Sofia is a Toronto-based filmmaker. She is currently in post-production on her second feature film, Maison du bonheur. She won the Emerging Canadian Director award at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival for her first feature, Never Eat Alone.
Firsts are often thought to belong to the young: first steps, first word, first day of school, first kiss, first heartbreak. In this way, firsts are synonymous with novelty, momentous events that become less and less frequent—or at least less publicly lauded—as time passes. It’s a logic that emphasizes youth and calcifies the assumption that as we age, we cease to experience wonder, surprise or adventure. The films of Sofia Bohdanowicz subvert the dominant logic: focusing on the lives of elderly matriarchs, the filmmaker challenges such conventional thinking and makes the case for never-ending novelty despite our years.
Older women have largely proven to be an impossibility of the imagination on screen. Battling both sexism and ageism, the demographic faces a doubled erasure as though their inner lives cease to exist once past the years of the doe-eyed ingénue, the love interest or the doting wife and mother. Bodhanowicz undermines this trope by turning to the matriarchs in her own life, her paternal and maternal grandmothers, and in doing so paints complex portraits of women who continue to live long after mainstream culture ceases to showcase them.
Of Future//Present’s world premieres, Sofia Bohdanowicz is the greatest discovery. Without any wide recognition, the Toronto-based filmmaker has built a distinct and impressive body of work. She is, as section programmer Adam Cook once described her, Canada’s Chantal Akerman, who works on the margins with no support from Telefilm and little help from Canadian festivals. From inside a national cinema that privileges men, Bohdanowicz’s films celebrate the un-represented matriarchy.
Considering the invisible misogyny throughout Telefilm, an organization that relegates female filmmakers into gendered positions, Bohdanowicz’s films are opposed to the institutional form that critics celebrate, curators program and Telefilm funds. According to an article in the Toronto Now discussing the funding body’s lack of female representation, between 2013-2014 women directed a mere 4 percent of all films that received an investment above 1 million dollars (the alarmingly few indigenous filmmakers supported by the agency is also disconcerting, but deserves its own space in a separate article). Working at the lower levels isn’t much easier for women, and although Bohdanowicz’s cinema doesn’t directly deal with this issue in particular, it does so implicitly by revealing the patriarchal system that deletes women from families and Canadian histories.
Of the three films in VIFF’s new Future // Present series that I’ve seen thus far, the program Sunday night of Toronto filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s new feature paired with three of her short films is the standout. The feature is a fictionalization of the story of her maternal grandmother, Joan Benac, playing herself, who in the early 1950s, appeared as a singer and actress on a kitschy television show. Remembering this in a dream, she tasks her granddaughter Audrey (played by Deragh Campbell, in one of her three films at VIFF this year) with finding the show and tracking down the boy she co-starred with and had dated briefly...
Even more astonishing though, are the three short films paired with the feature, chronicling Bohdanowicz’s paternal grandmother. The first, A Prayer, is a short documentary, following said grandmother around her house has she does various chores (and eats a meal, alone, naturally). The second, An Evening, is something special: a tour of the grandmother’s house shortly after her death, patiently documenting its spaces while one of her records plays on the stereo, intermittently marred by a broken needle, from late afternoon until the space disappears into the darkness of night. It’s a film Chantal Akerman would be proud of. The third, Another Prayer, replays the first short, but superimposed over the now empty spaces of the woman’s home, completely silent. Each film is prefaced by a poem composed by Bohdanowicz’s great-grandmother, and the cumulative effect of the trilogy together is devastating.
Sofia Bohdanowicz is the “future of Canadian cinema”, according to Future//Present programmer Adam Cook. “She’s our Chantal Akerman. Her cinema is already complete and extraordinary, and I imagine that her name is one we will study.” Yowza! A widow in her 80s wonders about the fate of an almost-flame she met on the set of a live TV musical in the ’50s. Her granddaughter tracks down the tape, and more. On this slim premise, presented with docu-like realism, Bohdanowicz builds an acutely observed poem to ordinary life that somehow also contains an outlandish gimmick (though that’s hardly the right word) best saved for discovery inside the theatre.
...the three shorts at First Look by Sofia Bohdanowicz are explicitly connected: the Toronto-based experimental filmmaker intended Modlitwa (A Prayer), Wieczór (An Evening), and Dalsza Modlitwa (Another Prayer) (all 2013) as a trilogy. Modlitwa, which was shot at the Etobicoke home of the filmmaker’s grandmother Maria is a lovely domestic study—an old woman’s solo household rituals overlaid with poetry—that unexpectedly became a memorial when its subject passed away a few weeks after filming.
Bohdanowicz returned to the house twice more for a pair of companion shorts. Wieczór surveys the now empty dwelling over the course of an evening in increasingly dim light, with Maria as a deeply felt structuring absence (one possible reference point for this film of rooms and objects would the montage at the end of Antonioni’s L’eclisse). The ingenious Dalsza Modlitwa literally combines its predecessors, with the first film and its images of Maria projected against the interiors of her home, a superimposition that feels at once like a haunting and a resurrection. It’s a dexterous formal maneuver that points to cinema’s capacity to illuminate while still acknowledging that darkness is the prerequisite of that process.
“We are all immigrants to this place even if we were born here,” Margaret Atwood wrote of Canada in her afterword to The Journals of Susanna Moodie, an observation translated and imbued with understated beauty by the short films of Sofia Bohdanowicz. Bohdanowicz’s screening series Last Poems animates the filmmaker’s generational history of migration and settlement by adapting the poetry of her great-grandmother, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, who came to Toronto from Poland in the 1960s, and grieving her grandmother, whose presence haunts the spaces she’s left behind.
The first thing one notices about Bohdanowicz’s films is her keen eye for detail, from the artfully displayed storefronts of Dundas Street, narrated by an elderly immigrant woman attempting to adjust to her newly urban surroundings, to the inventory of gardening gloves, notes, and abandoned household items that populate Modlitwa, Wieczór, and Dalsza Modlitwa, a trilogy devoted to the filmmaker’s grandmother, profiled at work in her home in the first film and treated as a haunting absence in the final two. Wieczór especially is a stunning achievement, matching the imagistic riches of the other instalments with a haunting score that pairs Rodgers and Hammerstein with a niggling scraping sound. Even more than by their personal resonance and emotional depth, one is impressed by the films’ carefully wrought design, evident in everything from the deliberate pacing to the assured use of onscreen text.
The series is rounded out by the titular short, a delicate coda that documents Bohdanowicz’s trip to Iceland and fleeting bond with Toby, a fellow filmmaker and German hostel-mate who hopes to shoot a music video as Bohdanowicz documents the countryside. Gorgeous as it is, in a primal sort of way, the frosty environment proves unyielding to both filmmakers’ quixotic goals.
Produced between 2012 and 2013, the shorts form a delicate and affecting tribute to the life and work of Bohdanowicz's great-grandmother, the poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa. Bohdanowiczowa's writing is used as a jumping-off point, but Bohdanowicz puts her own feelings into the mix, fusing past and present perspectives and forming something new.
Impressionistic, moving in emotional beats rather than following a narrative structure, the five pieces form a study of memory and absence, re-creating an immigrant woman's struggle to find a place in a new community (Dundas Street) and a widow's attempts to stabilize her life (Prayer), capturing the filmmaker's own sense of dislocation as she tries to memorialize and honour her departed grandmother (An Evening, Another Prayer) and ultimately move forward with her own work (Last Poem).