Capturing Space in Film and Making Space for Female Filmmakers
TIFF Next Wave’s Chloe Bhumgara interviews local Toronto filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz, whose new film Maison du Bonheur opens at Hot Docs this week
Each season, TIFF brings a professional filmmaker and a cinema enthusiast from the TIFF Next Wave committee together to interview each other. The latest conversation in this series pairs director Sofia Bohdanowicz (left) — whose first feature Never Eat Alone played at the TIFF Cinematheque in March and won her the “Emerging Filmmaker” award at VIFF 2016 — and committee member Chloe Bhumgara (right). Bohdanowicz’s new documentary, Maison du Bonheur, studies the day-to-day life of an astrologer living in Paris and was shot on 16mm film. The film will have its North American premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival, and screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox from May 3 to 5. Here’s Chloe and Sofia on intersectional feminism, what they want to see from the next generation of Canadian filmmakers, and how to get your shot while being attacked by rats.
Chloe Bhumgara: What has been the biggest challenge for you as a filmmaker?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: Everything is a challenge, but I don’t think that’s a negative thing because I get a lot of joy out of problem-solving. I make all of my films with very little money – Never Eat Alone was made with an Ontario Arts Council grant and it cost $7,500. I did everything myself, along with my partner Calvin who shot everything. So I wrote it, I shot it, I edited it, Calvin colour-corrected it, he did the credits – we did every single aspect.
I was just watching the final copy of my new film, Maison du Bonheur, and we were watching this scene where I had filmed fireworks on top of this hill in Montmartre on Bastille Day. I was shooting in this bush at midnight in this huge crowd of people, and when I climbed in to get a good view of the fireworks, these Australian tourists behind me were like, “Be careful, there are rats in there!” but it was the perfect view to shoot these fireworks. I could feel things moving around my feet and thorns cutting my legs, but I was like “I need this shot!” Sometimes you get stuck in these weird situations that make you feel uncomfortable, but they’re actually kind of funny if you just get outside of them; it’s part of a process that I enjoy. I think the challenge for me is that everything is very handcrafted so I have to be a jack of all trades, but I also enjoy that too because I’m a control freak [laughs].
SB: Was there a particular film, person, or incident that got you interested in film?
CB: When I was 13, I watched The Dark Knight, which was one of the first times that I could really detect a presence behind the camera, so I started thinking more about what goes into making a film more than just what’s being shown on screen. After that, I watched [Steve McQueen’s] Shame, and it really touched me. It was the first time I had seen a film that really used the medium in every way possible; the score and the visual way McQueen portrays emotion through film is so incredible to me.
CB: What has been the most rewarding aspect of filmmaking for you?
SB: Well, I think there are two, if I’m allowed [laughs]. I think one part is figuring out my process. When I go to shoot a film, I have plot points and ideas of what I’d like to do, then I cast my actors, then I show up, and I’m like, “Okay, what’s there to work with here?” My favourite part is being in production and working with those elements. Some people find it stressful, but because I’m used to working on my own, I really find that aspect fun and rewarding. The other part is talking with audience members. Even though I always get really nervous before Q&As, I love doing them because it’s nice to talk to people about their experience of watching my films. I made a trilogy of films that were based on my grandmother’s passing and my great-grandmother’s poetry. It was about my grieving process in saying goodbye to her and her home, and everything she represented to me. A lot of audience members connected with that grieving process; they were like, “That made me think of my grandmother; this made me think about when a family member passed away.” To be able to connect with people and for it to be somewhat of a healing experience, something that we can have in common, something that’s cathartic, is so wonderful to me. It’s such a privilege to be able to do that. My work is so personal too, that sometimes I wonder, “Are they gonna get it?” [Laughs.] And when they do, it makes all of those little moments of difficulty throughout the process worthwhile.
What are some things that you’re hoping to contribute in the film industry? In being part of TIFF Next Wave, you really get a [sense] of what the industry and programming is like – are there some things you’re hoping to change?
CB: For a long time, pretty much only white guys could get films made. I think one of the best things about film right now and the future of film is that a lot of different people are able to tell their stories on screen, which is something that we’ve never seen before and it’s so amazing. I’m really excited to be a part of all of that. In the future, hopefully, if I end up being a programmer or director, I’d wanna exhibit a lot of diversity in my films and be a part of the movement there.
SB: So you’re a feminist and you’re also an intersectional feminist.
SB: I am too! It’s really good that there’s a new generation of filmmakers, programmers, and people who want to be involved in the industry who care about diverse voices, because I think it’s time for a change.
CB: The media also has such a huge influence… children are so impressionable. Growing up, I got so much from what I watched on screen, so if representation does increase in the media and we see a lot more people from different backgrounds and walks of life, hopefully people will be more tolerant.
SB: Totally. They don’t have to be experiences from niche groups — it can be looked at as human experiences.
CB: Does the Canadian part of your identity play a role in your particular voice as a filmmaker, and what does it mean to you to be a Canadian filmmaker?
SB: Canada is a nation built on newcomers and immigrants — the land was taken from Indigenous people, which is a very important part of the conversation. I never like to neglect that when I’m talking about the history of Canada. I am a second-generation granddaughter of grandparents that came here from Poland. So for me, it very much started with celebrating my family’s history, how they came to Canada, and what it was like for them. The first short films I made were about displacement, isolation, loss, grief, and understanding my identity by looking to the past and seeing how my family defines Canada. There is also an amazing surge of Canadian filmmakers right now. Eva Kolcze is an amazing experimental filmmaker, Ashley McKenzie is also really awesome, Chelsea McMullan too... I don’t think that any of us have anything in common stylistically, except that we have really distinctive voices. We have our own styles, agendas, and different themes we explore. Part of my identity is being linked to those people because they’re people I look up to who make me feel stronger when I’m not feeling so great about myself, but also that make really amazing work that I’m excited about and inspired by. That’s my Canadian answer [laughs].
SB: Are there any filmmakers or programmers, Canadian or not, that inspire and excite you?
CB: I’ll start with a Canadian filmmaker. I really like Xavier Dolan. He’s such a great example of a filmmaker who emerged from Canada, but stayed connected to [the country] as well. He wants to stay in Montreal and continue working in Canada. A lot of Canadian filmmakers have migrated to Los Angeles, or have gone to other parts of the US. I also love his films because he’s part of the LGBTQ community, so he has a very distinctive voice and he provides a lot of representation there.
SB: Did you like Laurence Anyways? It’s one of my favourite Dolan movies.
CB: Yes! I also really like J'ai tué ma mère. In my horrible French accent [Laughs.]
SB: No, it’s great! It’s a very good French accent. Yeah, J'ai tué ma mère is really awesome. I really like Suzanne Clément, who’s in a lot of his films — she’s an amazing actress.
CB: I like Mommy too. It’s a very distinct way of shooting. All of his films are amazing.
SB: He’s such a trailblazer. I think what drives me nuts about Dolan is that people said – I think they’ve stopped now – “he’s still finding his voice,” and it’s like, well, he’s doing it. He’s not a new voice. People are like, “I’m so excited to see how he develops.” Well, he is developed; he’s showing his films at Cannes and he’s winning prizes! It’s really interesting how ageism can factor in there. I think people talk down to him in that regard, but he is a really interesting and fun filmmaker.
CB: Another filmmaker who I already mentioned is Steve McQueen; I really look up to him as well. His visual style and the way he communicates so much through his visuals, especially in 12 Years a Slave... he does a lot of long shots and you have to internalize what you’re looking at, let it sink in, so it makes the message much stronger. I also like Ava DuVernay. She’s such a distinct voice. She’s doing A Wrinkle in Time, which I’m excited about. She has a great cast for it!
In your opinion, what makes a film great?
SB: I really like films that challenge me. In Chantal Akerman’s work, for example, there’s a film she made called Hotel Monterey... it’s basically her exploring the interior of a hotel in New York. It’s silent, there’s no audio; it’s a medium-format length, maybe 40-50 minutes. She’s wandering down hallways, she’s in an elevator, she’s in a hotel bedroom. The first time I saw it, I felt really challenged in that you have to be awake and present, because her films are all about feeling time. What does it feel like to be really present, to just look at a room and feel the minutia of everyday life? It’s not particularly sensational, but it stays with you when you break it down afterwards. It really influenced my work, the way I’m interested in capturing space and filming my own family members’ lives.
What themes feel urgent for you to explore?
CB: Being young and coming-of-age is really interesting to me because I’m growing up and trying to find my voice and way through life in general. Trying to be present and enjoy where I am, but also being excited for the future. Overall, I want to explore humanity – anything really.
SB: I think wanting to represent your experience on screen is such a strong one because there are a lot of adults in my shoes who think they know what that experience looks like and how write screenplays about it, but it’s not exactly that experience.
CB: What influenced you to pursue your career?
SB: In high school, I hated doing presentations! I got so nervous and would have adrenaline rushing through my body. I just couldn’t do it, so I started making films instead. I would film stuff at home and have [teachers] pop something in the VCR and play it for my classmates. Whether I had actually explored the topic of the Boreal forest in Geography class was beside the point, because people were like, “you made a film, you made something interactive!” Control was an important thing for me, but so was captivating and engaging people, in addition to experimenting with the medium.
I didn’t even really know what I was doing at the time, but it felt like a good excuse to not talk in front of people. [Laughs.] It came to me by happenstance that I was like, “I might be okay at [filmmaking] and I should develop it more.” That’s what got me into filmmaking, and my body of work started with telling stories from people in my family. My first set of short films focuses on the poetry of my great grandmother, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa. Through that, I made a film with my paternal grandmother on the Polish side of the family. Never Eat Alone is on my maternal side, so I’ve made films about both of my grandmothers. I always need to distinguish that because it gets to be really complicated, then I have to draw a family tree for people! Part of that was celebrating their history because the first stories that I was told as a kid were from my grandparents, how they came here and grew up. I heard them at the dinner table all the time so as a filmmaker now, those stories are in my blood and I want to see them on screen.
SB: Are the stories you’re seeing from Canadian filmmakers satisfying? What kinds of stories would you like to see Canadian filmmakers prioritize?
CB: Maybe to be more Canadian, but also to find a more distinct voice internationally, so the story isn’t just for a Canadian audience.
SB: So exploring identity, not necessary in the vein of Canadiana. Much like Québécois filmmakers have done, but I think that style hasn’t been as strongly appropriated to English Canada yet. I think it’s coming.
CB: How do you feel that being a woman has shaped your voice as a filmmaker? How do you navigate the male-dominated industry to create spaces for women to share their stories?
SB: That’s a very important question. It’s a sad question too, don’t you think? You’re right to be asking this. It’s sad that in 2017, we’re still talking about prioritizing women’s voices, but the best way I know how to do that is continue to make work and form strong bonds with other female filmmakers like Ashley and Eva who I mentioned before, and Lina Rodriguez, another Toronto filmmaker. There’s this awesome quote by Agnes Varda: “I’m not interested in seeing films just made by women, I’m interested in films where they’re searching for new images.” I think that quote is a paradox because women’s voices can be distinctive, so naturally they are searching for new images.
By the same token, I’m not gonna champion another woman’s work just because she’s a woman… that also does a disservice. I’m always looking for voices that are relatable. In terms of making more space, that’s a conversation that can be continued with institutions and programmers — the decision-makers. I think it’s happening at places like Hot Docs. My film Maison du Bonheur is screening there, and 40 per cent of films at Hot Docs were made by women this year. CBC is really prioritizing films and documentaries by women as well, as is Telefilm. I think those platforms are a lot more prevalent, and I’m looking forward to the day that films by female filmmakers can just be looked at as films by humans that have interesting perspectives, that we’re on a level playing field and it’s equitable. I recognize we still have a long way to go. As an intersectional feminist, there are a lot of other voices that need to be prioritized as well — the voices of queer people, trans people, people of colour. Sometimes we’re talking about the voices of women and we forget about the other voices that are also being oppressed. I think about my privilege and seeing where I can help open the gates and share the power I do have.
How do you take advantage of being in the young filmmaking community, surrounded by people interested in filmmaking?
CB: It’s definitely a unique perspective. A lot of films are geared towards young people and drive the industry, but not a lot of young people are involved within it. So it’s very valuable to have our voices heard. Being part of TIFF Next Wave and having other young people around me has been valuable in shaping who I am as a person and finding my own voice, in terms of how I want to be represented in art and on screen.
What are you hoping to explore in your future career?
SB: I found potential love letters that my great-grandmother wrote – she was married, so this is racy – to another poet in New York in the 1960s when she immigrated here to Toronto. I recovered those letters from a library at Harvard. They’re all in Polish, so they’re being translated right now. I want to make a film about the discovery of these letters, and I cast Deragh Campbell from Never Eat Alone as kind of “surrogate” for my own character. She’s trying to discover whether her great-grandmother had a love affair. [Laughs.] In one of the letters, my great-grandmother wrote a poem about this man she really admired and it was published in a journal, so people publicly accused her of being in love with him. In this day and age, that would be a subtweet on Twitter, but someone responded in an editorial back in the 1960s would have been a very scandalous thing! So I’m making these discoveries, but still continuing in the vein of my family history and experimenting with documentary filmmaking.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
CB: I’ll be 26! I want go to university, for sure, either to study film, or economics and sociology. I want to be working as a writer or producer; I don’t know if I want be a director right off the bat because I want to have some time to accumulate a distinct story I want to tell. I’ll cross that bridge when I get there! I’d like to better the world in some way... I know that sounds cheesy!
SB: I think that’s great. I think through filmmaking, telling your own story, and relating through other people, you are bettering the world.