format for every film. Digital doesn’t have as many consequences; film begs you to be economical.

Never Eat Alone

The talk of editing and intuition brings up some inspirations you’ve previously noted, like Agnès Varda and Chantal Akerman. I get a Les Blank vibe from some of your work as well. Are there any specific references to homes on film that you think inspire you, consciously or unconsciously?

Have you seen Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours? That film IS home for me. I easily watch it three to four times a year. It’s about a woman who leaves her home to go to Vienna and take care of her ailing cousin. There are so many moments in that film that affect me. One that really fucked me up—it was poignant, I mean—was when her cousin passes away. She has spent all this time there and you don’t see her packing up, but you see the coat hangers in her closet just moving around and know she’s going to be going home soon. It made me realize that places have so many layers of history and experiences. There’s such an interesting weight to the sentimentality of her making a temporary home out of this space and then her time there is suddenly through. It was really moving.

I think when you’re traveling you’re always trying to make a little home, no matter how temporary. We want to feel grounded and safe and warm. I wouldn’t say it influenced me in terms of visual style, but definitely in form. I love how it oscillates between documentary and fiction, juxtaposing the tour of the museum with a very tender narrative of the romance of a friendship. It’s a very beautiful thing, so genuine in its motive to be a film about time passing. Obviously I’m attracted to that because I’m also drawn to Akerman, who wants to make us feel the passage of time by making us sit with a space and forcing us to watch it change. Hotel Monterey is a film that I love to revisit. If I’m really anxious before a screening or an interview I’ll watch it to calm down and feel grounded. Hotels are really interesting spaces because they’re full of people moving through, finding a temporary home. The way she captures it, you feel the weight and the history of the people that have been there. It showed me that you can make a film that’s just about a building or a space and it can be impactful. News from Home is another Akerman that was big for me, and of course, No Home Movie. I saw Varda’s Daguerréotypes after shooting Maison du bonheur, and it helped me figure out an interesting framing device for the film. At the end, she’s talking about all the images and people and experiences and she’s not sure what it will amount to. I thought it was a beautiful way to cap off a film that was very intuitively shot. She had a 80-meter extension cord that she called her “umbilical cord.” She would only shoot as far as that would let her walk from her house.

Like her own Dogme 95 rule.

Totally. That was her constraint, and I think she just shot without being sure what she was going to make. I very much followed that process. It took a long time to figure out that the film was about Juliane and her world, but also about our relationship throughout production. In a lot of ways, it’s about us making portraits of each other. The end of Maison du bonheur is an homage to Daguerréotypes and how it gave me that clarity.

We started off talking about your concrete floors. To come full circle: how has all this time you’ve spent examining domesticity and what home means to different people influenced your relationship with your own home?

Is my relationship to my home different because of the way that I’m interested in examining other people? Has that changed how I live in my own space?

Exactly. Does it look different to you? Do you spend your time differently? This might be a reach.

No, I like that you’re making me get introspective. I try to make films that give the audience a lot of space to reflect on how people live their lives. I don’t think I live life the way my subjects do, or the way that I film them. My work must give off a vibe that I’m a slow and meditative person, but I’m not…not in any way! I wake up in the morning and eat in front of the computer. I do tend to my space in a careful way, but I don’t really enjoy it as much as I would like because every day is a hustle. I wish I had the time to enjoy my space more. It’s interesting to not inhabit this place that I come from in my filmmaking. My first film idea, which became Never Eat Alone, was to shoot people eating different meals at different times of day. The idea was to create a video essay, but also a sort of companion that you could put on if you were ever eating by yourself and needed some accompaniment. Through eating, I wanted to comment on how we don’t take the time to be present. While I definitely subscribe to those values, I haven’t been living that way for a long time. In the pursuit of constantly putting out work, I’ve had to sacrifice my home life in a lot of serious ways. I’m trying to find ways to live more thoughtfully and enjoy my space. I want to live by the values my subjects live by and bring that mindfulness into my home life.

It sounds like you’re saying that home isn’t just where you live; it’s how you live.

I would definitely say that. Absolutely. I try not to keep too many things. I don’t want to say that I’m minimalist, because that’s too trendy a term, but I want to make sure that I’m living with purpose and the things around me having meaning. I don’t want to surround myself with stuff just because.

You’ve found a different kind of home in the Future//Present series at VIFF. Do you think that’s where you’ll end up with what you’re working on now?

I’m hoping to have my newest feature done in the spring and I’ll be sending it to festivals then. Future//Present does sort of feel like my headquarters. I had a really emotional premiere there with Maison du bonheur because I wanted to thank them for all the success I was able to have after Never Eat Alone screened there. It’s such a great community. Adam Cook, who started that program, found an important gap in Canadian programming. My films aren’t experimental enough to play in Wavelengths at TIFF, but they also aren’t narrative enough for more straightforward Canadian programs. I feel really lucky to be recognized with other filmmakers that are pushing the envelope in interesting ways. I’m really grateful to them, and I’d be honored to have my new film accepted there. At the same time, I realize how difficult programming is and don’t hold anyone accountable to me in that way. I’m happy to have my work screen anywhere.

Edited for length and clarity.