Canadian filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz on the “old school French” allure of Maison du Bonheur

by Andrew Parker

For her unique, personal, and warm-hearted documentary Maison du Bonheur (opening at TIFF Bell Lighbox in Toronto this Friday), Canadian filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz took a brave leap of faith and decided to roll with whatever came her way. Bohdanowicz, who was named the best Emerging Canadian Filmmaker at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2016 for her mid-length feature Never Eat Alone, made the decision to travel to France – a place she previously had less than happy feelings about – to spend time with and film a 77-year old woman she knew very little about and had never personally met before.

The results are an episodic look at the life of the kindly, effervescent and charming Juliane Sellam, an astrologist, wit, and masterful host. Shot in 30 days with 30 reels of 16mm film run through a hand cranked Bolex camera, Bohdanowicz began structuring her film as a unique sort of travelogue where she would shoot a single, three minute long spool of film a day and build a film out of the footage she was able to get.

It’s a deceptively simple, yet boldly experimental approach to filmmaking, one that Bohdanowicz says she finds more emotionally and artistically satisfying than conventional filmmaking. What emerges is a loving portrait of a filmmaker building happy, new memories from a place that had previously saddened her by way of getting to know a genuinely nice person. The time Bohdanowicz spends with the lovely Juliane and the woman’s close friends feels therapeutic for the filmmaker, and constantly engaging for the audience, imbued with feelings of warmth towards the minutiae of everyday life.

And it’s a film that has had a long and successful life. After making its local debut at Hot Docs in 2017, the film would screen around the world to mounting critical acclaim, helping in no small part to net Bohdanowicz the Jay Scott Prize for emerging talent from the Toronto Film Critics Association earlier this year. She also picked up the Vancouver Critics Circle award for Best Canadian Documentary. While Maison du Bonheur was racking up awards on the festival circuit, she was completing work on her next short film, VESLEMØY’S SONG, which is set to play the Toronto International Film Festival next month, and beginning work on her third feature effort.

We caught up with Bohdanowicz last year via Skype from Buenos Aires while she was attending the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (where she was the subject of a career retrospective) to talk about the experience of making Maison du Bonheur.

You say early on that you had a conflicted relationship to Paris, and that you were returning a bit skeptical of what the trip would hold. Throughout the course of your visit and making this film, did your feelings change at all?

Sofia Bohdanowicz

Sofia Bohdanowicz: I think they did. What happened was that I had lived with a French family in Normandy on a French exchange, and I knew them over the course of many years. I was a part of their family, and they said they loved me very much, but they were emotionally abusive. I thought that the way they were treating me was actually somehow a part of French culture, and the things they were saying to me and the things they were doing were these cultural things. But looking back on it – even before I went on this trip – I was starting to question what had happened to me in that experience.

In going back to France, I realized that the way that they were treating me was abusively. That wasn’t a part of the culture, but it was still an abusive relationship that I had to let go of. I felt bad letting go of it at first, but I felt much better about it after this trip. The whole point of my going on this trip was that despite what had happened, I still had a very strong love and attachment to France. What I wanted to do was see if I could maybe kind of purge those bad memories from my mind by creating new ones. I thought that if I could face that by going back to this place I could show that this place didn’t scare me anymore, and that this place no longer had bad memories for me anymore because I had new ones. I felt like that would make things okay, if that makes sense.

It makes total sense to me, but what’s the thought process for you like when you plan to take this trip and stay with someone you’ve never met and only have a very tenuous connection to?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: It was really, really interesting. I had shot a short film called Last Poem, which I shot in Iceland with a tourist named Toby, and I made this film with him about both of our failures in trying to shoot a film, and that’s pretty much all that film is about. From that I experience, I learned that in documentary filmmaking, things don’t always work out the way you want them to. You can still make it interesting, though. Going into this, I thought that even if Juliane is a terrible person – which she’s far from – it would still be interesting. Even if she doesn’t want to film with me, I could make a film about that. If the tension between us is tight and awkward, that’s what the film will be about. I went in with a very open mind, and a very improvisational and intuitive perspective. I find that if I go into filming something with a plan of what I want to do, invariably I’ll end up feeling disappointed. If I just leave myself open to the elements that are there, I can work with them and make them interesting no matter what they are.

One of the things that I find most endearing about the film is that you attempt what most true documentarians try to do, which is that you try to remove yourself from your own film and stay out of the footage, but what ends up happening is that you’re around people so endearing and so nice and welcoming that they keep trying to pull you into your own movie.

Sofia Bohdanowicz: I was trying really hard to keep myself out of it. (laughs) But they did keep trying to involve me and get me in there. It’s not like I was filming this with a professional film crew. They had never had this kind of experience before. I was shooting on a 16mm, wind-up Bolex camera, so they didn’t know me, and I suppose I looked pretty amateur.

Consent is a big part of my filmmaking, and I explained to them that this was the film I was making, and that it was going to go into festivals and be shown in theatres, so I did ask them if they were okay with all of this. But I think, in the end, the casualness of it all just tickled them in a way where they were really excited about what was happening, and I think they just couldn’t help themselves. (laughs)
It worked out well, though, because I was always worried about incorporating my own voice into the film. It was something I had experimented with in my previous films Last Poem and Dalsza Modlitwa, and in the latter of those it gets so personal in talking about my grandmothers passing that I’m literally there projecting her image onto a wall. Those were the sort of moments that I have always felt really vulnerable about. I think, as a filmmaker and for me anyway, if I was watching a rough cut, I would always feel so awful thinking about if people would say, “Everything else here is really great, but you should really cut yourself out.”

It’s such a vain act to put yourself in a film, and when I completed a rough cut of this film, there was a scene at the beginning of the film with me getting ready for the trip, and that was really shot at first as test footage to get a feel for the process and get the film processed before I went to France because I had never used that kind of camera before. I shot that kind of by accident and as if it were a test reel, but I actually ended up using that footage and cutting this intro to it where I added my voice to it. My voice kind of disappears from the movie after that, and one of the notes I received about this film was that they really liked having my voice at the beginning of it, and they wondered where it went after that. (laughs) When I heard that, I then finally had the confidence to use my voice as a framing device throughout. I tried just to make it a film about Juliane, but you really needed some kind of added contextualization. Yes, the film is still about Juliane, but it’s also about the way our relationship develops over the course of production, which was something I discovered while I was editing it.

As someone who’s making a film about this relationship and a filmmaker who has profiled other subjects in similar ways, is it important for you as a filmmaker to explain such a story through shared moments, anecdotes, fleeting moments, and sometimes abstract slices of life rather than through a rigid, linear structure?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: I think all of those moments just come more naturally to me. I’ve tried to make films that are more polished and packaged, and those films are still interesting to me. Dundas Street is my first narrative film that I co-directed with a friend of mine, and it’s kind of that kind of film and I’m still very proud of it. But continuing to make those kinds of films to me is (1) exhausting, (2) not nearly as satisfying, and (3) more difficult without giving me the same kind of emotional return that these other kinds of films do. I want to make films that I think resemble life as closely as possible, and I think in doing that, an interesting aspect is being really transparent about that process. I think that’s interesting to some people because going in to make a documentary about someone sometimes gets perceived as this really seamless experience, but it never is. There are days where I sleep in, and there’s a scene in this film where I sleep in and Juliane leaves me some coffee, and you realize that people are going to do whatever they want to do, and not necessarily what you want them to do or what you expect they’re going to do. Some people might look at that and think that being that transparent has no place or that I screwed something up, but I have to work with those failures, incorporate them, and then make them interesting.

There’s that Truffaut quote, and this might be cheesy, that says that the film of tomorrow will be an act of love and that that kind of film will be a reflection of the person who made it, and that’s something that I always come back to. What I’m learning though my filmmaking is that it’s okay for my films to resemble who I am because people who are interested in the reality of life are interested in that. In making Maison du Bonheur, there might have been this culmination of all the other films that I had been making. There’s a little bit of the formality that I have tried, some of the mistakes I have made, and feeling more confident about incorporating my voice.

The look of the film is very much what I would describe as “old school French,” and I mean that as a real compliment, and I think that’s partially the result of you shooting on this archaic 16mm camera, but did you have any idea that Julianne’s world and her life would translate so well to that medium?

Sofia Bohdanowicz: (laughs) Well, I had shot a short film called A Drownful Brilliance of Wings with my good friend Gillian [Sze] on a 16mm film in Montreal, and I really enjoyed the output of the aesthetic. Working on a Bolex was just really satisfying. I loved the tactility of it. I loved the cranking and the changing of the reels; just the ritual of that feels so official, but really also calms you down. I love the style of that kind of film, and I guess I also like the smell of poison. (laughs) It’s a lot of hard work to shoot on film. It’s not easy, but the output of it is completely unprecedented. The pixilation of an image on film can give off this kind of scattered appearance, whereas with digital things are so programmed and those pixels are going in an established order, and that’s why film has this very different look. After shooting this film, it’s not like I’ll never shoot on digital again, but I was just kind of romanced by the idea of shooting another project this way.

So it was a technical decision to keep shooting this way when I went to France. I loved French New Wave, of course, and film just naturally works for that, but it was also a conceptual choice. I wasn’t going to return home for 30 days, I was turning 30, and I bought 30 spools of 100 foot film, and I told myself I would shoot a spool every day, and I told myself to work within those constraints and confines to see what I could make of it. It was an interesting exercise to see if I could do it. I knew I would only have three minutes every day to shoot, so you have to make it worth it. The film is 62 minutes long now, and almost I used all of my film. I had 90 minutes of film and that was it. That was partially why I did those recordings of myself. I thought it would be interesting to have those later on to maybe incorporate them. My voice not only gave me that added contextualization and added scenes to the film, but also gave me more physical material to work with.

I’d also like to add that I did the Foley work on the film, myself. (laughs) I took some room tone in Julianne’s house to further capture what it was like, and I worked from that. There’s one scene where you can see her baking a cake really quickly, and I think I had an MK-66 [mic] gaffe taped to the edge of her window, and I got the sounds from her life. I spent most of last winter trying to recreate those sounds. I went through every scene with my producer, and we added the Foley, and that’s sometimes a funny thing to try to explain to audiences because they just look at me like I had been lying to them for the last hour. (laughs) But that’s an important detail because I didn’t know if the sound was ever going to be good enough until we handed it off to our sound editor who said, “Not only is this great, but we would hire you.” (laughs) But that’s such an interesting technical tidbit. I don’t have the imagination of a Foley Artist, either, to say, “a wet towel sounds like bread dough on a countertop.” So when you see Julianne making bread in the film, I actually made that bread again to get the sound for it. I wanted it to sound as authentic as possible so I made it, and I braided it the same way that she did, and all the sounds that you hear are really authentic and true to what they are. I didn’t have the same imagination for it, but it worked!

Maison du Bonheur opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, August 17, 2018.

Portions of this interview have been previously published by the author.

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