'MS Slavic 7': Film Review | Berlin 2019

MS Slavic 7-Publicity Still 2-H 2019
Courtesy of Berlinale
An enjoyably intellectual “found in translation.”

Deragh Campbell plays a young woman researching her great-grandmother’s letters to a Polish poet in Sofia Bohdanowicz’s ('Maison du bonheur') semi-autobiographical tale.

If the title MS Slavic 7 fails to ring a bell, its abstractness conveys the industrious intellectual labor demanded by this witty one-hour Canadian film, one of the nicer surprises in this year’s Berlin Forum. As it turns out, the title is a reference code in Harvard’s Houghton Library, which gives Audrey, the protag, access to letters between an ancestor of hers and the Polish poet with whom she corresponded in the 1950s and '60s.

Letters are read, but it’s not so much 84 Charing Cross Road as the portrait of a young woman’s determination to climb over institutional and family walls in her attempt to preserve the past. It’s the kind of offbeat indie that will intrigue college students and younger festgoers, who will identify with actress Deragh Campbell’s single-minded, unflappable but rather emotionless heroine.

Judging by the credits, the film is virtually a two-woman show created by emerging Canadian filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz and Campbell. It features the same character, Audrey Benac, who appeared in Bohdanowicz’s one-hour feature Never Eat Alone (2016), again played with cold, gutsy determination by Campbell. This round she is investigating her great-grandmother Zofia Bohdanowiczowa’s correspondence with Nobel Prize nominee Jozef Wittlin. Both these real people were Polish-born poets who fled from Europe to North America sometime after the war, Zofia to Toronto and Jozef to New York City. The crossover with the director's own family history blurs the line between fiction and documentary, but this is perhaps the least interesting of the pic's layers.

The opening shot fixes on a poem by Wittlin written in Polish and translated into English on the facing page, and the viewer immediately gets the idea that reading fast and analytically is the only way to understand the story. Audrey checks into a non-descript hotel room and heads for the Harvard library. Her only human interaction there is a maddening-funny discussion with a prissy male librarian who informs her only pencils are allowed into the archive reading rooms.

Pouring over the letters, Audrey at first glance seems like a researcher working on her Ph.D thesis. Only later is it revealed that she can’t read Polish and that she is the literary executor of her great-grandmother’s estate. But the way her mind works — carefully, deeply — is a big part of her attractiveness as a character. In several scenes set in a coffee shop (shot with one basic head-on camera setup), Audrey discourses on the meaning of letters and their “heart-breaking intention to communicate” to an unseen companion. Later, her companion is revealed to be a young man she’s hired to translate the letters. His role in the film humorously expands, yet he remains minor, mirroring the filmmakers' insistence that Audrey is the one calling the shots at every moment.

Her control is challenged at a Polish family reunion in a hotel, where Audrey asks her 40-ish aunt Ania (Elizabeth Rucker) for Zofia’s letters. Apparently she’s not the only one with a family obsession, because her aunt flies off the handle. Their argument and Ania’s sarcastic put-downs are both amusing and infuriating, a good example of the filmmaker’s skill in having it both ways.

In themselves, Zofia’s delicate letters full of anxiety and Wittlin’s evocative poems set in a war camp offer nothing very new or striking. Their value lies in keeping the memory of humanity’s horrors alive. A mention of the Holocaust museum in Berlin plays into this theme, as does Audrey’s dogged determination to preserve the legacy of these long-dead correspondents.

In her role as DP, Bohdanowicz shows a marked preference for the simplest, most basic camera setups and lighting. She saves originality for unexpected techniques like subtitles which are appear, on occasion, independent of the words spoken onscreen.
Production company: Lisa Pictures
Cast: Deragh Campbell, Elizabeth Rucker, Marius Sibiga, Aaron Danby
Director-director of photography: Sofia Bohdanowicz

Producers: Sofia Bohdanowicz, Deragh Campbell, Calvin Thomas
Screenwriters-editors: Sofia Bohdanowicz, Deragh Campbell
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)

64 minutes