From its swarms of onlookers hoping to catch a film or a glimpse of a celebrity, to its gorgeous European backdrop – save for a concrete monstrosity that serves as festival headquarters – the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival can feel a lot like Cannes, Jr. upon first glance. But, it quickly becomes clear that this is far from the case. For one, the setting – rightfully described as a “Baroque Disneyland” by many – arguably makes Cannes look like Fort Lauderdale. And those onlookers? Unlike Cannes, they actually get to see the films. Last year, the festival sold 143,781 tickets (which cost just 65 koruna, or $3.50) – a new record – mostly to a wide array of young backpackers and students from the Czech Republic and surrounding countries who camp out during the 8 day event. With beer stands set up through out the town to accomodate the festival’s demographic, you often question whether you’re at a film festival or a college orientation week.
A less reputable – but still charming – difference between the fests is the grade of celebrity that festival goers will spend hours waiting to catch a glimpse of. The festival’s opening gala – an elaborate affair complete with a glitzy stage show and fireworks – focused on a screening of Shana Feste’s Sundance alum “The Greatest.” It was a somewhat puzzling opening night selection. Attendees were as lukewarm to the film as they were at Sundance, and the film’s stars – Susan Sarandon, Pierce Brosnan and Carey Mulligan – were nowhere to be seen. But hundreds still lined up along the red carpet to enthusiastically cheer on just about anybody who walked on it.
The true celebrity arrival of opening weekend came care of the Czech Republic’s most internationally renowned cinematic export, director Milos Forman. Forman was in Karlovy Vary to premiere “A Walk Worthwhile,” a film version of the 1960s Gershwin-style musical from legendary Czech writers Jiri Suchy and Jiri Slitr. Forman directed a revival of the musical at Prague’s National Theater in 2007, and, in a similar vein to Spike Lee’s recent “Passing Strange,” decided to film one of the performances.
“It’s not a standard film,” Forman said at the film’s press conference Saturday. “But in contrast to theater you have the advantage of seeing the actors close up.”
“Walk” follows Uli and Vanilka, a couple on the verge of divorce. Upon news from Liverpool that Vanilka’s rich Auntie will bestow one million pounds on their future child, the couple decide to make things work. This decision is complicated by their greedy divorce lawyer, a mysterious postman, and a visit from the Auntie herself – and various capers ensue. Some of the charm seems lost in translation (which Forman admitted at the press conference, saying the film was made for Czech audiences), but its an inspired and energetic morality tale about money’s corruptive influence.
“It came about in the sixities when no one had any money,” Forman joked. “Now it’s more topical.”
Forman had filmed the musical for television in 1966, two years before he fled to America after he became the target of the Czech communist secret police. Despite this time frame, Forman told journalists at the festival that “there was not a political aim” to the original production or his television adaptation.
“To be honest we would not have thought about it havng any political connotations,” he said. “That would have got us in a lot of trouble.”
“Theatre was very political because it was not political,” “Worthwhile” writer Jiri Suchy added.
The film’s premiere in Karlovy Vary comes as the festival celebrates the twenty year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, when Czech’s Communist government was overthrown. Six films from six different countries – including Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others,” Juliusz Machulski’s “How Much Does The Trojan Horse Weigh?,” and Helena Trestikova’s “Marriage Stories and Marriage Stories 20 Years Later” – are screening in a retrospective called “20 Years of Freedom.”
Commenting on the state of Czech cinema – essentially brought to a standstill by the fall of Communism – Forman said he believed the country’s long traditions of filmmaking “had stood in good stead.”
“I think that Czech movie making is in good shape,” he said.
As for his own filmmaking? Seventy-seven year old Forman – notorious for long gaps between projects (he has only made four features – “Valmont,” “The People Vs. Larry Flynt,” “Man on the Moon” and “Goya’s Ghosts” – since the Velvet Revolution), said in good humor that he’s been running into some trouble lately.
“In the past ten years I was to shoot three movies and all three were stopped just before shooting,” he said. “Whether from lack of money or intelligence on the producer’s part.”
“A Walk Worthwhile” is being released in the Czech Republic this fall. The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival continues through Saturday, and indieWIRE will be reporting throughout the week.