Against the Grain: The Films of MDFF

By Dan Sallitt

Review: Tower - Slant Magazine
Tower (2012)

One doesn’t expect consistency of style from a production company, especially one with a mission statement proclaiming “a focus on unique, director-driven projects.” And yet one gets a bit of it from MDFF (Medium Density Fiberboard Films), the Toronto-based imprint of Kazik Radwanski and Daniel Montgomery. Throughout cinema history, there seems to be something in the water that coordinates the efforts of disparate filmmakers living in the same place and time, and MDFF is probably more the record of a period of Canadian independent film than a curator of it.

Radwanski’s own formidable filmography comprises the bulk of MDFF’s output. Beginning with a series of short films that quickly found their way to top international festivals, Radwanski launched MDFF into feature film production with Tower (2012), following it with How Heavy This Hammer (2015) and Anne at 13,000 Ft. (2019), the last of which is poised to become MDFF’s most visible film to date.

Like a number of young Canadian filmmakers, Radwanski seems to draw much of his inspiration from documentary rather than fictional traditions. The most obvious characteristic of his films is a handheld, often mobile camera that keeps the protagonist (all his films center on a single person) in close-up. One notes a family resemblance to the Dardenne brothers’ peripatetic visual style, but the similarity is limited. The Dardennes may at times use their camera to give us the subjective perspective of a character, but it tends to see what the story has made us want to see, and therefore remains a tool of the narrative. Whereas, despite its cinéma-vérité antecedents, Radwanski’s mobile camera often conceals information, working in counterpoint to the narrative’s project. An early example (Radwanski’s mature style was already formed, or nearly so, in his first short films) is the scene in Princess Margaret Blvd (2008) where the proximity of the camera to the protagonist is manipulated so that she reacts to a microwave fire before we see it. Feature films allowed Radwanski to work these perceptual gaps into larger structures: most memorably with the raccoon that Derek in Tower pursues with Ahab-like determination, and that finally appears in an unestablished reverse shot, after Derek has recognized his nemesis with a mysterious and disarming smile. Radwanski’s mise-en-scène of indirection results in a steady stream of surprises—such as our discovering Derek in mid-coitus in Tower, or the cut on Erwin’s leg after a rugby match in How Heavy This Hammer—that are at first glance concealed by his adherence to documentary shooting conventions.

Watch How Heavy This Hammer | Prime Video
How Heavy This Hammer (2015)

Radwanski’s close-ups often create a peculiar disorientation that one does not associate with cinéma-vérité. The scene transitions in Tower (the film in which Radwanski pushes his close-up-based style the furthest) are often between close-ups of similar size, with the similarity obscuring changes of place and time. Derek materializes in the shadows of a nightclub after a scene of him doing yard work, or catches drops of rain on his tongue after working at a construction gig: the relatively consistent size of the images gives a momentary illusion of continuity to otherwise jarring transitions. The background of Radwanski’s medium-lens close-ups necessarily goes out of focus, an effect that enhances the subjectivity that’s inherent in this shooting style: one striking instance is Derek’s encounter with a singing, possibly crazy Irish man in the subway, who manifests blurrily in the background of Derek’s close-up, like an apparition from the unconscious.

The protagonists of Radwanski’s films seem to be, for the most part, non-actors representing themselves—though it’s both a tribute to the films and a key to their aspirations that it’s not easy to know whether the people are performing or allowing themselves to be documented. (The exception proves the rule: Deragh Campbell, MDFF’s go-to actress, is indistinguishable from her non-actor co-stars in Anne at 13,000 Ft. and Fail to Appear [2017].) Beyond the documentary aspects of the performances, Radwanski’s films generally contain a challenge to the audience in the form of a character who is not easy to like or relate to. The pattern goes back to Radwanski’s earliest work, with the forbidding salesman protagonist of Out in That Deep Blue Sea (2009) setting the bar high. Derek in Tower, nervy and irony-dependent, bristles against almost everyone in the film, despite our sense of a gentleness concealed within him that emerges on occasion; Erwin in How Heavy This Hammer is childlike both in his empathy with children and dogs and in his tendency to retreat into isolation to avoid difficult interpersonal issues; Anne in Anne at 13,000 Ft. has an uncomfortable rebellious streak, generally accompanied by wiseacre laughter that underscores her contempt. Radwanski exposes these characters’ social problems without ever distancing himself from them or abandoning them to our scorn: eventually we must forge at least a partial identification with them. Do the performers collaborate in revealing unflattering aspects of themselves, or is the film prodding them to expose themselves unawares? Except in the case of Campbell, whose acting prowess is well-documented, I find it impossible to say purely on the evidence of the films.

The Cinematheque / East Hastings Pharmacy + Woman Waiting + ...
East Hastings Pharmacy (2012)

The films of Antoine Bourges, MDFF’s other regular director, could not be confused with Radwanski’s: Bourges has his own subject matter (almost all his work takes place in the context of social services and deals with social workers and the people they help) and his own visual style, which is both more remote and more codified than Radwanski’s. And yet one confronts many of the same formal questions with both directors’ films: a foundational use of documentary elements, deployed in such a way that a line between fiction and documentary isn’t easy to find; and a mixture of actors (principally Deragh Campbell) and non-actors that is seamless and productive.

(The only MDFF film not directed by Radwanski or Bourges, Andrea Bussmann and Nicolás Pereda’s Tales of Two Who Dreamt (2016), has a playful reflexivity more akin to its directors’ oeuvres than to other MDFF films. But it too is based upon documentary elements that are central to its conception.)

The line between fiction and documentary is so blurry in Bourges’s films that one barely notes a distinction. East Hastings Pharmacy (2012) proclaims with an end title card that it was a collection of improvisations and reenactments with the residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood; an actress, Shauna Hansen, stands in for a real pharmacist who is often mentioned in the improvisations. It is set in a methadone clinic, and many of the performers tend to fidget, sometimes in an alarming manner. Bourges’ earlier MDFF short film, Woman Waiting (2010), and his later one, William in White Shirt (2015), also center on Downtown Eastside residents who are located within a system of poverty and government assistance. His remarkable feature Fail to Appear is more likely than Bourges’s other films to be labeled as fiction, perhaps because Deragh Campbell takes the role of the social worker; but it has a great deal in common with the other films. Unlike Radwanski and most fiction filmmakers, Bourges tends to depict a static state in his work, a map of people interacting with institutions that ends when the people and institutions are adequately described. To work in a longer form with Fail to Appear, Bourges hit on the happy idea of rendering the worlds of the social worker and her client sequentially, thus avoiding the realm of dramatic development.

Paying Attention: Antoine Bourges Discusses "Fail to Appear" on ...
Fail to Appear (2017)

Bourges exhibits a degree of control over his frame that is in contrast to Radwanski’s emulation of cinéma-vérité shooting. His allegiance is more to minimalist art cinema than to classical commercial style, and his cutting generally preserves a sense of time passing in inactivity. Near the beginning of Fail to Appear, Bourges impresses with a simple, elegant rendering of the social worker’s conference with a superior who assigns her the case on which the film centers. The camera remains fixed on the superior’s desk, with the social worker leaving the frame to retrieve a notepad and returning; when the conference is over, the camera pans, a bit vertiginously, with the social worker around the little room as she returns to her desk and assumes the burden of moving the narrative forward. A bit later, the decoupage of her client’s court hearing is precise and chilly, rendering the tedium of the proceedings in a series of long shots, with the only medium shots given to the social worker as she looks on. When the narrative baton is passed mid-film from the social worker to the client, Bourges’s control of tone allows him to stitch together mundane scenes and surprising, even shocking behavior into an uninflected depiction of life with schizophrenia.

This overview has thus far failed to mention my favorite of all the MDFF films, Radwanski’s 15-minute Scaffold (2017), which shows only the hands of its principal actors, and yet somehow feels as if it encompasses the full range of human experience. The culmination of an experiment with restricted views of the human body that began with Radwanski’s Cutaway (2014), Scaffold is about a two-person Bosnian construction crew remodeling the house of a Toronto woman, with considerable attention to the cause-and-effect of the work process. The initially edgy relationship between the woman and the crew thaws into cordiality, and we learn a bit about the lives of both—the dead husband of the woman, the daughter back in Bosnia who wants to ride horses—but the personal elements that would be the payload of a standard drama are touched upon glancingly, subordinated to the rhythms of work. The only faces we see are in telephoto shots of the neighborhood: a man tending endlessly to his front lawn, a passing group of schoolchildren who grant the laborers the same privileged status as does Radwanski. Notwithstanding its precise depiction of social difference and similarity, Scaffold owes its considerable power to a lightly borne sense of microcosm and metaphor that probably could not have been comfortably extended to the length of a feature.

Editor’s note: This piece was written on the occasion of the MDFF retrospective that was to run at The Cinematheque from March 20-24. I’m told that, as soon as the theatre reopens, the show will indeed go on.

Written by Dan Sallitt

Dan Sallitt is a filmmaker and film writer living in New York City. A former film critic for the L.A. Reader, his films include HONEYMOON (1998), ALL THE SHIPS AT SEA (2004), THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT (2012), and FOURTEEN (2019).

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