Three years ago, I shot a documentary on 16mm titled Maison du bonheur. When a friend suggested that I should make a film about her elderly mother, an astrologer named Juliane Sellam who had been living in the same apartment in Paris for more than 50 years, I was interested, but had no idea what lay ahead.
In the summer of 2015, everything seemed to line up. I was generously given the month of July off from my employer to spend in France, I was approved for a $10,000 line of credit and the 16mm Bolex that I ordered off of eBay arrived right on time.
Since I was making a film with such limited means, the first thing I realized is that I would likely be working by myself. During the entire month of production, I lived with Juliane. I was keen for us to build a close and comfortable relationship that would result in a film she felt represented her honestly and accurately. I also knew that if I had a massive crew (which I could not afford) hanging around her apartment, it would take much longer for us to build a free-flowing rapport. This intimacy resulted in her generously opening up to share what became key moments in the film: where she spoke of the time she got her driver’s licence when she was six months pregnant, how she almost didn’t get married over a broken nail and why she’s continued to see the same hairstylist for more than 30 years. Since I shot the film alone, the project became something that wasn’t just about Juliane; it evolved into her becoming a collaborator and co-conspirator.
In the technical department, it was crucial for me to move into production with a complete understanding of the equipment. I studied how to use a Bolex (a spring-wound clockwork 16mm film camera), snagged myself a light meter and was armed with a mixer and microphone, which I had already been using for years. As far as lighting goes, my philosophy is to transport as little as possible – lugging lights around is of no interest to me. Instead, I pay close attention to the world’s best source of light, the sun. Before shooting on location, I do research on when the sun rises and sets, and which rooms and spaces will be lit well at which time of day.
When it came to recording sound, I could not afford a sound recordist, therefore a roll of gaffers tape became a sturdy alternative. When I was shooting a scene with Juliane in her home, I would try and find the best spot in the room to get ambient audio of what she was doing and I would tape the microphone down to whatever surface was available. There is a scene when Juliane makes a cake in her kitchen and it just so happened that the best place for me to rest my microphone was on her window sill. If you watch the film closely, there is a brief moment where the camera pans up and you catch a glimpse of it.
Shooting a film in Paris does sound glamorous and romantic, but there were many moments that were exhausting and challenging. I could only afford 90 minutes of 16mm film (all of which were stored in the crisper of Juliane’s fridge) and had to be extremely economical with what I was shooting. Noting and budgeting spools of film everyday is a painstaking process, especially when you are schlepping 15 pounds of equipment by yourself in the summer in a city that can heat up to 40 degrees or more. Shooting on a small budget on film also means that you don’t have the luxury of playing back your footage until it’s developed and digitized – a filmmaker’s nightmare.
Beyond practicalities, I’ve learned that it is important to be generous toward and considerate of the people you are working with. Low-budget filmmaking isn’t an excuse to treat people poorly. Small acts of kindness will reverberate in the work that people put into your film and will reveal themselves on screen. Another thing with small-budget films is that you have to give yourself over to the fact that your fingerprints, gashes, blood, sweat and tears will always be all over your work. My camera work isn’t always steady, my microphone bumps around at times and some scenes are definitely a little more dimly lit than I’d like them to be.
However, Maison du bonheur is very much a film that has been crafted and moulded with my own hands, and I am proud of that. The creation of this film taught me that working with your own imperfections is, in the end, what will make your work feel alive and will ultimately create a kind of cinema that I believe is relatable, unique and most importantly human.
Sofia Bohdanowicz is the filmmaker of Maison du bonheur, which plays at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto starting Aug. 17.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article listed the wrong opening date for Maison du bonheur at TIFF Bell Lightbox. This version has been updated.
Special to The Globe and Mail