MDFF filmmakers Kazik Radwanski (left) and Dan Montgomery (right).
Last week, when we previewed the 2011 Ryerson University Film Festival, we tried to frame the whole thing around the idea that student films, and student film festivals, are launching pads for emerging talent—a place where filmmakers can showcase the experimental, personal, and defiantly independent work they poured their hearts into in school before being crushed by the unforgiving, bureaucracy-stymied, commercially driven realities of cinema. Well, Kazik Radwanski and Dan Montgomery are proof positive of not just Ryerson’s tendency to turn out top-shelf film grads but the rarer tendency for young filmmakers to hew close to the ideals of student filmmaking years after they’ve graduated.
Since 2007, Radwanski and Montgomery have been devoting themselves to resonant, incredibly thoughtful shorts, at a rate of about one per year. Meeting as students in Ryerson’s Image Arts program, their first film, Assault, was completed while they were still in their third year. A close-quartered portrait of a 19-year-old charged with drunkenly tussling with a cop (the extent of his guilt, like most things in the films Radwanski writes and directs, is left ambiguous), Assault provides a rough sketch of the style that would run through the rest of his work. Preferring non-professional actors, spontaneity, and an unresolved tension between the audience’s empathy with the characters and the narrative predicaments that befall them, Radwanski’s films are refreshingly mature for a filmmaker of any age. And their work has been recognized, with screenings at festivals around the world, nods from Canada’s Top Ten, and even Genie nominations for 2008′s Princess Margaret Blvd. and 2009′s Out in That Deep Blue Sea.
Still from Kazik Radwanski’s Princess Margaret Blvd. (2008).
Tomorrow, Radwanski and Montgomery’s production company, MDFF—for Medium Density Fibreboard Films, taking its name from an especially resilient and affordable construction material—will host a showcase at the Royal Cinema (it’s not just for Room screenings, you guys). The program is slated to feature four of Radwanski’s films (Assault, Princess Margaret Blvd, Out in that Deep Blue Sea, and 2010’s Green Crayons) as well as Woman Waiting (2010), written and directed by MDFF’s West Coast partner, Vancouver’s Antoine Bourges.
We spoke with Radwanski about the founding of MDFF, his films, and the schmaltzy perils of sentimentality.
Torontoist: When did you and Dan get around to starting MDFF?
Kazik Radwanski: Once we graduated, when we were working on Out in that Deep Blue Sea, is when we formally incorporated. But it’s been the same crew on all the films I directed: same [director of photography], same editor, same art director. And Dan has produced them all.
How did you bring Antoine into the fold?
We met him around the time of Princess Margaret Blvd. It played at the Toronto Student Film Showcase, and he had a film there as well. So we met there and stayed in touch, and every time I’d be in Vancouver or Whistler I’d try to meet up with him. Woman Waiting came up, and Dan produced it. I’m more of an executive producer.
Your films and Antoine’s seem to share a very strong sensibility. It’s kind of an open-ended question, but what kind of films do you guys try to produce with MDFF?
That is open-ended. I guess, uncompromising films. Sometimes I have trouble justifying where my own films come from, because it’s very personal. But when you feel like a film is being made because it has to be made, I always admire that. As a production company, we want to encourage that independence. Our interest is helping other filmmakers keep that feeling of artistic freedom. We like to keep the same small, close-knit group of people, just to show that it can be done. And, with Antoine, we want him to feel like he can do that as well. That’s needed in Canada. There’s a big gap between Telefilm and CFC productions and smaller productions out there.
This independent, close-knit attitude seems to lend itself to short films, where it’s easier to keep things small. Is this why you’ve gravitated towards the form? Are you interested in directing or producing any features?
Yeah, in terms of me and Dan, we feel like we’ve definitely made enough shorts. We’re starting to think longer form. We’re working on a project right now that will either be a short feature, or a very long short film. It was never a plan, but we’ve been grateful that we’ve been able to make these short films like this. We’re now defensive of the process, and we’re trying, if possible, to make a feature film in this way. At times it feels doable. And at others it feels pretty reckless. But we’re definitely going to give it a shot.
One of the things about all your films is that, because the focus is a bit narrower and they’re very focused on single-characters, they’re able to be sympathetic without being sentimentalized. Is this something you try to avoid?
We’re always trying to keep away from being sentimental. It’s very important to us. When Princess Margaret was playing, it was a lesson about how people project feelings onto the film, because it deals with Alzheimer’s. It’s hard for it not to seem too sentimental, but also we don’t want it to seem too removed or clinical. It’s not that I hate sentimentality. I like it in other filmmakers’ work, but mixing sentimentality with realism can sometimes be too much.
What’s the reason for preferring to work with non-professional actors?
Well, they’re non-actors, but the audience doesn’t have to know that. It’s not a conceptual thing, where the audience is supposed to expect that their performance mirrors their actual life. I just get better results when I work with more raw actors. With Out in that Deep Blue Sea, when Peter Bavis is stammering or stuttering, I didn’t even ask if it was him stuttering or him acting. I don’t need to know. It’s about learning about that person and what they’re like, and changing the film as we go.
Photo and stills courtesy of Dan Montgomery.
5 MDFF Shorts unspools Wednesday, May 18, at 7 p.m. at the Royal Cinema (608 College Street). Click here for more info.