Less than two weeks after the start of Brexit negotiations, the European Union turned to a familiar place to wrestle with its current identity crisis — the movies.
That was the setting last weekend in the Czech Republic, when European Union representatives gathered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival to announce the 10 selections for the Lux Film Prize. At a cocktail lounge in the Grandhotel Pupp, Wes Anderson’s inspiration for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” attendees toasted to the promise and hope of Europe’s shared cultural unity — while 473 miles west in Brussels, one member of that union outlined the terms of its removal.
European Parliament sponsors Lux, and the prizemaking will continue throughout the year. This fall at the Venice International Film Festival, those 10 films will be narrowed down to three, which will be subtitled in all 24 official E.U. languages and distributed into every member country, at which point Parliament will cross its fingers and hope the movies find a way to leave their mark on a fracturing union.
“Of course, all these films discover different elements of Europe today,” said Mira Staleva, managing director of the Sofia International Film Festival in Bulgaria and a member of Lux’s selection board. “Everything that concerns civilization concerns Europe, in a way.”
For 10 years, Karlovy Vary has provided a platform for the award, and it’s a fitting venue for such celebrations. In its quest to understand “Europe today,” Lux acts as a microcosm of Karlovy Vary’s own appeal. While Cannes and Berlin look to the global marketplace, and Locarno has become a region-agnostic auteurist hub, Karlovy Vary is the place to go for the best cinematic window onto Europe today – no matter how grimy that view may be.
Karlovy Vary’s 52nd edition, which runs through July 8, opened with American star wattage. Uma Thurman, Casey Affleck and James Newton Howard accepted opening-night awards, though Thurman arrived late to the opening ceremony, refused to do any press during her visit and did not attend a planned gala dinner for festival sponsors and honored guests. The back half of the festival saw visits from Jeremy Renner (showing off two recent arm fractures from the set of “Avengers: Infinity War”) and, fittingly given the mood of the political moment, Ken Loach and his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty.
But once the initial high of seeing celebrities faded, festival attendees were left to confront what was actually being said in the films before them. The festival’s buzziest entries tackle economic desperation, the rise of violent nationalist movements and Europe’s growing refugee crisis, with a heavy focus on Central and Eastern Europe premieres.
“Politics is something that we don’t want to look away from,” festival artistic director Karel Och said in an interview. “But for us it’s not the first [priority]. We like when it comes through in a sophisticated way.”
Och pointed to two films screening in the festival’s documentary competition program, “The White World According to Daliborek” and “Another News Story,” as examples of the kind of political filmmaking Karlovy Vary aims to support. They each work on different scales: the former is an intimate, highly stylized portrait of a Czech neo-Nazi in a small factory town, while the latter is a broad examination of how the news media covers the refugee crisis. But each has something to say beyond their borders.
“White World” seems to unfold too perfectly for there not to have been some staging involved. But it’s a marvel either way: unsettling, yet laced with dark humor and surprising empathy, it’s like “American History X” meets “The Simpsons.” Dalibor is a nearly 40-year-old skinhead who still lives with his mother and has never been outside the Czech Republic. In between his shifts as an industrial painter at the local factory, he uploads racist rants and homemade, laughably awful death-metal videos to YouTube as mom serves him microwaved sausage. He spews vitriol at Jews, blacks and Roma alike, yet his existence is so pathetic it’s hard not to pity him a little: trawling the Internet for dates he is clearly ill-prepared for; highlighting his goatee with magic marker before he goes out to neo-Nazi rallies; and accepting that his mother will casually walk in on him taking a bath. (Between the confused prejudice, stilted masculinity and all the pratfalls, Dalibor could have been played by Danny McBride.)
Dalibor’s world changes when both he and his mom find partners who bring new, sometimes terrifying ideas into the household. For all his bluster, he seems too much of a coward to be capable of violence. But we’re not so sure about these other folks, particularly his mom’s boyfriend, a manipulative hate-monger who spins graphic tales of having assaulted minorities while in a gang.
The movie ends with a stomach-churning trip to Auschwitz, where the filmmakers break the fourth wall in one of the craziest finales you’re likely to see in a documentary. “White World” treats anxiety over the global rise of nationalism like a whoopee cushion waiting to be punctured, and makes the salient point that hate is often a by-product of loneliness and stupidity.
For “Another News Story,” British documentary filmmaker Orban Wallace traveled to the Greek Isles in summer 2015 to cover the refugees washing ashore in droves, and wound up covering the other journalists filming them. His debut feature is part media criticism, part “Vice”-style trench dive, as he alternates footage of TV news crews staging their shots with his own footage of the refugees themselves (including one nighttime run across the Hungarian border). Wallace is mostly agenda-free throughout, even though his “them vs. me” editing choices make you feel like he’s making a statement on how the refugee crisis should be covered. He prefers to simply demonstrate how the news frames humanitarian crises night after night until any pretense of feeling has been leeched from the reports themselves.
Although Wallace’s “them vs. me” editing choices create the impression that he’s instructing the viewer on how refugee stories ought to be told, he dispelled that interpretation at the festival, saying in an interview that he sees value in TV news reports and simply views documentaries as another means of storytelling. “I can’t say that what we did was any better than news journalists and their approach,” he said. “It’s too big a subject to put my opinion on.”
On the next page: A renewed urgency in genre films.