By Indiewire | Indiewire July 18, 2002 at 2:00AM
FESTIVAL: Bloc Party; Karlovy Vary Kicks It Back
by Matthew Ross
(indieWIRE: 07.18.02) -- The world film festival circuit boasts a good number of unusually pleasing experiences, and Karlovy Vary is one of them. Situated in a bucolic spa town in the heart of the former socialist bloc, the 10-day event has steadily maintained its reputation as the best film festival in Central or Eastern Europe.
This year, Karlovy Vary hosted its 37th festival since 1947. (Under the Communist regime, it alternated every year with the Moscow Film Festival.) Unencumbered by the pressures of hosting a film market, festival organizers continued to focus their attention on screening top films on the fest circuit and providing a showcase for regional filmmaking talent. This year, artistic director programming head Eva Zaoralova screened nearly 300 titles. The impressive selection offered circuit regulars the chance to catch some titles they may have missed in Cannes, Berlin, or Sundance, and it also presented the opportunity to scrounge for a hidden gem among the various sidebar sections featuring work from the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe. One such film was Czech director Bohdan Slama's "Wild Bees," which Sarajevo Film Festival programmer Howard Feinstein picked up despite having already closed his selection. "I realized after two days here that I had to reopen the Sarajevo selection because there are so many great Eastern European films," Feinstein told indieWIRE. "Now I realize I have to come here every year -- one-stop shopping. I used the Havana Film Festival for Latin American films, and this is going to be my place in the future [for Eastern Europe]."
Programmer Zaoralova told indieWIRE that Karlovy doesn't necessarily strive to become the next Cannes. "In Cannes it's really the big and the best," she said. "We can say that our festival is on the same level of San Sebastian and Moscow. There are some festivals worse than ours, but I won't tell you which ones." (Later in the conversation, Zaoralova did concede that Moscow is Karlovy's main competition, and that "some people say that we have a better program, but I haven't been there, so I don't know.")
Among the highlights at this year's event were two Cannes winners: Im Kwon Taek's period drama "Chihwaseon" (co-winner for best director) and: Aki Kaurismaki's crowd-pleasing comedy "The Man Without a Past" (grand jury prize). While neither film may be considered a major work, both served as evidence of two extremely different directors in full control of their respective filmmaking skills. Other lesser but nonetheless worthwhile efforts included Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her" and Dragan Marinkovoc's "Boomerang."
Standout documentaries included Deborah Dickson's "Ruthie & Connie: Every Room in the House," Lucy Walker's "Devil's Playground" and Christian Frei's "War Photographer." The sidebar section devoted to the work of late Dutch documentarian Johan van der Keuken was fantastic. In addition to his feature-length work, the retrospective also included several of the director's shorts from the early '60s.
By all accounts, the real draw for industry attendees at Karlovy Vary is that the frenzy and social mongering that characterize most major festivals is conspicuously absent here. Along with the lack of major sales activity, Karlovy Vary offers mild weather, unbelievably cheap eats (complete dinners average around $12), and many peculiar, often amusing reminders of the vast expanse of European cultural sensibility.
By far the most obvious example of the cultural divide between East and West is this year's festival theme group, a trio of wise-cracking Czech musicians in shiny brown zoot suits. Along with gracing the cover of the festival program guide, the guys and their peculiar brand of music and Czech humor were on display in trailers that screened before every film in the program. (The spots can be viewed on the web at www.kviff.com.)
"What I love about this festival is that it's really laid back," said festival veteran and filmmaker Deborah Dickson, who made her first trip to Karlovy Vary with sales rep Lynda Hansen to present "Ruthie & Connie: Every Room in the House." The film, which tells the story of two nice married Jewish girls from Brooklyn who fall in love with each other and stay together, has been tearing up the U.S. gay and lesbian festival circuit since its premiere at Berlin earlier this year. "Karlovy Vary epitomizes what many people would consider great about going to certain film festivals. It's a terrific town, and there's enough of a film industry here so that you can connect with your colleagues," she said. "You have time to talk and hang out with people, which you usually don't have time to do at the large festivals that pull in the entire industry. It's got a lot of great films, but not a whole lot of new films. I consider it catch-up time, getting a chance to see films that I didn't catch this year at some of the other major festivals."
While the stamp of corporate sponsorships and the new capitalism were on full display at events like the Philip Morris gala (featuring a large re-creation of the set from Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge"), there was also the view every morning of throngs of college-age backpackers emerging half-clothed from their sleeping bags next to the side entrance of festivals headquarters at the Thermal Hotel.
"People come here and they are starving for movies," said U.S. writer-director Eric Eason, who attended with his debut feature "Manito." "They are holding coolers, they are sitting in aisles. We were screening a movie that held 400 people and at some point we did a head count, and there had to be 200 people down one aisle and 200 people down another aisle. And that is for every film, not just mine." Indeed, seemingly every screening that isn't initially sold out soon becomes a packed house at Karlovy Vary once the doors are open to the public five minutes prior to showtime. At a screening for "Devil's Playground" in one of the Thermal's smaller venues, a crowd of about 100 eager moviegoers was turned away after every available chair and floor spot was taken by the initial rush. The film, about Amish teenagers, went on to receive a special mention from the documentary jury.
While festival organizers have stepped up efforts to coordinate business with the introduction of a new film industry liaison office this year, the decision to brand the festival as a cultural event. "The Cannes festival is about money, this is more about fun," festival director Jiri Bartoska told indieWIRE. "It is a place where you can exchange ideas and exchange information about your cultures, and that is important. We want to able to create a bridge between East and West, and although this may sound a bit too much, you must remember that this country lies in the heart of Europe. We can do it."