Karlovy Vary Turns 40 With An A-List Crowd But A Relaxed Vibe
by Wendy Mitchell
The festival trailer for this year's Karlovy Vary International Film Festival declared "life begins at 40"; while this fest has shown liveliness in recent years, it's true that there was a special energy at the event this year. Karlovy Vary celebrated its 40th edition with a nine-day event that wrapped July 9. Although the fest first started in 1945, there were down times during Communist years, and it reinvented itself in 1994. Even with more than 240 high-quality films showing and a series of important guests, the festival maintains its small, relaxed feel (helped by the fairytale-like setting in this small spa town 75 miles west of Prague.)
The festival has always managed to bring in a number of stars for its run, and the A-listers were impressive this year: Robert Redford, Sharon Stone, Gael Garcia Bernal, Liv Ullmann, Matt Dillon, Ali MacGraw, Sarah Polley, Atom Egoyan, Thomas Vinterberg, Raoul Ruiz, Alexander Payne, and dozens more. The beauty of having such important attendees at what feels like a small-town festival means that there's actually the potential to interact with them without velvet ropes -- journalists who've never even heard of Cannes can ask Robert Redford what he thinks of the "Czech womens and beer" and listen to him reminisce about the Watergate era. Matt Dillon could be found late- night at the Thermal hotel's legendary basement bar, while Sarah Polley seemed to be relaxing at a Telefilm Canada party.
That small feel could be on the verge of exploding, some long-time festival attendees worried this year, as more and more industry professionals discover that Karlovy is an important stop on the summer festival circuit. But for now, the intimate size of the town and the structure of festival screenings and parties means that it's quite easy to hobnob with some top players in the European film business. This year there was a 23% increase in accredited festival attendees -- including 569 journalists and 968 film professionals from 42 countries (including dozens of prominent film festival programmers). That said, Karlovy Vary is still not a booming market for international acquisitions (although maybe someday it will be, as the industry office continues to grow and the video room was smartly expanded this year).
The other bonus to Karlovy is that the important festival types usually don't have problems securing tickets to films, but after they are let in, the hundreds of backpackers that overtake the town have a chance at a cheap seat. So few seats go empty and there are far fewer film walkouts than you find at other major festivals. (Perhaps the backpackers are so thankful for a "comfortable" seat that they'll sit through anything.) As a result, filmmakers are usually very, very happy with the crowds they find here. (The downside to the backpackers comes when it's pouring rain outside and they and their fragrant luggage set up indoors in all the hallways at festival HQ the Thermal Hotel.)
As for its programming, Karlovy provides a great place to catch up on films missed in Cannes, see some offbeat international selections, and of course immerse yourself in Eastern European and Czech film. The festival's biggest winner this year was Polish drama "My Nikifor," which won the competition's Crystal Globe, best director for Krzysztof Krauze, and best actress for Krystyna Feldman. Israeli film "What a Wonderful Place" won a special jury prize and actor Uri Gavriel split the Best Actor prize with Luca Zingaretti for "Come into the Light." The jury also gave another special mention to director Sion Sono for "Noriko's Dinner Table."
In the festival's new East of the West competition, Kirill Serebrennikov's "Ragin" was named best film, with a special mention to Wojtek Smarzowski's "The Wedding." The audience award went to Sebastien Rose's Canadian entry "Life With My Father," while the FIPRESCI jury selected Henrik Ruben Genz's "Chinaman" as its winner. "Estamira" by Marcos Prado was best documentary. [For the full list of winners, visit www.kviff.com]
It's hard to make a dent in a program with 242 feature films and only a few days in town. I chose to catch a few Cannes films, try a few from Eastern Europe, and see some of the international offerings. I'll spare you from recapping the ones that bored me (Holocaust drama "Fateless") or were hugely disappointing ("Violent Days" from France).
Of the Cannes selections, I thought Lars von Trier's "Manderlay" was provoking but not nearly as successful as "Dogville," Atom Egoyan's quirky yet predictable "Where the Truth Lies" was still thoroughly entertaining, and Gus Van Sant's "Last Days," based on Kurt Cobain's final days, was rather beautiful in its meditations on stardom and sanity. Hany Abu-Assad's controversial suicide-bomber story "Paradise Now," from the Berlinale back in February, was a revelation. I should have expected as much from Abu-Assad -- whose documentary "Ford Transit" is one of the most revealing films made about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Abu-Assad always manages to put a matter-of-factly human perspective on even the most politicized situations. He will surely be under attack for putting a likable face on suicide bombers, but given the current state of the world, this was a brave and important film to make.
Among the Eastern European offerings, Slovenian drama "Tuning" by Igor Sterk was my favorite. The story of a couple's troubled marriage certainly didn't break new ground in terms of plot, but the subject was so deftly handled with a light touch, and the cinematography and performances so impressive, that I found myself newly intrigued by such hackneyed emotional ground. Other highlights included "Silentium," an Austrian selection that was included in the Variety Critics' Choice, and Polish dark comedy "The Wedding" by Wojtek Smarzowksi. Wolfgang Murnberger's "Silentium" was a confounding but funny crime caper that explored corruption in the Catholic church and in lofty arts organizations. "The Wedding" was a dark comedy about the insane (and drunken) nuptials of a greedy man's daughter and the corruption of a small town. Both films had toyed with absurdity but had deeper ideas at play as well.
There are only a handful of American films that play in Karlovy Vary, and the best I saw was Robinson Devor's "Police Beat," a cop drama like nothing you've seen before. An immigrant policeman responds to a variety of strange calls (shockingly all taken from actual Seattle incidents) but he's more obsessed with his crumbling relationship with a young woman. He becomes more neurotic as she avoids him, and his strange voiceovers become more and more unnerving. The highly original "Police Beat" already played well at Sundance and Seattle; it stands out enough from the pack of other low-budget American indies that it should have a successful life on the festival circuit.
Jeffrey Brown, a Seattle-based producer of "Police Beat" said that he found "a much more lively reception by the Karlovy Vary audience" than at some other European festivals. He points out that it's not uncommon to see the overflow crowd sitting in the aisles, and asking good questions after the film. Likewise, American director Doug Sadler, who brought his film "Swimmers," said he found the festival to be "a delight." He praised the town for its beauty and praised the festival for its hospitality, diverse programming, and enthusiastic crowds. He also found that mingling with filmmakers and industry professionals from across Europe was "a lovely reminder of the breadth of the international film community." The only major gripe routinely heard is about the quality of the theaters and projection -- clearly the festival will need to upgrade some of its facilities to stay in the game in coming years.
Even if the cinemas aren't state of the art, there are far fewer distractions in Karlovy Vary than in Prague (there are only so many times you can wander back and forth on the main cobblestone street.) For a place known for centuries as a wellness town, Karlovy Vary's cuisine is decidedly meat-and-potatoes, usually with Pilsner Urquell or Becherovka (the local liquor). Cheap massages abound at the many spas around town, and you can try your luck drinking from the 13 hot springs. Karlovy Vary wouldn't normally be described as a "happening" place (thank the elderly Russian visitors for that), but during festival time there's certainly enough socializing at the Thermal's bars, nightly receptions on the terrace, or at one or two lavish parties. The highlight of this year's social events were the Telefilm Canada reception, complete with roast suckling pig, at the scenic Diana Tower, and the European Film Promotion/Variety party, which had an outdoor dancefloor (and good weather) for festivalgoers to groove to the sounds of The Festival Band, made up of festival programmers from across Europe -- Stefan Kitanov (Sofia International Film Festival), Stefan Laudyn (Warsaw International Film Festival) and Stefan Uhrík (Karlovy Vary Forum of Independents). It proved to be a most ingenious way to get film geeks to pay attention to musical entertainment, for once. (Although I could have done without their Red Hot Chili Peppers cover.)
All in all, Karlovy Vary showed no signs of middle-aged sluggishness at age 40; in fact, the only worry now is that too many industry players will make it less relaxed in coming years. For now, it's an A- level festival with Z-level attitude, which seems to suit this quiet spa town just fine.