The weather may have been unseasonably chilly for the first half of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, but it didn't have a noticeable impact on the enthusiasm of the crowd. The event takes place in a small spa town and draws thousands of attendees, many of them student backpackers from all over Eastern Europe and beyond. As a result each public screening attended was packed, with student pass holders filling every empty seat and then spilling into the aisles. When not in cinemas, these young audience members, many of whom set up a tent city in a nearby stadium for their stay in Karlovy Vary, would drink and carouse through the early morning hours on both banks of the Teplá River that runs through the heart of the town. Add significant attendance by international and local press and industry, and the festival cuts an impressive figure in the international film festival landscape.
In conversations with other international press and industry professionals attending Karlovy Vary this year, many noted what seemed to be an increased presence of films centering on women. Attending the Czech Republic's most celebrated cultural event for the first time, I can't easily determine if this female focus is in fact unusual or not. Some prior attendees did note that it was interesting that these women's films come into prominence in the first year of longtime fest programmer Karel Och new role as Artistic Director, taking over the position from Eva Zaoralová, who instead served this year as Artistic Consultant.
Regardless of whether this was a deliberate programming move or just happenstance, femme feature-length films were represented in virtually every section of the 46th annual event. Also noteworthy is that, of the roughly two dozen titles that featured female protags, about half were also directed or co-directed by women.
Perhaps presaging the fest embrace of the distaff side, Karlovy Vary launched last Thursday night with Cary Joji Fukunaga "Jane Eyre," which also spotlighted a strong performance from this year's Crystal Globe Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Dame Judi Dench, who was in attendance opening night to accept the honor. The fest will come to a close tomorrow night with Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris."
Among the women's pictures screening here that have already generated attention at other events over the past several months are Eva Mulvad "Grey Gardens" redux, "The Good Life;" Athina Rachel Tsangari deliciously provocative "Attenberg;" Wim Wenders tribute to the legendary Pina Bausch, "Pina;" Abdellatif Kechiche controversial Venice competition title "Black Venus;" Ole Giaever Sapphic "The Mountain," which premiered in Berlin; Lisa Aschan coming of ager, "She-Monkeys;" Alice Rohrwacher Director's Fortnight title "Corpo Celeste;" Jannicke Systad Jacobsen Tribeca screenplay winner, "Turn Me On, Goddammit;" Joe Wright's teen girl assassin pic "Hanna;" and Andrey Zvyagintsev Un Certain Regard closer (and jury award winner), "Jelena."
Other Karlovy Vary films spotlighting the fairer sex that I didn't get a chance to screen include Christian Schwocow "Crack in the Shell," referred to by many here as "the German 'Black Swan;" Montxo Armendáriz "Don't Be Afraid," a disturbing story about child abuse; Joshua Moore's Cassavetes-inspired relationship drama, "I Think It's Raining;" Urszula Antoniak sophomore effort, "Code Blue," a portrait of an emotionally disturbed nurse; Zuzana Liová's "The House," about a daughter's conflict with her father's expectations; Andreas Horvath & Monika Muskala's documentary competition title, "Arab Attraction," profiling a feminist who becomes the second wife of a younger Yemeni man; and a retrospective screening of Barbara Loden's 1970 Venice award-winner, "Wanda," her only film.
The women-centered films I did view at the festival display a wide range of tones and approaches, though most share a certain bleakness that seems especially fitting for an Eastern European festival.
"Women With Cows"
One of three documentaries screened with a female focus, Swedish director Peter Gerdehag's portrait of sisters Britt and Ingrid makes its international premiere here in the documentary competition. The film is a sort of mix of "Old Partner" and "Grey Gardens" - but instead of oxen and a mother-daughter pair, Gerdehag profiles a pair of sisters and their relationship to the cows on their family farm. Britt loves cows - she has essentially given up her life for them, putting off marriage until it was too late so she could tend to the farm she inherited from her father. Walking literally doubled over due to a badly healed back injury sustained from tending to her beloved bovines, she appears to be grazing alongside her thirteen cows when she walks. Her physical limitations and advanced age make it difficult for her to keep up with the farm work - half of the milking she does ends up outside of the bucket - so she depends on her younger sister, Ingrid, who decidedly doesn't share Britt's enthusiasm for cows, but begrudingly helps out. When Ingrid's own health is threatened, she refuses to work the farm any longer, leading to difficult decisions for Britt's animals. Gerdehag's film is as modest as Britt's farm, which is to its advantage. It presents a portrait of sisterhood, stubbornness, and frailty which is sometimes humorous and sometimes deeply poignant, and made it one of the most memorable of the films I saw at the fest.
"Coal in the Soul"
Martin Dusek & Ondrej Provaznik's documentary also focuses on two women - but in this case, what connects them is not family ties, but coal. Brown coal deposits under Horni Jiretin may mark the end of the small Czech village in northern Bohemia. Libena, a mother of two and a spokeswoman for the coal company that aims to flatten the village to get access to the resources, is almost disturbingly enthusiastic about her job and the benefits mining has brought to her life and to the region. In decided contrast, Hana, a resident of Horni Jiretin and the warden of a castle, is resolute in wanting to preserve her home and its cultural landmarks, and wary of the company's claims of environmental stewardship and recultivation. Both women are clear in their convictions, resulting in an engaging and very personal approach to an issue-oriented project. Dusek and Provaznik's hour-long film claimed the Best Czech doc at Jihlava last year.
On the sixth anniversary of their grandmother Marija's death, director Zeljka Sukova and her two sisters organize a commemorative celebration in this Croatian film included in the fest East of the West competition section spotlighting Eastern European cinema. After Marija's granddaughters introduce themselves to the camera, one of the sisters reveals that she is in fact an actress playing the part of Sukova's sister, signaling that this is a hybrid documentary. Attending their party are a half dozen of Marija's relatives and old friends, and in between drinking, eating, and reminiscing about the departed, they enjoy the bizarre song stylings of a famous Czech band, Midi Lidi, and are challenged to come up with the gravestone decoration, which was left blank at Marija's burial. The pitching sessions (and crude drawings) for the latter are truly remarkable and hilarious, especially a couple of the older women's suggestions involving an invalid Pope John Paul and some pigeons. While the viewer may not be completely clear on where the reality ends and the fiction begins (and I'm not sure why the fiction might be needed at all), there's something that works more often than it doesn't in this odd duck of a film, and attains a level of genuine affection that cuts through whatever artifice is brought into play.
Bosnia & Herzegovina's Ahmed Imamovic also brings his film to Karlovy Vary for its European premiere in the East of the West competition, and, like Sukova's film, centers on dealing with the loss of a loved one. The film's protagonist, Ruvedja, is a widow, living as a refugee from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Though she has family around her, including her paraplegic brother Alija, she feels the haunting presence of her husband, leading her to stand vigil with other war widows seeking information on the location of their lost husbands' and children's bodies, and, most significantly, to stalk the man she blames as the perpetrator of the massacre. Meanwhile, her nephew, Ado, reflects the desires of a younger generation to move past the war and escape his surroundings, winning a spot on the local version of the "Big Brother" reality show, much to his mother's consternation. Shooting in stark black and white - counterpointed with the glossy, color "Big Brother" sequences - Imamovic evokes a classical atmosphere that lends both weight and timelessness to Ruvedka's tragedy.
The final East of the West competition title with strong female leads is Georgian director Ketevan Machavariani's "Salt White," making its world premiere at Karlovy Vary. Two of its three protagonists are female - the waitress Nana and the young homeless girl, Sopo, joined by Abkhazian refugee-turned-policeman, Niko. On the coast of the Black Sea, their lives intersect as they try to make peace with their pasts, break free from the constrictions of their present routines, and forge a better, or at least different, future. For her feature debut, Machavariani has chosen a story that appears simple on its surface, but the characters bear the imprint of decades of political and ethnic turmoil. The monotony and hopelessness of their day-to-day lives are a result, and what "Salt White" tries to explore, to some success, is what happens when circumstances force them to seek an escape and consider the possibility of something different somewhere. It perhaps takes a bit too long to get there, but that in itself echoes the realities of its characters.
Looking to the festival's main Competition, this international premiere by Russian director Igor Voloshin follows a Ukrainian woman, Rita, to St Petersburg, to act as a surrogate for a gay Russian couple. While she attempts to act businesslike with her clients, calls from her frenzied mother reveal Rita's motivations for taking on this job - her daughter, suffering from leukemia, is in need of costly medical treatments to have even a slim chance of surviving. As her daughter's condition worsens, Rita must quickly adapt to rampant corruption and crime to achieve her goals, and ultimately take her chance on a last, desperate hope. While the film as a whole just didn't work for me, the main performance is certainly notable - lead Olga Simonova makes for a striking, if dour, presence in the film, willing to go to what few would argue are unlikely lengths to save her child, but her doggedness does carry the audience through the story, despite its at times far-fetched developments.
Also screening in the main Competition, and also uneven, German Ziska Riemann's debut brings together a pair of teenage girls - alternative, dark-haired stunner Oona and the more strait-laced blonde Ari - in an unexpected but organic friendship. Oona's bohemian artist family is shaken up after her mother's infidelity leads to her father's suicide. Ari's home life is just slightly better - her clueless mom coddles her malingering brother while her ineffectual father looks on - leading her to rebel first by acting out sexually, and later by adopting some of her new friend's darker trappings. Additional betrayals push both characters past the brink in a not-entirely-convincing climax, but despite some significant missteps in plot, tone, and character (all of the adults are either willfully or ignorantly thoughtless and inconsiderate to the leads), Riemann and her young actresses bring a welcome injection of energy and brashness to the proceedings.
Nearer the opposite end from "Lollipop"'s comic-book pop stylization is the reserved kitchen sink realism of Eleanor Burke & Ron Eyal's film, which made its international premiere in the Forum of Independents section. Coming off a Grand Jury win at Slamdance at the beginning of the year, "Stranger Things" tells the significantly more subdued story of another, much less flashy Oona - this one a dowdy thirty-something daughter who is also dealing with a parent's death (clearly another theme in the fest lineup). Cleaning up her eccentric mother's home to put it on the market, Oona, a would-be anthropologist, slowly begins to come to terms with missteps she's made in her life after she encounters Mani, a homeless man who attempts to take refuge in the empty house. A quiet film that may be just a bit too slight for some viewers, "Stranger" impresses with its deliberate sense of pace and very believable, convincingly awkward performances that impart an authenticity that pays off for patient audiences, despite an ending that doesn't quite ring true.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, a documentary film and festival consultant, and a regular contributor to indieWIRE. Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).