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A Woman Escapes (Sofia Bohdanowicz, Burak Çevik, and Blake Williams; 2023)

With A Woman Escapes, co-directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz, Burak Çevik, and Blake Williams, three of the most exciting young filmmakers working today come together for an experiment in healing and communication. A true hybrid, the film—shot in a combination of 3D, 16mm, and 4K formats—traces an epistolary video correspondence among a trio of characters: Blake, Burak, and Audrey (the last being Bohdanowicz’s screen surrogate, played here, as in many of the director’s previous films, by Deragh Campbell). Mourning the death of a close friend, Audrey is in Paris tending to the deceased’s apartment, when she receives a 3D camera from Blake and begins sending diary-like dispatches to him and Burak, both of whom are also dealing with loss, isolation, and unspoken anxiety. (Set in March 2020, the film embodies pandemic-era angst without ever directly acknowledging the health crisis.)

With each exchange, imbued with interpersonal details and narrated in turn by each character, the connection shared by the correspondents deepens, and various meta-textual references and rhetorical sleights of hand emerge between the voiceover and the image. So while eagle-eyed viewers may recognize the Parisian flat as that of Juliane Sellam, the real-life subject of Bohdanowicz’s 2017’s documentary Maison du bonheur, or clock a stereoscopic image of an analog TV set as a signature motif of Williams’s longstanding 3D practice, a slippery sense of collaborative gamesmanship persists throughout the film, raising questions of authorship and undermining even the most well-versed spectator’s understanding of these artists’ work. Predicated on first-person memories and unconscious ruminations on time and art-making alike—and structured in an appropriately associative manner, around bewitching vignettes of multidimensional wonder—it’s a film that speaks to each director’s unique talents, but even more thoughtfully illustrates the galvanizing spirit of collaboration.

Following a screening of A Woman Escapes at the 2023 Jeonju International Film Festival, I sat down with the film’s directors to discuss the project’s prolonged gestation, its biographical elements, and the importance of learning to listen and relinquish control.

I think the first time I heard about a collaboration between at least two of you was at a festival in Mexico City in 2019. Sofia was shooting some footage with Blake’s 3D camera—the same one we see in A Woman Escapes. I’m curious about how that project grew into a feature, and how it came to also include Burak.

Blake Williams: It actually first started in 2018 when Sofia and I climbed the Grouse Grind, aka Nature’s StairMaster, a hiking trail in Vancouver that’s basically a mountain with a gondola to take you back down once you get to the top. We were about halfway down when I realized I had my 3D camera and that I should be shooting our descent. But by the time I started filming, we were at the bottom. Sofia still has footage of this where I’m like, “Fuck, I missed it!” So I told Sofia, “The next time you come to Vancouver, you’re taking my 3D camera with you, you’re climbing the Grouse Grind again, and you’re going to film the descent!” And she did: she came back a year later and filmed it. And that’s the shot that’s in the movie.

Sofia Bohdanowicz: Blake lending me his camera was an amazing gift, but once I had it in my hands I couldn’t stop filming. I was touring MS Slavic 7 (2019) that fall, and the desire to capture my movements helped distract me during what was a really difficult moment: at the same time that I was breaking up with my partner, my friend Juliane [from Maison du bonheur] was about to pass away. As a way of putting that all aside, and ignoring it, I deferred to filming all the time. I caught some kind of bug. I couldn’t stop filming.

How did you get involved, Burak?

Burak Çevik: I first met Sofia in 2019 in New York, but it wasn’t until the 2020 Berlinale that we really spoke. I was also going through a difficult time in my relationship, and we bonded over that shared experience. Six months later, my relationship had ended and I emailed Sofia to tell her that I wanted to send her a video letter, and that if she felt like responding, that might be a nice way to communicate with each other.

Bohdanowicz: I think Burak could sense that I was also deeply depressed. What was interesting about your letters, and what I found to be terrifying when I watched them, was that you were enormously articulate about everything you were going through. And usually I am too, but I felt like I had nothing to say. One of the really beautiful things that resulted from this film is that Burak and his partner got back together, and are now engaged.

Çevik: At the beginning, for me, it wasn’t about collaborating. It was about communication. At the time I hadn’t even seen Sofia’s films. I approached her with the idea not because of her work, but because of her self.

At what point did it become a film that would involve the Audrey character?

Bohdanowicz: When Burak was sending me his letters, they would always start with, “Dear Sofia…” Whenever I heard his voice, my stomach would drop and I would get really stressed out. I didn’t know how to respond. But I did eventually respond with one letter, which I narrated and filmed from the window of Juliane’s hospice. It felt really raw. It was hard to be present in my own reality. I was dissociating from it. So I needed something or someone to be between all that. I felt that in order to survive it I needed to turn it into a fiction. So that’s where Audrey came into it. Blake always had the idea that it would be an Audrey movie, but until that moment I didn’t know how it could possibly work.

Williams: When Sofia and I were starting our 3D correspondence, it became clear to me that while we were creating interesting footage, there wasn’t a thread or anything particular uniting the images. At one point she sent a piece of footage that appears in the film, of Deragh reading a book on a train—that’s when I thought, “Oh, maybe this could be an Audrey movie.” But it wasn’t until several months later, after Burak started corresponding with her and Juliane had died, that Sofia said, “You know how you mentioned that maybe this could be an Audrey movie? Now I can kind of understand how that could happen.” Because I can say, “Let’s make an Audrey movie,” but I don’t think Sofia can just say, “Okay, it’s an Audrey movie now.” An Audrey movie is a Sofia movie, a movie about Sofia.

Maison du bonheur isn’t an Audrey movie, but it’s interesting that with A Woman Escapes, Audrey is now part of Juliane’s world.

Bohdanowicz: Usually I deal with life events very directly, and Blake and Burak are both artists that deal with things very directly. But I couldn’t do that here. So I thought: why don’t I bridge the two projects, so I can make a film about being indirect with these two direct people that I admire very much? It can be about a person who is inarticulate and who isn’t able to express themselves because they’re afraid to face the reality they’re in. And the reality was that I was living in my friend’s apartment after she passed away—I was sleeping in her bed. I was trying to move forward with my life, but it was hard to be transparent and honest about it. So Audrey became a vehicle to tell that story, and tethering Burak and Blake into it made the experience more digestible for me.

Çevik: Let me go back a bit, because we have different timelines. I remember Sofia visiting me in Berlin in October 2020. You had sent me just one video letter and said that you couldn’t continue because you were going through a lot. But you told me an idea you had for a film. My English was bad at that time, much worse than now, so I don’t think I fully understood. I repeated your idea back to you in my words, and you said, “That’s a good idea.” [Laughs] So for me it started with a miscommunication, and from there you began to explain the structure.

Bohdanowicz: I didn’t have words; I had a concept. And he didn’t have a concept; he had words.

It sounds like the film took shape over the course of a few years—before, during, and after the pandemic. Why set it in March 2020?

Williams: I think it’s a little bit of a mystery even for us why the film is set then. Juliane died in the fall of 2020, and we didn’t even start to talk about what the film would be until October of that year. At some point after we made the movie I asked Sofia, “Why did we set the film in March instead of October?”

Bohdanowicz: I think it was because of the seasons. There was one day that year when it snowed in Paris, and I whipped my Bolex out of the closet to film it. And the snow was gone in three hours. It never snows in Paris.

Williams: I think subconsciously we liked the idea that the movie was operating in two different directions. The movie was moving forward in time, through March towards April. But the weather was moving in reverse: it was getting colder as the movie went along.

Çevik: It was during the pandemic that we started to communicate through video letters, and even though I don’t think of it as a pandemic film, the pandemic did affect our communication and daily lives. The first time all three of us were together in the same place was at the world premiere.

Sofia, you mentioned the film’s connection with Maison du bonheur. Can you tell me about the images of Juliane we see in the film? They feel very intimate.

Bohdanowicz: I think that’s because of the way Blake edited those moments. I couldn’t edit that footage. Some of it is outtakes from Maison; some of it is excerpted from the film. I think it was important to use that footage in order to show that the house was haunted. Something I really connected with in Burak’s footage was how he talked about different versions of a home. I’d had a dream where I woke up and the ceiling was collapsing. So everything Burak was saying about his childhood home, or this version of home that he thought he knew but was now deteriorating, was very relevant to my experience in this place that was previously a place of comfort and happiness and safety. Much like the weather that goes in reverse, my experience of that space totally reversed. So even for me to organize these memories was very difficult. I think it was through what Burak was saying in his letters, but also in the way that Blake was proposing different structures, that we came close to a place of articulating how I felt.

How were the editing duties determined?

Çevik: I edited my sections, but Blake and Sofia came up with the larger structure and arranged all the parts.

Williams: When I’m editing, I’m always trying to negotiate this push and pull between meaning and anti-meaning. I want there to be enough in the film so that there are certain suggestions of thought for the viewer, areas to roam in your mind, but I also don’t want to over-impose what you’re supposed to think. I want to leave enough ambiguity in how it’s structured so that there’s room for you as a viewer to have a bit of uncertainty—but with uncertainty comes your own personal interjection into what you’re watching.

Bohdanowicz: What made it really come into focus for me was Blake’s letter about Nam June Paik. I didn’t really get it at first. He had made an earlier letter that I was really attached to, but because I was so attached to it, I don’t think I was listening to the second letter. But once I did, I began to really think about how we could connect the details of the letter with what Burak and I had done. Like, who is Nam June Paik? What are the aesthetics of boredom? What’s the history of the cathode ray? Oh, it’s like the first form of memory, and Burak is working a lot with the idea of memory—things like that. So in terms of the edit, it became a little bit of a listening game, and a matter of interweaving our thought processes. It’s very easy to overlook the ways a person is trying to connect if you don’t know how to listen properly. I think that’s part of the subtlety, difficulty, and aerobics of trying to put a film like this together.

Is there one thing that each of you learned from the experience of co-directing this film

Çevik: I improved my English.

Bohdanowicz: Yes, we chatted a lot!

Çevik: With my other films, I’m the one making the creative choices. But when working with other directors, there’s negotiation involved. And that helps you understand other people’s perspectives. I think the film is better for all those negotiations.

Williams: For me it was learning to relinquish control. Before this film I had never worked with an actor, I never had dialogue—it was just me working with a certain format or set of materials, producing an aesthetic experience. Normally if I have an impulse to put something in a movie, I put it in the movie. But this time there were other impulses in play that could perhaps counteract the impulses that I have. That definitely had an influence on me.

Bohdanowicz: I think I learned how to listen harder. Directing is all about psychology and communication, but when you’re working with two other directors, there are other factors to consider. It’s about listening, and sharing what you think should be the temperature or tone for a certain project, but also accepting that someone else’s universe doesn’t start at zero—it might start at negative 12, or 50. We all have different life experiences, and starting points. I think I understood cosmetically, from the outside, how different people’s ways of making films were, but I also think I didn’t have any idea at all. There’s this expression: faster alone, further together. You can move unilaterally by yourself quite swiftly, but to give yourself over to another person, and to trust them with your practice, is an incredibly difficult, but rewarding, thing to do.

Jordan Cronk is a film critic and founder of the Acropolis Cinema screening series in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in ArtforumCinema ScopefriezeThe Los Angeles Review of BooksSight and Sound, and more. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.