Photo: Lisa Pictures
Before We Vanish by Tony G. Huang Film

MS Slavic 7 | Sofia Bohdanowicz & Deragh Campbell

June 27, 2020

MS Slavic 7 is an ambiguous, mechanistic work that seeks to understand the divide (and bridge) between passion and scholarship.

Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s low-key, documentary-style drama MS Slavic 7 is about a young woman, Audrey (Campbell), who discovers her late, great-grandmother Zofia Bohdanowiczowa’s passionate letters to a Polish poet. Primarily set in the archive where the letters are stored, the film follows Audrey as she reads, examines, and interprets Zofia’s letters, often speaking her thoughts aloud to an off-screen interlocutor. The filmmakers seem mostly interested in conveying the experience, and the process, of literary analysis: MS Slavic 7 opens with an invitation for us to read a poem meant for Zofia, and throughout we see shots of actual letters, accompanied by commentary from Campbell’s Audrey. The film generally refrains from over-explicating subjectivities, so we’re often left with a mysterious image of Audrey thinking over the meaning of the letters, appearing a model scholar — with a reserved temperament and slightly opaque demeanor.

But as MS Slavic 7 proceeds, the reasons for this ambivalence are gradually revealed: Audrey’s attempts to further her work have been frustrated by bureaucratic mischief.  We find out that although she is the literary executor of Zofia’s estate, the letters have been mishandled by her aunt (Elizabeth Rucker), a bourgeois type who doesn’t share her academic or personal interests in the materials, and who exhibits a condescending, antagonizing attitude toward this project. The archive, too, is reluctant to give up its materials without going through a presumably lengthy legal process — and so Audrey’s work is seriously forestalled. Still, the filmmakers here mostly elide the drama of estate wrangling, favoring a Chantal Akerman-like approach that views moments of the mechanical processes of work, and subtly contrasts these with scenes in a hotel room, where Audrey gets dressed and makes coffee, or with scenes at a social function, where she is a passive observer. The emotional life of this character is depicted in a fragmented way, but it gradually becomes the focal point here, and the passionate content of Zofia’s letters echoes, or suggests, certain elements of this inner life. A surprise romantic encounter at the conclusion, then, at once confirms and reconfigures our understanding of this point, as the directors leave us with an ambiguous contrast between the worlds of unabashed passion and disciplined, scholarly inquiry.

Published as part of June 2020’s Before We Vanish.