By Indiewire | Indiewire July 20, 2000 at 2:00AM
FESTIVALS: 35th Karlovy Vary Bigger, Better, and No Business
by Michael Lee
(indieWIRE/7.20.2000) -- It was a kinder, gentler festival at Karlovy Vary this year. Though it was bigger than ever, with two extra days, over 300 films and 30% more accreditations, bringing the number to 8000, almost all of the newly badged were students, the group that drove this festival in the early '90s. The corporate forces that last year yearned to bring the festival the elitist glitter of Cannes or Venice seem to have fallen to their knees.
"Don't you think it's boring this year?" asked Martin, a world-class Czech guitarist who's been seen at almost all the classiest VIP functions in Vary since the VIPs didn't have to be Communist. "It lacks energy."
The symbolic Crystal Globe (the festival's award moniker) has been redesigned around the figure of a naked woman holding the sphere above her head; in the Festival trailer more than a dozen naked women perform a dance on the theme, and several of the VIP parties, as well as the closing ceremonies, featured these women, live and nude. So why was it boring? Maybe just because it rained so much.
"It's true that it's gentrified a bit," said Amir Bar-Lev, here with his first feature, the documentary "Fighter," in competition. "But the fact is that Czechs have an inbred distrust of elitism. They don't want everything to be flashy and big." With its local content -- the relationship between two Czech cultural figures of this century, Arnost Lustig and Jan Weiner -- "Fighter" was an early audience favorite to win, as it did already in Newport.
"What is so different about Karlovy Vary," said actor Julian Sands (promoting Mike Figgis' 1998 film "The Loss of Sexual Innocence"), "is the history. Lermontov set parts of 'A Man of Our Time' here. But also the kids, it's amazing, how they'll sleep out on the ground and stand in line for an hour to pack a midnight screening."
At that screening, Sands openly invited anyone to stop him and ask him questions on the street. But the few people who took him up on his offer merely congratulated or thanked him and then let him keep moving. Difference between Cannes and Vary #1: stars aren't hassled here. They're hardly even recognized. When we went with Sands to the Look Model party at the Villa, the three beautiful girls at the door tried to stop him, and it was the third in our group, who'd been videotaping parties for a local web site, who used his name to get us all in.
Difference between Cannes and Vary #2: only a handful of megastars show up, leaving celebrities from other, non-American cultures some space. Though Woody Harrelson was here for the second straight year, this time to introduce the documentary "Grass," in competition, which he narrates -- and Alicia Silverstone ("Love's Labour's Lost") and Sands were all at that same Model event -- the biggest accretion of world-class stars didn't happen until Edward Norton showed up on Thursday with his first film as a director, the long-ago-released-in-the-US "Keeping the Faith."
For household names, that's about it. But Iranian great Abbas Kiarostami was the head of the fiction jury and showed "The Wind Will Carry Us." Richard Leacock, the chief judge of the documentary competition, had a surprise screening of his most recent video "A Musical in Siberia," Spanish legend Carlos Saura was feted for his career, and showed his new film "Goya in Bordeaux." Mostly, though, it's lesser-known directors and their lesser-known, but usually deserving, films.
Vary has also, by design or accident, given up any pretense to doing business. No more vacillating film markets, no more EU funding seminars or producer's forums (there was one Czech producing group press conference, but it was moved at the last minute and most people missed it).
Some might not view this change as positive, but the Hughes brothers do. "Cannes is all the assholes you don't want to see in one place at one time," said Alan, or was it Albert, anyway, one of the American brothers, who are in Prague directing "From Hell" and who cruised to Vary for an evening to introduce their documentary "American Pimp," in competition. "Sundance made us appreciate Cannes," said the other brother. "The further you get from Hollywood, the better it is for the films -- like here: no agents, no business, just people watching movies."
Too many people watching too many films, Lech Majewski thinks. The writer-producer of "Basquiat," who brought his latest, "Wojaczek," the biography of a suicidal Polish poet of the 60s, was last at the KVIFF 24 years ago. "Back then every single film was special. How can you watch even ten percent now. It's become impersonal."
"Fighter's" Amir disagrees. "We've been here twice before and have so many friends here. This time around, for us, the Festival's all about seeing friends. It's such an honor to be able to finally bring the film here and show it to these people and have them respond so well. The parties have always been great, and easy to crash. But ultimately, it's all about the films."
Amir has a point. The quality of the films at Vary is higher this year than it's ever been. For once, the opening night film wasn't a rehashed American blockbuster or Cannes winner, but the world premiere of "Aberdeen," a Norwegian-UK co-production directed by Hans Petter Moland, and starring Stellen Skarsgard and young Lena Headey. Thirteen of the nineteen competition films this year were world or international premieres, a record percentage for Vary: these included the latest films from famed Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr ("The Big Animal"), and Vary favorite, Icelandic director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson ("Angels of the Universe") both of who attended.
The East of West section, featuring films from former Soviet countries, was strong and unique as ever, including Sundance entry "Beyond the Ocean," made by an American, Tony Pemberton, who has moved to Moscow and will be making more half-Russian movies in the future.
The indieWIRE favorite, Forum of Independents, brought over a group of American directors; the crowd favorite among them, Stuart Culpepper, writer, director, producer, and star of "The Origin of Man" now wants to move to Prague to make a film there. Another of the filmmakers, Milton Moses Ginsberg, was here with his only feature "Coming Apart" from over 30 years ago -- long forgotten, recently resurrected, claimed to have inspired Warhol, and called genius.
But the most interesting films in the Forum of Independents sidebar were the ones from Europe and Asia -- including a trio of films by Korean director Hong Sang-Soo ("Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors") and films from countries like Germany and Austria, where "independent film" is a tautology, or else masochistic. Jens Jenson told a sold out crowd how he made his film "Amerika" with absolutely no government funding, an almost unheard of practice for a German. A particular favorite was the outstanding series of short films, including "Verzaubert" ("Enchanted"), a student film by 22-year-old Christian Ditter, which is Academy Award material. Another notable short film at Karlovy Vary, which won Best Short Documentary, was Karin Wegsjo's "Part of the World that Belongs to You" a must-see Swedish 10-minute tribute to cows and the ways they struggle to be free of their milky prisons.
If awards are indeed a measure of high quality, the Karlovy Vary winners went like this: Grand Prize: Crystal Globe to 29-year-old Brazilian director Andrucha Waddington's "Me You Them" (which Sony Pictures Classics will release in 2001); Special Jury Prizes to Jerzy Stuhr's "The Big Animal," a touching black and white film about a camel, and Lee Chang-Dong's "Peppermint Candy," a crazy jump back in time as a man tries to commit suicide in front of a train; Best Director was Croatian Vinko Bresan for "Marshall Tito's Spirit;" Best Actress, Regina Case in "Me You Them;" Best Actors, Ian Hart for "Aberdeen" and Hamid Farokhnezad for "Arous-E Atash" ("Bride of Fire"); Special Jury Mentions went to Bernard Rapp's "Une affaire de gout" (A Matter of Taste) and Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's "Angels of the Universe"; Best Documentary Feature was Lars-Lennart Forsberg's "My Mother Had Fourteen Children," Documentary Jury Prizes also went to Anna Petkova's (The Sentence-The Accusation) and Amir Bar-Lev's audience favorite, "Fighter." The audience award went to "Angela's Ashes."
[Michael Lee is a filmmaker and writer, splitting his time between New York and Prague.]