From Biz Execs to Backpackers, Karlovy Vary Welcomes Crowds For 38th Fest
by Wendy Mitchell
Quite a few worlds collide during the film festival in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic. There are the cineastes here in town for well-programmed retrospectives and Cannes highlights, the journalists and film execs from across Central and Eastern Europe, the Czech backpackers who flood these screenings and crash on any hostel floor they can find, the wealthy Russian tourists, and the filmmakers and other visitors who are just trying to take the diverse crowd, and more than 300 films, in stride.
This festival, begun in 1946, is rich in history, going through highpoints and lowpoints through the years (including a few times when it looked like the fest might fold). But the 38th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival appeared healthy: attended by more than 10,000 badge holders, boasting almost all sold-out screenings, and holding onto its A-list ranking from the International Federation of Film Producers Association.
Artistic director Eva Zaoralova, a former film journalist now celebrating her 10th year with Karlovy Vary (alongside president Jiri Bartoska), said that the festival’s growing reputation makes it easier to get quality films for the competition (16 features, 25 docs). “The level of the program, and the level of the audience’s interest, is getting better every year. It’s now easier for us to get international premieres in the competition,” she said. (Films in competition here can’t have previously competed at another international festival.) The winner of the Grand Prix (along with $20,000 in cash) was “Facing Window,” directed by Turkish-born, Italy-based director Ferzan Ozpetek. The Italian melodrama is about a young married couple whose life changes when they meet an old man.
The jury prize went to Lidia Bobrova for “Babusya,” with jury mentions for Alain Corneau’s “Fear and Trembling” and Andor Szilagyi’s “Rose’s Songs.” Ozpetek also won the best director prize, and “Facing Window” actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno shared the acting prize with Sylvie Testud for “Fear and Trembling.” Best actor went to Bjorn Kjellman for the Danish drama “Old, New, Borrowed and Blue.” Among the doc prizes, Ulirch Seidl’s “Jesus, You Know,” won for best long doc, and Esaias Baitel’s “Zonen” won for best doc under 30 minutes. Special mentions were given to Harutyun Khachatryan’s “Armenia,” Margreth Olin’s “My Body,” and Sergey Lznitsa’s “Portrait.”
The town’s prize went to Kim Ki-duk’s “The Coast Guard,” which also won the FIPRESCI prize and the NETPAC Award. The DNES audience award went to “Buddy.” The Philip Morris Film Award went to “Koktebel” and “Edi,” the Don Quijote Prize from the International Federation of Film Societies and the Ecumenical jury award went to “Babusya.” As for student films, Julia Kolesnik’s “Let’s go for a walk” won top honors, with special prizes to Robin van Hardenberg’s “The Shadow” and Kamen Kalu’s “Orpheus.” The best collection of student films was from the Czech Republic’s FAMU.
The festival opened July 4 with a screening of the Czech box-office hit “Pupendo,” (U.S. sales and distribution firm Menemsha Entertainment has foreign rights). Jan Hrebejk’s warmly received film, described as a tragicomedy, concerns a Prague sculptor and his family in the early 1980s who must decide whether or not to follow their friends as they cooperate with the Communist regime. I found the film touching and hilarious (especially the explanation of the kids’ game that gives the film its title), although it probably won’t be a smash success outside of Central and Eastern Europe. “Pupendo” is well-crafted and entertaining, but a bit overly ambitious, striving to combine about four different types of films (lighthearted family comedy, political treatise, artistic statement, and scenic snapshot of a bygone time). Also on opening night, bad-boy Czech director Jiri Menzel got a Special Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema; he didn’t seem too thrilled and only reluctantly thanked the festival (before he changed into a “Very Boring” T-shirt for the opening night gala). Stephen Frears, in Karlovy Vary with “Dirty Pretty Things,” accepted the same honor with a little more aplomb. The opening night black-tie party (where those wearing jeans and T-shirts were still let in) served up gobs of sausages, grilled meats, and assorted frightening jellied appetizers — not to mention free-flowing booze and Pilsner Urquell — at the lush, centuries-old Grandhotel Pupp.
The KVIFF continued with more than 300 films screening at 13 venues across town (most within an easy walk of festival HQ at the Hotel Thermal). One venue, the Imperial Bioscope, a new tent-like mobile theater from France, set up camp in the parking lot of the Thermal.
In addition to the competition, programs here included a retrospective devoted to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, tributes to Jiri Menzel and Joseph Strick, Horizons (international festival faves), Another View (experimental), East of the West (films from the former Communist bloc), Forum of Independents, Variety Critics’ Choice, Czech Films 2002-2003, Focus on Baltic Film (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia), 2003: A Musical Odyssey, The Golem Trilogy by Amos Gitai, Homage to Maurice Pialat and Daniel Toscan du Plantier, Treasures of the European Film Archives, Special Video Screenings, and Student Films.
As if that weren’t enough, visitors could walk the lovely promenade along the Tepla River, venture into the lush woods around town, drink from Karlovy Vary’s hot springs, attend hearty dinners and parties, or slum it with breakbeat-loving backpackers at local discos that looked like Communist rec rooms. There wasn’t much international deal-making done here, as there is no market and only an industry office in its second year. “The Czech Republic is a small market of only 10 million inhabitants; we can’t compete with Cannes, Venice, and Berlin,” Zaoralova told indieWIRE. “Karlovy Vary isn’t the place for real business, but we are the best European festival east of Berlin or Locarno.”
With the diversity of selections, one person couldn’t begin to scratch the tip of the iceberg (also, I attended only the first half of the festival). Of the competition screenings, I was most impressed with Alain Corneau’s “Fear and Trembling,” the tale of a young Belgian woman who works as a translator for a huge Tokyo corporation. Along with sharp writing, the film was immensely helped by the surprisingly shrewd comic talents of actress Sylvie Testud (who was also in Karlovy Vary with “Dead Man’s Memories” and “A Loving Father”). “Fear and Trembling” is like a smarter, more surreal version of “Office Space” for the art-house crowd. The culture clashes and humiliations that Testud suffers here range from touching to hilarious (and sometimes both). Plus, there is a priceless scene in which she calls herself the “Sisyphus of accounting” and dances naked around the office before burying herself in trash. I was also among the masses won over by the Norwegian comedy “Buddy,” by Morten Tyldum (it easily won the audience prize). In this film, a twentysomething slacker named Kristoffer finds sudden fame when his wacky home videos starring his loser friends become a TV hit. The film bowled over the backpackers here, and even though Kristoffer and pals are a little bit “Jackass,” they turned out to possess some emotional depth.
Also in competition was what the festival called a “Dogme murder mystery,” although it didn’t seem to follow most (any?) of the Dogme rules I know and love. The film was beautifully shot but ultimately a bit confusing: the tale of a mysterious French woman (Testud again) who meets a Portuguese cop investigating a murder. The film had some sexy noir overtones, and some striking images, but wasn’t really worth trying to rack your brain for hours afterwards to piece together what really happened. The lone U.S. entry in competition, Wayne Kramer’s “The Cooler,” has some flaws but is a mostly likable tale of unlikely love in Las Vegas. William H. Macy and Maria Bello give their sexiest performances yet. Even Alec Baldwin (oh how it pains me to write this) shows his acting chops here.
Among the docs in competition, I wasn’t able to get into the always sold-out “Jesus, You Know” by Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, but I didn’t hear a single moviegoer utter a bad word about this one. The 87-minute doc, in which Seidl persuades worshippers to talk about their innermost thoughts about God, unsurprisingly captured the jury’s doc award. Of the docs I did see, my favorite was Peter Kerekes’ “66 Seasons,” about the decades of history of a community swimming pool in Kosice, Slovakia. Wake up…it’s much more wildly entertaining than it sounds — the director combines stories from his elderly family members, re-enacted scenes from contemporary pool goers, old photos and footage, and even a Hitler imposter. Town history, war, religion, lost loves: they all come alive at this pool.
The backpackers seemed particularly drawn to the indie section, held at a tiny, steamy theater a few blocks from the Thermal, where the lack of air conditioning and smelly young bodies didn’t make for the most pleasant viewing experience. Among the Forum of Independents selections I saw were Keith Behrman’s “Flower and Garnet,” a quiet but effective study of a dysfunctional Canadian family that had some beautiful scenes and powerful performances by its young stars. Allan Mindel’s quirky “Milwaukee, Minnesota,” about a mentally challenged ice fisherman named Albert, could make a star out of the up-and-comer Troy Garity. The indie selections here were quite diverse, which could explain the inclusion of the only truly abysmal film I saw in Karlovy Vary, “This Girl’s Life” by Ash (never trust a director with just one name). The film, about an Internet porn star (Juliette Marquis), and her Parkinson’s afflicted father (James Woods), was so bad that I saw another critic walk out while the opening credits were still rolling. After about 15 minutes of seeing footage that wouldn’t be fit for 4 a.m. viewing on Cinemax, I followed him out the door.
I heard splendid reviews of several films in the Variety Critics’ Choice program (presented with European Film Promotion), such as France’s “My Camera and Me,” Finland’s “Lovers and Leavers,” and the controversial Czech film “Small Town,” but I only saw two in this program: Dagur Kari’s crazy yet likable Icelandic tale “Noi Albinoi,” and the Hungarian magical-realist film “The Colour of Happiness,” which I found tiresome and not quite as funny as it set out to be.
In the Horizons section of festival favorites, I watched “It is Easier for a Camel,” actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s touching and truthful directorial debut about a young woman conflicted about her wealth; and Ruth Mader’s challenging and stomach-punching “Struggle,” about a young mother who struggles with menial labor before meeting a man who has bizarre sexual fetishes. The film, certainly difficult but worth seeing, had an effective glacial pace in the first half, when it was evoking heightened documentary techniques, but I wasn’t as impressed by the S&M tales dominating the second half. Another Horizons selection was “Good Bye Lenin!,” the Berlinale favorite about a brother and sister who try to hide the fall of the Berlin Wall from their mother after she wakes up from a coma. The film’s self-depricating hero Alex is charismatic enough to carry “Good Bye, Lenin!,” even for those of us who don’t get all the inside jokes about the changes following capitalism’s invasion of East Germany. For folks here who missed Cannes and Berlin, there was also a chance to see some highlights such as Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville,” and Michael Winterbottom’s “In This World.”
Some regulars to the KVIFF said the programming may be getting a little more mainstream and less art-house; one visible sign of that could be a screening of “Dreamcatcher,” a big-budget Lawrence Kasdan film adaptation of a Stephen King book, which was shown because star Morgan Freeman promised to attend. (The star power here wasn’t as big as in some past years.) Notable guests who did make the trip include Gus Van Sant, Jose Padilha (“Bus 174”), Richard Kwietniowsky (“Owning Mahowny”), Scott Saunders (“The Technical Writer”), Ulrich Seidl, Wayne Kramer, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (serving on the jury), actress Brenda Blethyn, Sylvie Testud, Joseph Strick, James Foley, and any Czech actor or director who’s worth a Pilsner Urquell. Terry Gilliam was a few hours away in Prague shooting “Brothers Grimm.”
All in all, the crowds found an A-list festival, a handful of great films and plenty of decent ones, all the spa wafers they could eat and Becherovka liqueur they could drink, plus a dose of Eastern European wackiness, as evidenced by the attraction-grabbing festival trailer that played before each film. Directed by “Year of the Devil” director Petr Zelenka, the short showed two shocked kids who find a night janitor dancing naked on stage in an opera house; it was just crazy enough to please the Czech locals, foreign industry visitors, and smelly backpackers alike.