In recent years, Switzerland's Festival del Film Locarno has become something of a launching pad for state-of-the-art Canadian cinema. In 2010, Toronto video artist Daniel Cockburn premiered his heady You Are Here, while the congenitally adventurous Québécois filmmaker Denis Côté won the festival's coveted Silver Leopard for best director, for Curling. Last summer, francophone auteur Philippe Falardeau descended on the cozy alpine town with Monsieur Lazhar, snatching up two prizes en route to multiple Genies and an Oscar nomination.
This year's contender at Locarno (Aug. 1-11) is Tower, the lone Canadian entrant in the prestigious Filmmakers of the Present competition, which spotlights emerging directors from around the world. It marks the feature-filmmaking debut of 27-year-old Kazik Radwanski, who, along with his producer and former Ryerson classmate Daniel Montgomery, are the co-founders of the micro-budget Toronto production company MDFF (Medium Density Fibreboard Films). Over the past three years, the pair have carved out a cozy niche as decorated short filmmakers. Their excellent shorts Princess Margaret Blvd. (2008), Out in that Deep Blue Sea (2009) and Green Crayons (2010) all screened at the Toronto International Film Festival as well as dozens of other festivals around the world.
Tower, which is impressive even beyond its ingenious low-budget engineering, represents a fruition for Radwanski. Where his shorts have a light, glancing quality, Tower sustains a strong and at times frightening sense of intensity. Its director jokingly refers to it as a "Toronto-set version of Taxi Driver," albeit with less narrative pyrotechnics. It's probably best described as a character study of a man who is an uncomfortable enigma to others and perhaps also to himself; Derek (Derek Bogart) is a would-be computer animator who lives in his parents' basement and can't seem to get a foothold in social situations.
"It's a weird film," says Radwanski, who shot Tower over six months with a cast of mostly non-professional actors for about $50,000 (the money came from various arts council grants). "I'm glad I was able to capture some of the feelings in the film before I forgot them. It's always interesting when you take something that you love and put it out there for others to see."
Both Radwanski and Montgomery are aware of the Locarno festival's reputation as a haven for cinephilia – a place where people are more interested in the movies on the screen than what's being reported in the trades. "My understanding is that [Locarno] is the precise place for the sort of critical crowd that we want to see the film," says Montgomery. "These are the people who can see it at the beginning and maybe sort of champion it from there."
They already have at least one champion: Stacey Donen, a former programmer for TIFF and recently the Artistic Director of the Whistler Film Festival, who this week acquired Tower as the first film for his newly launched distribution company in Toronto. "We started College Street Pictures in part to cultivate and promote the next generation of Canadian filmmakers as innovative contributors to the international film scene," says Donen, who is planning on a fall release. "Tower reflects this. Kaz is a rarity and clearly he's an uncompromising filmmaker."
"We wanted to remain as hands-on with the film as possible," adds Montgomery, "even though it's finished. With College Street Pictures, we think we have that chance because it's so new – their catalogue hasn't even been established. Plus we know where Stacey lives and where he likes to get a beer, so we can always find him if we have to."
That sense of community extends to MDFF's online funding campaign, which offers a unique twist on the Kickstarter scenario beloved by independent filmmakers. Instead of soliciting donations to get their film off the ground, they're asking for money to help polish the finished product. One of the items available on the website (indiegogo.com) is a wooden DVD case containing three MDFF shorts. It's a nod to the company's handcrafted roots (Radwanski's family is in the construction business) and a comment on the increasingly ephemeral nature of film viewing and ownership.
"We plan to release the shorts online for free at some point," says Montgomery. "The case is more of a gesture. It's something that can be appreciated for the craftsmanship and the details, and the tactile feeling of picking it up and having an object."
"We're making these crude wooden cases in the hope that it'll help us have a high-end thing," adds Radwanski, who is undaunted by the possibility of crafting dozens of boxes by summer's end. "Because every once in a while we sort of stop and realize that we're about to show this movie in Switzerland to 1,000 people."
Special to The Globe and Mail