Flooded With Films (and a Bit of Rain) at Karlovy Vary 2004
by Wendy Mitchell
It could have shaped up to be a lackluster year for the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival: it was the event's 39th edition (not as exciting as a decade-ending anniversary), funding was down from previous years, and one night it rained so hard that the festival's main venue was temporarily flooded. But despite it all, it was a strong year for KVIFF, which ran in the Czech Republic spa town of Karlovy Vary from July 2-10.
No doubt there will be special 40th anniversary programming next year, but Karlovy Vary didn't hold back from programming some strong retrospectives, tributes, and competition films in 2004. By most accounts, this year's competition films were stronger than recent years, and popular sidebars included the Ten Best Turkish Films, a Tribute to John Cassavetes, and a number of films by Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf and doc legend Albert Maysles (who both made the trek to the festival). Of course, regional fare was also prominent. One reason that Karlovy Vary is such an important festival on programmers' schedules is its offering of a wide variety of selections from the Czech Republic and also the former Soviet bloc countries. It's a one-stop shop for a festival programmer who needs a handful of Eastern European titles to add to their mix. This year's East of the West section included 16 films from Russia, Poland, Croatia, Estonia, and beyond. Fourteen Czech productions played, and special industry-only screenings of other Czech offerings were arranged for buyers and programmers. In total, there were fewer films this year (235), a move the festival made because organizers said attendees seemed overwhelmed when they previously offered around 300 films.
Festival winners this year were the grand prize Crystal Globe (with $20,000) to Andrea Frazzi's "A Children's Story," a special jury prize to "Tu" (Here) by Zrinko Ogresta, and the best director prize to Xavier Bermudez for "Leon and Olvido." Best actress prizes went to Karen-Lise Mynster in "Aftermath," Marta Larralde for "Leon and Olvido," and the best actor prize to Max Riemelt in "Napola." The doc prize was given to Russia's "Wedding of Silence" by Pavel Medvedev, with special mentions going to Jiska Rickels' Dutch film "Days Under" and "No Regrets" by Czech director Theodora Remundova. The audience award went to "The Story of the Weeping Camel," the German/Mongolian non-fiction film that's been sweeping the fest circuit and has already hit theaters stateside from THINKFilm. The Philip Morris Award went to Vinko Bresan's "The Witnesses," the FIPRESCI prize went to Russian drama "My Step-Brother Frankenstein" by Valery Todorovsky, the Don Quijote prize went to Iranian director Ali-Reza Amini's "The Riverside," the ecumenical prize went to Lisa Cholodenko's "Cavedweller," and the first Czech TV prize for the Forum of Independents section went to Mark Milgard's "Dandelion."
The standouts for this writer included the Slovenian competition entry, "Pod njenim oknom" (Beneath Her Window), about a 30-year-old dance instructor coping with her married lover, her wisecracking mother, the king cobra her father mails her, and the strange young man who seems to be following her. (That cute stalker looked a little like a Slovene Jake Gyllenhaal -- there are worse problems). Metod Pevec's third feature was a real charmer: it was a rare crowd pleaser that had plenty of offbeat moments and genuine emotions; it should be a highlight on the festival circuit this year.
The best doc I saw was "Cesky Sen" (Czech Dream), a stunt film that would make Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock proud. Vit Klusak and Filip Remunda amazingly made the film as students at the Prague Film Academy; it seems far more polished and accomplished than a student film. The pair enlisted the help of a major advertising agency (BBDO) to "launch" a fake hypermarket (supermarket) named Cesky Sen in suburban Prague. Through fliers, commercials, and billboards, they touted the supermarket's impossibly low prices, and they dared consumers NOT to come on opening day. When a few thousand people showed up, they found only a fake storefront and an empty meadow. Those fooled were even more outraged when it was revealed that this prank had been financed by their own tax dollars -- the filmmakers had a state-funded film grant. The filmmakers fairly effectively made their point about consumerism in post-Communist Czech society, and they also concede that thrifty consumers anywhere in the world might have been just as gullible to fall for 5-cent yogurt and $20 TVs. It's easy to see how some consumers might be enticed -- a week after seeing the film, I STILL find myself still humming the saccharine jingle that was recorded for the supermarket commercials. The film ultimately didn't delve as deeply as it could have into the culture of advertising, still -- at least as an outsider -- I loved the comparisons between the money spent on these supermarket ads and the money the Czech government spent on ads touting the country's recent joining of the European Union.
"The Edukators," Hans Weingartner's Austrian-German co-production that premiered in Cannes, also was a hit with the young audiences in Karlovy (IFC Films will release it in the U.S.). This film also had a similar anti-consumerist angle, albeit from the very fictional tale of three idealists who try to disrupt the lives of the wealthy by breaking into mansions and rearranging the furniture. When one of the bourgeois pigs is actually harmed during a break-in, the three find themselves in a confounding situation that calls into question just how devoted they are to their radical ideas. And of course, there is the inevitable love triangle (understandable when Daniel Bruhl is in the picture). The film had a fantastic energy (especially during the first half), compelling acting, and a few late twists and turns that kept the audience's attention.
I also was impressed with another Cannes debut, Cate Shortland's "Somersault," a poetically shot coming-of-age story about a confused teenage girl who runs away from home after seducing her mother's boyfriend. The themes may have seemed familiar, but Shortland (and lead actress Abbie Cornish) did a fine job of capturing the awfulness of adolescence. Also stirring up attention was "Masnap" (After the Day Before), a slow-paced, mind-bending story of a stranger who comes to a small Hungarian town and becomes wrapped up in a young girl's murder -- this one is worth seeing for the stunning cinematography alone.
Less enthralling were "Papa" (Daddy), a Russian melodrama that had some weak performances and a made-for-TV quality, and the self-indulgent "Lucky Jack - Three Attempts to Stop Smoking," a man's video journal of a long walk as he attempts to break the nicotine habit.
A number of high profile guests attended the 39th Karlovy Vary festival -- anyone from Vaclav Havel to Cheech Marin (let's hope those two didn't get much alone time). Festival programming coordinator Julietta Zacharova told indieWIRE, "We really had a good celebrity presence: Harvey Keitel at the opening, Jacqueline Bisset in the middle, and John Cleese for the closing, so they were spread out." Elijah Wood, in Prague (less than two hours away) to shoot Liev Schreiber's adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything is Illuminated," stirred up the most fanatic response in Karlovy Vary (and stopped by an MTV party in town). Some enthusiastic German gals at the press conference were even inclined to give him some pornographic drawings.
Despite the stars, the festival atmosphere is mostly relaxing, thanks to the vibe in this small town famous for its healing waters and restorative cures. As one visiting European festival programmer put it, the usual visitors to Karlovy are "geriatrics, people who are sick, and people who want to be sick." Not so this week -- sure there are plenty of Russian and German old folks hobbling around from hot spring to hot spring, but the badge-wearing festival crowds overwhelm the streets. As usual, hoards of young Czech backpackers flood the town for cheap films and cheap beer; even though they get a bit smelly by midweek (especially in un-airconditioned theaters), they are mostly well behaved as they wait patiently in line for the chance to see films. They seem enthused by most any kind of cinematic offerings, from Latvian docs to more mainstream fare. Backpackers not withstanding, Zacharova said this year's festival had seemed to attract more middle-aged locals as well. "It's a more mixed local crowd than two or three years ago," she said. "Many people in their 40s and 50s are coming to the festival."
Almost 700 industry attendees were at the 2004 festival, with some new faces added since last year, Zacharova said. Newcomers included Edinburgh Film Festival artistic director Shane Danielson, representatives from Telefilm Canada, and new European Film Promotion members. Seattle-based director Mark Milgard, who made his first trip to Karlovy Vary with his Sundance premiere feature "Dandelion," said he had been invited to the festival after his screening at Rotterdam, and he highly recommended that more U.S. directors make the trip. "This is a very special film festival," he told indieWIRE as the KVIFF came to a close. "I don't know that I've ever experienced the kind of enthusiasm for film. All of the other festivals are enthusiastic and supportive, but to see people waiting outside for two hours before your film starts, and to see people sleeping in parks and in their cars is amazing." "Dandelion" screened in the Forum of Independents section, which typically attracts the young locals in droves, and the impassioned audience members impressed him at the "Dandelion" screenings. "The Q&As were incredible, there were a lot of questions, a lot of interesting and thoughtful questions," Milgard said. He also met a number of overseas distributors, talked to Czech TV about a potential deal, and captured the Forum of Independents' top prize. "This has been a very good experience for me, and not just because I've won an award. It's because I really believe that the organizers care a great deal about this festival and your experience," he said. "There's such passion about film."
Unlike festivals in larger cities, the KVIFF can really take over this town. There's not much more to do here other than take a hike in the lovely woods, get spa treatments, or sit around in outdoor cafes (too bad, since the great majority of food here is abysmal -- lackluster pizzas or various fried meat cutlets). The theaters are spread around town, with the majority at festival HQ the Thermal Hotel (convenient, if something of a communist eyesore). Some of the more gorgeous screening spaces don't necessarily make the best viewing rooms (e.g. the crackling sound at the Mestske Divadlo) but overall projection quality was fine and the electronic subtitling systems worked well. For entertainment, there are big opening and closing galas as well numerous private cocktail receptions at the Thermal terrace (the party space up by the pool on the hillside offers a particularly great view). In the wee hours, the basement bar of the Thermal (affectionately known as Club Hell) this year had a rather puzzling Mexican theme -- after a few tequila shots, it seemed like a great idea to stay out dancing all night and forget about those morning screenings.