Sofia Bohdanowicz’s short Point and Line to Plane is her most personal film to date, a meditation on grief that marks a formal shift for the director. Keep up to date with our TIFF ’20 coverage.
In Sofia Bohdanowicz’s newest film, Point and Line to Plane, the screen fills with details from the paintings of artist and medium Hilma af Klint. The shapes are geometric; the lines organic but drawn from sources beyond ordinary perception. In voiceover, Deragh Campbell, as Audrey — a fictional stand-in for both the actress and director Sofia Bohdanowicz — recalls memories of her friend, Jack: a freckle, his soft hands, and the way he’d nod his head. Jack has recently died. In these abstract forms and movements, we are lulled into a state of mourning. The power of emotion renders space malleable, and Audrey seems to cross borders and time in a haze.
The title of Sofia Bohdanowicz’s latest film, Point and Line to Plane, is taken from a book by another artist, Wassily Kandinsky. The film starts at the Guggenheim in New York and travels to Vienna and St. Petersburg — all punctuated by Kandinsky’s thoughts and paintings. Like Hilma af Klint, his work sought to capture the unseen world of sound. His abstractions are non-objective only in the sense that they don’t portray what we can see with the naked eye. The enormity of this invisible world and the immense power it holds over us hangs over Bohdanowicz’s film. In the mists of grief, coincidences and the unexplained guide Audrey and the narrative down unexpected pathways.
Kandinsky and Hilma af Klint were contemporaries, though Hilma’s work was long-buried. For many, their first introduction to her work was through Olivier Assayas’s film, Personal Shopper, a film that Bohdanowicz cites as an influence. Assayas’s ghost movie is similarly about the relationships between technology and grief, as well as coincidence and spiritualism. In a way, all of Bohdanowicz’s films treat her artistic influences as part of the reality of her characters’ experience. More than just bookends or references, art is woven into the very fabric of the film’s existence, as potent as a memory or an encounter.
With Point and Line to Plane, Bohdanowicz uses a fictionalized character to explore facets of her own life and world. Her previous collaboration with Deragh Campbell — Never Eat Alone (2016), Veslemøy’s Song (2018), and MS Slavic 7 (2019) — inquired into family histories and research projects. The work becomes a hybrid of their shared experiences, challenging concepts of personal narratives and even individual authorship. Employing meta-narrative elements, most of their films together reflect on the process of their own creation.
In some ways, though, Point and Line to Plane represents a departure for Bohdanowicz. Its form is less rigorous, guided more by intuition than chronology. Her state of mind, filtered through Audrey’s character, untethers the experience of living and feeling from only the world we can see. This vulnerability bleeds through the frame, and in the isolation of a pandemic, into our living rooms and bedrooms. As much as it is a film about the specifics of grief and loss, it is also about loneliness. So much of the film is looking outwards, through panes of glass, trying to make sense of a world that keeps spinning despite everything.
Speaking to Sofia Bohdanowicz through Zoom, Seventh Row discussed the origins of Point and Line to Plane, the complications that come with shooting in Russia, and working in creative nonfiction.
Seventh Row (7R): Could you discuss the origin of Point and Line to Plane?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: It’s very much a film that happened to me. It was made by way of looking at variables around me and incorporating them into the film. The film wasn’t mapped out with a certain plan in mind. It was a series of events that kept folding into the film.
It started when I was in New York City, two weeks before my friend Jack passed away. I wanted to see this exhibition by Hilma af Klint, and I got the dates wrong. I showed up a day early, and they were setting up the show. I used to be an art archivist and take photos of fine art in rich people’s homes. I would put them in an archive and document them. I love watching people install art and just seeing the back-end of things.
There was something about being left at arm’s length, like the character Audrey was in Veslemøy’s Song. Not having access to this exhibition seemed very funny to me. I just knew that it was important to shoot it. I shot the installation [of the exhibition] on my iPhone in 4K. The next day, I went back to see it. I became fascinated with these Venn diagrams in Hilma’s work, which reminded me of these patterns that I had seen in these blotting strips from my neighbour Jaan [Poldaas]’s work.
I took a photo of one of these Venn diagrams, and I sent it to my friend Rachel, and said, “This reminds me of Jaan’s work.” Five days later, Jaan passed away. He had cancer. We knew that he would pass, but it still felt very sudden. It was very shocking. Ten days later, I was in Vienna, and my friend Jack passed away. I was trying to present a film at the Biennale at the same time. It was difficult, but the first thing that happened to me was that I noticed all of these Mozart balls. It felt like this cruel, sick joke that I was just looking at this candy that we would eat all the time in this beautiful city [in the moment] where something sad and tragic had happened.
What I came to learn is that, when tragedy strikes, your brain tries to grasp at reality. How did I come to where I am now? Your brain just can’t rationalize it. There needs to be a bigger meaning. It was so painful for me to lose such a dear friend and close collaborator. He was my first producer when I was first making work out of film school. This has to mean something. The first coincidence that I found was that [Jack] and Mozart had the same birthday, and I was in Vienna when it happened.
I had this moment at his funeral where his sister said, “It doesn’t matter what you say or what you do in life. People will forget about that, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.” It’s this quote that a lot of people say, but it hit me. I started thinking about Kandinsky’s paintings and how Jack and I had a love of Kandinsky. That was the first thing that we connected on.
I bought him a package of magnets from the Guggenheim. I started thinking about him and Hilma af Klint, because she was a predecessor to Kandinsky. She was making non-objective art before he was, but she wasn’t noticed because she was a woman. I just started digging around with those coincidences.
What was interesting is that her work was exhibited in the Guggenheim, which is a spiral temple. Her work wasn’t being exhibited while she was alive, and before she died, she predicted her work would be shown in such a structure. The year that she died, Frank Lloyd Wright started drawing spirals. And then he designed the Guggenheim for Bosley Kandinsky because it was supposed to be a temple for non-objective art and to showcase art where artists were trying to show invisible forces. That’s what connected me to Kandinsky. The thing that was interesting with Hilma, as well, aside from the fact that she was an unknown contemporary alongside Kandinsky, is that Jack passed away on her birthday and he was actually in New York that same weekend as I was, but I didn’t know.
The project stemmed from this act of magical thinking that Joan Didion describes very clearly in The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s based on Freud’s theory that your brain is really just trying to rationalize [the unknown]. It’s a way of continuing the relationship with someone who is gone by looking for signs and deriving meaning from it. That’s what I was doing — and very desperately, at that. I was just kind of collecting things and trying to make sense of it all.
7R: The spiral is also like film moving through a camera.
Sofia Bohdanowicz: That was another layer I was discovering, that some of her [Hilma af Klint’s] work was displaying capture methods. When they were developing motion picture cameras, they started to show films in cinemas and were experimenting with the Zoetrope. It was fascinating that she was capturing the future, but also I think trying to explain, through her work, what was happening at the time and how artists in the future might be able to convey their messages. She has this one series, in particular, and whenever I look at it, these paintings look like a film strip.
7R: When we last spoke, about MS Slavic 7, you spoke about not having a script, in the traditional sense. You don’t have one here either. At what point, when you’re assembling the film, are you creating the structure? How does that process work?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: I wrote this letter to my grandmother Joan, who was in my first feature film, Never Eat Alone. She also knew Jack and loved him very much. All of this material just started spewing out of me in the letter. It’s a strange film because I shot at the Guggenheim before Jack died. But there is this thing that happens with grieving where the way you perceive time is nonlinear. Everything in my mind started to get very jumbled. I thought it would be interesting to construct it as a way to go back in time and wonder: if Jack and I had connected in New York, if we had seen each other, what would that have looked like?
For the narrative, it was simpler to move Hilma’s exhibition after his passing. It started with this letter, and then I knew that this iPhone footage would come in handy. The letter went up to the end of the Guggenheim exhibition. Then, I wasn’t sure where it was going to go. I thought it might end there, but what ended up happening is I took a research trip to Russia, and I was in Iceland, as well. I just had this feeling that it was important to have a Bolex on hand, which is inconvenient to travel with, but [I knew I was] going to make it work and just shoot things that feel meaningful to me.
When I was in Russia, I was afraid to shoot outside. because I am a woman, I was there by myself, and there are many laws about shooting in Russia. If you shoot a government building, for example, even by accident, you can get fined or put in prison. I was always worried about shooting by myself and how it would work. It ended up being fine.
When I started shooting out of my window first, as an exercise to start to feel comfortable, within like five minutes of shooting, my doorbell rang, and I came to the door, and there were five men in these electrical suits. They needed to hook up my gas again. I was super paranoid and wondered, are they here because I’m filming and I’m in trouble?
I was wound up and anxious. As a result, I didn’t load my film correctly. The pressure plate in my camera wasn’t in properly. I was also still grieving and in a weird state of mind, but what started happening — and this is why I love working on film — is that the circumstances and the energy that I was emitting were picked up in the material. Working on film affords these kinds of mistakes. I got the courage to shoot out on the street and had this amazing day of shooting where I shot these canals, and then I filmed this violin lesson at the St. Petersburg music conservatory.
Then, I saw that the pressure plate was out of place, and I lost my mind. I was like, how could this happen? I went to great lengths to get this camera here. What a disaster. I’m a professional. This is so embarrassing. What am I going to do? It took me a long time to get over it. Most of the footage was decent, I would say 60% of it, but then the other 40%, many great shots were just shaky. I was becoming open to incorporating this thing that [seemed like] a disaster while I was there, and looking at it as a gift. Instead of this being the end of the world, how can this make my film more interesting and unique?
When I came home, I picked up Kandinsky’s book Point and Line to Plane. I found these eerie passages. They were about observing the world through a pane of glass and how being able to resonate with the outside world depends on your capacity to enter the street. Once you see something that matters to you, the world starts to vibrate, and things start to resonate, just like a pressure plate that’s unlatched in a camera. It felt like such a big discovery. It felt like these passages had mirrored what had happened to me in Russia. My process of making the film came with experimenting, being open to intuition, and incorporating mistakes. I had a hard time doing so, overcoming those obstacles and folding them into the work and letting the work be stronger.