“I found myself taking photos of things people left behind.” It sure is nice to be back in Sofia Bohdanowicz’s world of forgotten things. Maison du bonheur, her most recent feature, was, for me, the highlight of last year’s festival (on some days I feel like I’m still basking in its sun-kissed warmth) and this year we’ve been gifted no less than four new works. They’re shorts this time out, but as Bohdanowicz demonstrated with A Prayer, An Evening, and Another Prayer (her triplicate reckoning with a grandmother’s death and that grandmother’s many, multiform absences) she’s a master of the format. She knows precisely how to compress the expansive generosity and inquisitiveness of her cinema into a matter of minutes.
Veslemøy’s Song, the longest and most substantial of the shorts, is another Bohdanowicz excavation project. Like her first feature, Never Eat Alone, a dusted-off object prompts an inquiry into unremembered histories both personal and artistic. Here it’s a song dedicated to Kathleen Parlow, a music instructor who taught Bohdanowicz’s violinist grandfather his craft and a woman of some note during her time, now long since forgotten. The sole recording of the song resides in a basement of the New York Public Library system and is available only by appointment. Deragh Campbell, once again standing in for Bohdanowicz, hops on a plane to pay witness. But upon arriving, her efforts are frustrated by a form of institutional preservationism heretofore alien to Bohdanowicz’s cinema, despite the filmmaker’s own archivist instincts. A faceless technician, located six floors below, spins the warped old disk. Campbell hears nothing more than a 30 second snippet piped in through a computer, and the off-screen archivist, via a chat window, bureaucratically denies her requests for a more complete experience.
Bohdanowicz’s earlier films were, quite literally, home movies, and as such they benefitted from her subjects’ hospitality and their open-door policies. Institutional actors, even or especially those who share Bohdanowicz’s archaeological mission, are as accommodating as procedures allow and no more. As if in response to this frosty welcome, graphite tones replace Maison du bonheur‘s impressionist daubs of color and, with one particularly sepulchral close-up, the film takes on an almost Dreyerian spareness. Not every host—and not every film—greets you with open arms. Veslemøy’s Song serves to acknowledge the challenges that face Bohdanowicz’s project as it expands outward from her family unit. Nothing to despair about, and certainly not for an artist as intuitive as Bohdanowicz. Still, muted disappointment is the right final note: “Afterwards I ate an egg salad sandwich on whole wheat. It wasn’t very good.”
Technology and personal history intersect again in Where, Bohdanowicz‘s bad romance as recounted by Google street view. Mapping software introduces uncanny digital movement to Bohdanowicz’s world and, by its very nature, erects a spatial and emotional distance between the film and its subject. Given the interpersonal cruelty described by the intertitles—the only form of narration here—the film’s remove from physical space registers as a kind of therapy, a means to inspect an old wound without touching it.
A physical, if faked, wound plays a central role in Roy Thomson. Bohdanowicz revisits the symphony hall where she once saw her grandfather play the violin and relates how, frustrated by his unwillingness to wave to her mid-performance, she patched together a false arm bandage to garner his attention. Seeing his granddaughter hurt, he waved back. As in Where, Bohdanowicz transforms still images through scratchy, sepia-toned 16mm—apparently processed with natural chemicals derived from flowers. The effect is, appropriately, like stumbling on some moldy, time-eaten artifact and holding it close to admire the beauty of its deformations. In other words, a memory.
The Soft Space is the outlier of the bunch: close-ups of a woman’s naked torso alternate with the adamantine geometry of the New York City subway system. The contrasting visual and aural textures are approached with an admirable lack of prejudice—pliable flesh and the hard metal girding of the MTA are equally appealing under Bohdanowicz’s eye—but fail to suffuse the film with anything like the personal charge that’s present in her other works. This might be Anywoman, Anycity. Still, every young filmmaker ought to be afforded the chance to strike out and claim new spaces, to test the boundaries of her world, and as Sofia Bohdanowicz moves farther from home, she paradoxically invites more of us in.