I’ve often found that the most successful short films and short stories apply what Ernest Hemingway called the “iceberg theory,” distilling a larger narrative into a very specific moment that allows audiences to infer the bigger picture in their own minds. Kazik Radwanski’s Cutaway puts this strategy to work but with a slight twist. It tells a story that takes a number of dramatic turns in a minimalistic way, withholding everything but the protagonist’s hands and the objects he uses from the frame. We learn about this man by watching him work, text, attend appointments, drink—but we never see his face or learn his name. This might sound like it would serve to distance us from the action, but the effect is quite the opposite. Cutaway is one of the most emotionally affecting shorts I’ve ever seen.Cutaway is paired this week on the Criterion Channel with Robert Bresson’s L’argent, another film that conveys information in part through numerous close-ups of hands. I talked with Radwanski, who has also made several acclaimed features (Tower, How Heavy This Hammer, Anne at 13,000 Feet), about why this short is so important to him.
Cutaway is so fascinating to me because it’s both a rigorous formal exercise and a deeply emotional film that made me cry the first time I saw it. Did story and emotion lead to form or vice versa?
It started from a very emotional place. As I was preparing to shoot my second feature, How Heavy This Hammer, my father passed away quite suddenly. A rare, highly malignant form of cancer acted swiftly and took his life before my family and I could process what was happening. I felt unable to continue with production and decided to postpone the shoot. I wasn’t sure if I could still make that film. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to make films anymore. I decided to make this short as a way back into filmmaking.
What was the writing process like? I’m also curious about the conversations you had with your DP, planning each one of these highly specific close-ups. I imagine it took a lot of preparation.
It was improvised but in a very slow and methodical way. I started by filming a few key images: the jackhammer, the hand being cut, and the injured hand using a cellphone. I was initially motivated to just capture those images. There was something cathartic in their texture. They established a tone, and I would begin to shoot images to complement them. It was a very gradual process, with lots of time in between to think and reflect on the footage.
I’m also curious about what it’s like to cast an actor when you know we will be seeing only his hands. Were you looking for something specific in those hands? Or did you already have someone in mind who had the right hands?
They are my hands. I wanted to keep the crew as small as possible. Most of the shooting was just me and the DP Nikloay Michaylov. I grew up working on a construction site, so I’m very familiar with using a hammer and grouting tiles. Also, on another personal level, all of the tools in the film were my father’s, and he taught me how to work with them. So, again, there was something cathartic about that process for me.
I love little details like the chipped nail polish of the protagonist’s girlfriend.
That was impromptu. They are the hands of my partner at the time, Cait Macintosh. The Chihuahua we see briefly, Charley, was also hers. Those flickers of spontaneous life details became a real blessing.
We realize this protagonist is a stoic person who has difficulty expressing his emotions, and that’s reinforced by the way you withhold information in the film. You do something similar in another short of yours, Scaffold. What is it about this kind of storytelling that appeals to you?
I’m drawn to the repetition of labor and the headspace it creates, as well as the relationship between work and our daily existence. Perhaps we’re in the point of view of the character, but we’re also experiencing the job and the task at hand. Cutaway very directly explores this tension, as we see the protagonist working while dealing with a personal crisis. In Scaffold, it’s broader and more ambient. I was interested in exploring social boundaries between work and personal space.
Cutaway does feel very much like an intense examination of masculinity. This protagonist is a manual laborer whose work is very physical and traditionally masculine, and he just tapes his wounded hand up and keeps going, then drinks and has casual sex to suppress his emotions.
Emotional inhibition is definitely a theme I return to a lot. Manual labor in certain settings often requires an emotional toughness or physical hardness. It’s perhaps heroic, but it’s also of course very tragic. Is the character in Cutaway persevering or self-destructing?
For me there is a push and pull with the symbol of the wound on his hand. It’s gruesome but also superficial. In my first feature, Tower, the protagonist has a cut on his forehead that he is unable to explain. The wound helps define the more elusive emotional trauma he might have experienced. I like the feeling of juxtaposing something knowable and treatable with something harder to cure and perhaps unknowable.
I was reading a bit about the screening series that you run in Toronto with the production company MDFF and how you have frequently paired shorts with features, as we do on the Criterion Channel. Cutaway feels like a perfect use of the short film format to me. Can you talk about what you love about this form, since you’ve returned to it between features?
There are no rules in shorts. They are also more immediate. It’s important to find new voices, so we love screening shorts at MDFF because it allows emerging filmmakers to be bold and autonomous. They can find routes and pathways where they don’t have to conform to industry norms. If you are not careful, I think it’s really easy to lose that when you make a feature. Budgets and schedules can become so overwhelming that they intimidate you and drain your creativity.
We’ve paired the film with Bresson’s L’argent. Bresson’s eye for specific hand movements and gestures made for a very natural pairing with Cutaway. Is he an important filmmaker for you? What other filmmakers or artists have been influential to you?
Bresson is very important to me. He’s a filmmaker I have returned to again and again throughout my life. I remember watching Diary of a Country Priest and Au hasard Balthazar as a teenager and then reading his Notes on the Cinematographer at university. More recently I’ve been inspired by how other filmmakers have referenced his work. I’m thinking of Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path and Alain Cavalier’s Libera me in particular.
Your work has been heralded as part of a new wave in Toronto and in Canada at large. What’s the filmmaking scene like there, and is continuing to live and work there something that is important to you?
It’s great. Being a part of the local film scene provides a lot of support but also inspiration. Both Deragh Campbell and Matt Johnson, who star in my latest film, Anne at 13,000 Ft., are also directors and have made incredible films. Working in Toronto and telling stories about where I’m from is very central to my process.