There may be no better location to shoot a new Sofia Bohdanowicz film than inside the University of Toronto’s Music Library, nestled in the basement of the campus’s Edward Johnson Building.
Like the Canadian director’s previous films – including the dreamy docudramas MS Slavic 7, Maison du bonheur, Never Eat Alone, each as critically acclaimed as they are micro-budgeted – the library’s space is intimate and quiet (naturally), but also intellectually and emotionally intimidating, buzzing with intense currents of curiosity, passion, even a little mystery.
It is the middle of March, and Bohdanowicz is huddled with a half-dozen crew members nailing down a crucial scene for Opus 28, her fifth feature and what just might be the movie that will help the filmmaker break through to the mainstream. Or what counts as the mainstream in the tiny, resource-scarce world of Canadian cinema.
”When you say, ‘sword,’ do a chopping motion, like this,” Bohdanowicz instructs her star and co-writer Deragh Campbell, switching to French when she talks to Campbell’s co-star for the scene, Eve Duranceau. “Now like this,” the director adds, bringing her arm down in a swinging motion, “but a little bit slower.”
If afforded the luxury, Bohdanowicz would surely like this entire process to go a little bit slower, too. But this is her ninth and final day shooting at U of T before she has to travel to the U.K., and time is, as ever in the Canadian film world, of the essence.
Much of Opus 28 is in fact defined by time – the passage and the reclamation of it. A ghost story infused with the elements of a detective yarn, the new drama follows a young academic named Audrey Benac (Campbell) as she uncovers the career of real-life Canadian violinist Kathleen Parlow, a child prodigy in the early 1900s who worked with Thomas Edison and was nicknamed “The Lady with the Golden Bow,” but whose accomplishments have been forgotten.
As Audrey travels the world to piece together the musician’s life for her PhD thesis, the film builds to a contemporary restaging of a once-lost 112-year-old concerto originally dedicated to Parlow (the Opus 28 of the title) on her own 16th-century Italian violin, performed live by acclaimed violinist María Dueñas and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The concert, one of the final pieces of Bohdanowicz’s film, will be shot by the director at Maison Symphonique de Montréal on Nov. 18, a rare opportunity in which music history comes alive both onstage and, eventually, onscreen.
For Bohdanowicz, who specializes in slender and deeply affecting works that blend documentary and fiction, Opus 28 represents an ambitious addition to her so-far under-the-radar meta-canon. While each of her films stands on its own, they all – similar to Audrey’s quest to understand both Parlow and herself – connect to each other. For starters: Campbell has played Audrey in four of Bohdanowicz’s previous films (the most recent being 2020 short Point and Line to Plane), with the character being a lightly fictionalized stand-in for the director herself. Indeed, Opus 28 began five years ago when Bohdanowicz, whose grandfather was mentored by Parlow, uncovered valuable documents on the violinist inside … the same U of T Music Library.
On this chilly day in March, though, Bohdanowicz and Campbell are just trying to power through a tense scene inside the library in which Audrey is facing off with an archivist (played by Duranceau) over some pages of precious sheet music. The filming feels both steady and deliberate – they’ve been at it for seven hours now.
“What Deragh and I are trying to do is give Kathleen the Glenn Gould treatment,” Bohdanowicz says. “We both think it’s sad that she’s not recognized, so we’re trying to resurrect her by piecing her life together, though you can only get so much out of documents.”
It might seem like a small team – working with a budget of just $1.2-million – but these are relative boom times for Bohdanowicz, who is used to a crew of one: herself.
”When it was only Sofia and I in the room making a movie, she was doing sound and camera and direction and I was doing my own costumes, it would only be a quick discussion of the scene,” adds Campbell. “But Sofia has preserved the most essential thing here, for me as a performer, which is that every single scene we do, we’re trying to make something actually occur. It’s very hard to pretend to be surprised or react unexpectedly – you need a person to come into your eye-line and actually surprise you.”
That kind of on-set magic act – making the planned seem spontaneous – reflects the ultimate, hopeful spell of Opus 28: resurrecting a person through what archival evidence they have, perhaps unwittingly, left behind.
”What’s similar between this and MS Slavic 7 is they’re both about looking through archive material in order to know someone,” says Campbell, “and it isn’t until the concerto is performed that there’s kind of ecstatic feeling of encountering Kathleen, the idea of this real person who existed and made music.”
After the Montreal concerto is filmed next week, Bohdanowicz plans to finish editing the film in the spring so that it can hit next fall’s festival circuit. But on this day back in March, the filmmaker was – unlike her research-obsessed onscreen avatar Audrey – “living in the present.”
”I’m taking it day to day, always asking Drew, ‘What are we shooting tomorrow again?’” she says. “For us, this film is a miracle. Much like Audrey’s odyssey, everyone with us on this journey is so warm and open. I don’t think we could have made it otherwise.”
Tickets for the Nov. 18 performance of Opus 28 are available at ticketmaster.com.