“Valeska Grisebach’s Western was my favourite film at TIFF17,” director Kazik Radwanski recently told me. If and when you watch Radwanski’s captivating new short documentary Scaffold, you will understand why (and why he also thanks German avant-garde directors Angela Schanelec and Harun Farocki in the credits).
As in Western, Radwanski’s working-class men are on the outside — literally — of a building. Two migrant workers speak a Balkan language which remains unspecified and, anyway, is irrelevant in their new world. They likely arrived in Canada recently, as they are still uncertain about social codes. The action of the film is made up of the pair moving up and down and across a scaffold on a house they are renovating in Toronto’s Greektown. Radwanski presents only close-up half bodies, never heads, drawing attention to what they wear (Adidas track pants), and how they move (balancing a coffee tray up the scaffold) as they go about their trade (manipulating a lock, removing plaster — echoes of Farocki’s meticulous investigations of labour). Born in 1985 Toronto, Radwanski studied film at Ryerson University and co-founded the production company MDFF nearly a decade ago. In another construction reference, “Medium Density Fibreboard Films” is meant to evoke “durability, versatility, affordability and reliability,” traces of which you will find in Scaffold.
Viewers never see, only hear, the woman who lives in the house; a hand occasionally offers coffee to the men. For me, she is a (minor) weak point, too deliberately awkward and a stereotypically cautious foil, in a roundabout Anglo-Canadian way (“Are you busy right now?” instead of asking for a favour). But overall, Radwanski, as in his previous lauded feature films Tower and How Heavy This Hammer, masters the art of showing and saying everything that needs showing or saying through what he and his characters do not show or say. The protagonists’ phatic, quotidian communication (“Do you think I can use the toilet?”) is the skin — and underneath, one may observe or sense their surroundings, as Radwanski doesn’t show them looking. As in the director’s last few films, the viewer has to find their own bearings, however precarious, on the tight scaffold of the film.
Outside the scaffold is freedom and fresh air, a world largely understandable and manageable for the two nameless men. The inside of the house they are renovating is a closed, socially unknown world… new territory. Nothing in the film is whole, not the images of the people, not the accidentally knocked over vase, not the broken picture frame of family photos in the house, or the man’s broken phone screen that plays videos from “home.” The viewer nearly subliminally scavenges information, about the main subjects as well as the ironically more fully visible peripheral characters, their relevance or consequence initially unclear in this spatial choreography. The underlying social commentary is about socio-economic inequality, unfamiliar cultural contexts, unknown conventions, multiple levels of old-world baggage and the non-sensical merry-go-round that is global racism.
Formally rigorous and visually stunning (the distinct cinematographic handwriting is from Nikolay Michaylov, as in Radwanski’s last feature), the film is hyper-real and hypnotizing in its crisp, clearly delineated colours. The yellow scaffolds that connects the story’s images — the blue carpet, the orange tools, appreciated from odd angles — are embedded in diegetic industrial sounds and street noise. Scaffold could have been called “Workers” or “Home,” as it’s a film about people and the inner and outer worlds they inhabit. But instead, it’s named after the structure that holds, supports and moves the protagonists and viewers.
Scaffold is in the middle of an impressive festival run, from Locarno, Toronto, New York, London, Bilbao…and probably Berlin next. Garnering early recognition in Europe, Radwanski’s short films screened at the Berlinale Shorts Competition for three consecutive years. In 2012, he directed his first feature film Tower, which also had its world premiere at Locarno. The film went on to screen at many festivals including TIFF, The Viennale and New Directors/ New Films presented by MoMA. His second feature, How Heavy This Hammer, had its international premiere at the Berlinale and was nominated for the $100,000 prize for Best Canadian film of the Year by the Toronto Film Critics Association.
At the forefront of the New Toronto New Wave with MDFF, Radwanski is a filmmaker who marries dichotomies with a delicate magic wand. He features in-your-face close ups and slow-moving storylines, male shortcomings and the search for human connection, a lyrical and at the same time uncompromising style. Radwanski cares about his characters while making the viewer satisfyingly uncomfortable (show me one person who didn’t struggle with Erwin in How Heavy This Hammer), and he chooses hyper-local settings to nudge the viewer to see themselves and uncover universal motifs.
In an essay last year about Toronto as a city on film, Radwanski mused about the pars pro toto relevance of the deliberately and very specifically locale while placing himself in a community of younger filmmakers: “On the cover of Views Drake is sitting on top of the CN Tower but he’s not talking about landmarks on the album. He’s rapping about Habibiz, Scarborough, and basements out past Weston Road. It’s the lived experience and specific details about Toronto that ground his lyrics and make it possible for him to talk about the city and not be corny. With How Heavy This Hammer I wanted to embrace all of the minutiae of the places I knew as inspiration,” and he concludes: “It’s now very common to see young filmmakers explore such places as south New Jersey, Grand Rapids, and West Hollywood. There has definitely been a groundswell of filmmakers like Matt Johnson, Andrew Cividino, and Igor Drljaca embracing these modes in Toronto. It’s hard to know what impact they’ve had on viewers outside of the city, or abroad, but as a viewer, I’m always excited to see films that feel very distinct and ingrained with where they’re from.”
Radwanski is a sensitive and patient observer, creating innovative and experimental yet still narratively coherent and accessible works, simple and opaque at the same time, irritating and warm, transient and reverberating. How Heavy This Hammer, nearly irksome while watching, had a similar long-term effect on me as the hold Scaffold has two weeks after a first viewing. It is a touching, lingering 15-minute, 15-second slice of life that lets the viewer meet two men as they negotiate new uncertain relationships, intersecting with an insecure local woman, curious and cheerful children en route to school and old neighbours gardening. Out of a fractured, tentative world, Kazik Radwanski created a strong and whole short film.
Jutta Brendemuhl (@JuttaBrendemuhl) is an arts writer and programmer (among others) for the Goethe-Institut and the European Union Film Festival Toronto. Jutta has worked with Bernardo Bertolucci, Wim Wenders, Robert Rauschenberg, Pina Bausch and other luminaries. When she isn’t sitting in an arthouse cinema in Berlin or Toronto, she might be watching old Die Hard DVDs in her living room. Her writing has appeared in POV, ScreenPrism, DIE ZEIT, German Film @ Canada blog and she’s indexed on IMDB. Jutta holds a master’s degree in English Literature and is a fellow of the Toronto Cultural Leaders Lab.