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.
7R: This is also another story about Audrey. In a way, it feels like a natural progression from the last time we saw her, but she’s changed so much, as well. How do you prepare with Deragh Campbell for a new iteration of Audrey?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: Audrey is always in her universe. Every time, the universe resets itself, in terms of format, family, and circumstance. We’re always prioritizing her journey and her quest. The world’s rules always connect to whatever she’s researching or whatever she’s seeking to accomplish — whether that is trying to take back a sound recording from an archive in New York City, whether that’s trying to exhibit letters, or whether that’s trying to find her long lost love. The rules of the film have always been to showcase that want and need and desire of a task that’s never quite accomplished in the film.
Deragh is a very close friend of mine, and she witnessed me grieve very intensively. I admire her so much as a performer and just as a human being. Many personal elements were learned in the process because she was so close to me when it happened.
When I wrote the letter, it felt like it came from me, but it also felt like I was kind of transmitting Audrey’s voice. I shared the text with Deragh. I always touch base with her about how things are being shaped and how they’re being formulated. Sometimes, we write very closely together, but this was something that I wrote completely on my own.
For every project, she’s always very involved with her wardrobe. She chose her outfit and decided that she would wear the same outfit throughout the film to embody this kind of time-travelling ghost. She’s also this blank canvas, always kind of blending into every environment. She’s this porous human being as she moves through all of these different states of mind.
She workshopped the text with me. I think she was afraid of portraying a person that was grieving because she hasn’t had an experience with intense grief before. For her, it was about embodying that sense of fatigue. She’s not a method actor, so she didn’t think back to difficult memories; she doesn’t try to access that to have a performance. She thinks of emotion and physicality and how she can embody that in the moment.
When we were working on the film, it was really hard. We shot in my apartment over four days. “Now you’re house-sitting, now you are in St. Petersburg, now you’re in the Guggenheim.” She always had to access this palette of emotions, reactions, and all of this internal strife. I would show her the footage in response to what I had captured. I had this rough assembly, and I laid out all of the footage, and then I laid out her voiceover and then basically inserted her into the film.
7R: This film feels like a continued study in your work on different mediums: literature, music, and now painting. Is that intentional?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: I’m assuming MS Slavic 7 was very much about literature, Veslemøy’s Song is very much about music, and this one was very much about fine art. It isn’t intentional. I just try to be open to these variables and these influences, and when something starts tugging at me, I just say, “It’s time to shoot.” I just trust it. With this project, the desire to hop into fine art and to explore theory from Kandinsky was, I feel, something that chose me.
I know that it might sound a little over the top. I never really was a very spiritual person, and I never looked at coincidence that acutely before. After what I experienced, as I was moving through these stages of grief, I felt like I had a virus or was ill. With this passage of grief, it changed my way of looking at the world. I came to believe that there are forces that we can’t see or control.
For me, the most beautiful discovery was reading this passage by Hilda Rebay in Point and Line to Plane, who studied with Kandinsky and was also a fine artist. She said that his canvases are these promises that eternal life continues to exist in his work because all of his paintings are representations of music and sound on the canvas. He was an artist that experienced synesthesia. He would associate colours with specific instruments. For him, it was about illustrating sound and forces.
You can’t destroy matter. You can create it, but it doesn’t go away. So for me, it was this promising thing. My friend has passed away, but his memory exists in these moments where I encounter things that resonate and remind me of him. I had always been a fan of Kandinsky, but I think that the way that I was thrust into this vortex made me have more of a profound connection [with his work].
There are tangible things that we can’t explain or things that we do naturally, but there is a cogent scientific way of explaining it. Like in Hilma’s paintings, she was commissioned by a spirit named Amaliel to make these paintings, and in many of her paintings, she mirrored scientific discoveries of that time, like the development of the X-Ray, atoms, and all of these invisible things that we can’t see without instruments. Things that we can’t perceive with our naked eye, but things that we sense intuitively. Just because we can’t perfectly articulate them doesn’t mean that knowledge isn’t there.
7R: Do you have different approaches when shooting different cities?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: With the Guggenheim, I can’t go in there with a Bolex, so I shot that footage on my iPhone. I transferred it to 16mm. I took the footage that I liked, and I assembled it into an edit, and then I shot it off my computer screen with a super 16 Bolex camera. I liked the way that it looked. It’s stripped of colour, but also flat. It looks like film, but it feels like something is slightly wrong. For me, that format kind of mirrored what grieving feels like. You feel normal, but there’s something slightly off. I had seen that done in Andrea Bussmann’s Fausto (2018). In some spaces where you don’t have permits to shoot, an iPhone can be useful. I liked experimenting with that format for New York City and spaces that were difficult to access.
In St. Petersburg, there was some anxiety, obviously just in terms of access and shooting by myself, because that is how I work. I made this film with a small budget, though the bulk of the money came out of the TFCA award. Because I was so scared, my approach was to shoot what I can, try not to get too riled up, get the film out of the country, and try not to have it go through the X-Ray at the airport — which, of course, it did. I got into a lot of trouble when I was trying to exit Russia because the camera lens was so long, it looked like a machine gun.
When I was shooting out of my apartment window, I lived on a street where there was a military station set up. One angle from my window was beautiful, and I wanted to shoot it, but I couldn’t because I was afraid that people might think it was a gun and shoot at me. In St. Petersburg, there’s a lot of beauty for me to capture. Even being in the Hermitage and shooting on my iPhone, I was terrified. I wanted to try to make it work. I felt like I was sneaking around trying to steal all of these images.
Iceland was a lucky stop-over. I was there with Jacqueline Mills helping her with a new project she’s working on. For whatever reason, while I was there, I became obsessed with filming mountains. I was up in the North of Iceland, close to the West fjords in a small town called Blendeds in the winter. I realized later on, when I was doing a lot of reading, my fascination with mountains literally embodied this up and down motion that I was experiencing. Some days I was elated, and then other days, I couldn’t get out of bed. There’s this great passage in King Lear where Lear is talking about how there’s a storm coming, and people are like, you need to be careful and to take cover. And he says something like, the storm doesn’t compare to the violence that’s happening in my mind.
I started becoming fascinated with filming these mountains and doing these quick, disruptive pans because, in my day-to-day life, my exterior experience was still, but inside, I felt like I was on fire all the time. I just felt so disturbed. For every location, it’s just about what can I shoot? How can I make it feasible? How can this be done? Which format suits the kind of access that I have? I usually don’t have expectations because you always end up being pleasantly surprised with what you end up shooting. For example, that violin lesson was very much a last-minute thing that popped on my plate through a friend of a friend who knew someone at the music conservatory. I wasn’t expecting it to happen, but I just was able to sneak in because I asked politely.
7R: You talk a lot about surveillance and this disconnect between the outward appearance and inward experience.
Sofia Bohdanowicz: There is this dissonance between being a person who’s all by themself and out in public grieving. I’m super anxious, and I’m paranoid. I was unwell when I was making this film. I still think that I’m grieving to a certain extent.
You also just can’t announce what you’re doing to everyone all the time when you’re shooting in these spaces. Most of the time, I didn’t have access to them — and that energy factors into the final image. I always feel very self-conscious and worried and paranoid. I think that’s part of why the pressure plate ended up becoming unlatched.
The intensity going into the film is felt during the output. I constantly feel like I’m at war with my environment, surroundings, and myself. I’m trying to respect people, respect the public space that I’m in, and scoop up images. That’s why you can’t see anyone’s faces when you’re in the Guggenheim. And that’s why everyone is from afar. I would never feature an individual who doesn’t want to be in one of my films, especially because I am making it in a subtle and slight way.
7R: Can you talk a little bit about the film’s score?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: Stefana Fratila is such a talented composer.I was going to York University; this was my thesis film at York. I was walking through this corridor like I would every day when I was going in for this archiving course that I was taking. I would hear this ringing, and I thought it was an alarm, but I really liked it. I wanted to record it with my iPhone because I just found the sound’s quality to be so interesting, and it felt like such a happy accident. I realized that it wasn’t an alarm. It was actually a sound installation done by Stefana Fratila at the art gallery of York University.
I got in touch with her, and she ended up making a score with crystal bowls. They’re pastel coloured, and you play the rims, or you just hit them. The sound resonates. The pastel colour ties back to Hilma and her work and its aesthetics. It also ties back to the idea of sound and resonance and energy that we can’t see and how that impacts us. Stefana wanted to play with the idea of binaural beats because it can be used in sound therapy to heal people, but they can also make people sick and make people feel on edge.
She did a fabulous job of watching the film and choosing the moments where things should make people feel a little bit on edge. It was Jacqueline Mill’s idea — the sound designer and editor on the film — to have this kind of pin-drop moment at the end where the sound drops out when Audrey says [the final line of the film], “If you can hear me, answer with the sound of colour.” We’ve just been saturated with sound and colour, but in this moment, we hear absolutely nothing. For Stefana and I, it was an experiment. When the sound dropped out, we wanted to see if the ringing still continues in people’s ears.
I think that [the score] also embodies what grieving can feel like. There’s this constant ringing in your body and your heart. You’re living your day to day very normally, but there’s just this thing that you’re dragging around with you. This constant ringing throughout the film, sonically, embodied this grieving process where you constantly feel like you’re cocooned. The world is there, and it’s happening around you, but there’s this layer around you where you cannot completely access it the way you used to.
7R: You treat art as part of reality, almost like a collage. How do you integrate all these different elements?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: It’s a tethering together of different experiences, emotions, lived moments and trying to connect them to something bigger. What this film is, is this struggle to ask myself, is there something bigger? My neighbor Jaan and Jack died that year, but three other people in my life also passed away. It was a very freaky year of me asking, is there something bigger?
How does this connect? It must mean something because for this amount of pain to not mean something is too depressing for me. It doesn’t matter if there’s something bigger. I need to find a way to rationalize it or make something of it. These observations on Hilma’s and Kandinsky’s work kind of became my springboard for that. It was about moving through these emotional ruminations and struggling to understand what was happening outside of me. This whole thing just surged together.
7R: Does it scare you at all that you were kind of sharing your grief?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: It is scary; it’s a very emotional process for me. It is extraordinarily painful to talk about it. There’s also the fear of looking foolish. For example, Personal Shopper was a big inspiration for me, as well. What was interesting is that Jack had a twin, just like the character in Personal Shopper. In a few of my shots at the Guggenheim, there’s these twins called Eva & Adele. They’re a couple, and they’re women, and they’re ‘twins’.
All of these coincidences in terms of twins popping up never actually made it into the film. When you stumble upon that mammoth amount of material, you kind of stop and ask yourself, what is going on here? Why am I happening upon all of this? I think it’s the first time in my life where I am stuck on what people will think of me. It would be terrible to make myself this vulnerable for the film and for it not to resonate with people. For me, it’s very much a risk that’s worthwhile. What was naive was thinking that making this film, that having a vehicle to put all of my thoughts, would make the pain disappear.
I was wrong. The grieving did continue. It helped. It was certainly a therapeutic process, but it didn’t exactly fix everything. I’ve been fortunate because the film premiered at the end of July at Marseilles. And that was a great premiere because the theatre was 30% full. Everyone is masked. You can’t see anyone’s faces. If I was going into a packed theatre and was talking to a huge audience, I think it would have been too much for me. It’s been a gift to present the film in this way.
There’s also something that our current climate facilitates for me that makes it a lot easier to show the film. The fear always is, what if I cry? I cried when I defended my film as my thesis. I cried through a big portion of it to the point where someone said, “You know, you can stop. “And I was like, “No, I just need a minute.” I cried, and I let it all out. And then I kept going. But for a thesis that was about grieving, it was quite appropriate.
I do think that the film is suited to the pandemic strangely enough. There’s a weird parallel between the film and this person who is kind of a quarantined on their own, travelling through memory and thought to search for their lost friend’s essence.
I feel vulnerable, but I think the way people have been navigating it with me has been great. I feel very fortunate that I get to be able to share this story with other people. I hope that for people who have gone through the grieving process, there’s something in there that they might connect with.
7R: Would you consider yourself a filmmaker who works in creative nonfiction?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: It’s actually the first time that I’ve heard the term creative nonfiction. It’s always been hybrid or docu-fiction, but creative nonfiction is the best summation. It’s nonfiction, but it’s told in a way that is unique and unprecedented. That’s always been my goal with these narratives. I have a deep appreciation for the classical documentary form, but for me, I’m constantly asking myself how can this be done differently? How can we push things or tell stories or share facts, but in ways that engages audience members?
Many people didn’t know what to do with me. “She’s not experimental enough; it’s not narrative enough.” I was having a hard time being programmed. Once an audience experiences the film, part of it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to you. I can self label my work quite ambiguously and not be perfectly specific all the time. I’m okay with that. I’m okay with having a fluid perspective on it. I warmly welcome people’s definitions of the work.
7R: Are you currently working on any new projects?
Sofia Bohdanowicz: I am working with Deragh Campbell. We’re writing a new script for a new feature film. It’s a take-off of Veslemøy’s Song. It’s about my grandfather’s violin mentor, Kathleen Parlow, another forgotten female in Canadian history who was a well-known violinist who was just kind of erased. We’re lucky because we’re in the writing development phase, and we took the project to the Lab at Marseille, which was terrific. We won an award, which was great.
It was nice to get a thumbs up on the project early on. We’re going to continue to develop the script and hopefully shoot at the end of next year, but we’re trying not to push it because the world is a pretty erratic place right now. I feel very fortunate. I know that there are people who are in some tight pickles, but the timing has worked out.