Czech Dream: The 49th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Though the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival bills itself as “the most important film event in Central and Eastern Europe,” such a bold declaration belies the fact that KVIFF is anything but snobby and self-serious. Back in 2011 I covered the prestigious fest, located in a fairytale scenic, spa city – once frequented by Beethoven and Goethe – about an hour-and-a-half from Prague by car. (That would be a BMW, the “official car” of KVIFF, the company having its own “BMW Zone” where you can check out the latest models nearby the ultra-chic Grandhotel Pupp.) Returning three years later I still find myself surprised by how young this nearly 50-year-old festival feels.
Taking advantage of the Czech Republic’s location as the crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe, KVIFF sees itself as a cultural bridge – East of the West is one of four competition categories – but it also serves as a unique generational one. It’s hard to imagine twenty-something backpackers from all over the country filling a thousand-plus seat theater for a “Tribute to Elio Petri” screening of 1970’s Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion anywhere in America. But I witnessed such at the Hotel Thermal headquarters’ Grand Hall, sitting fire-hazardously in the aisle right alongside the rest of the spillover crowd on the floor. KVIFF’s programming veers towards an older demographic – it’s not hard to find flicks that premiered at Cannes and Berlin – but the festival itself is decidedly geared to the iPhone addicted, socially multitasking, Spring Breakers set.
For example, looking for something to do between screenings? Simply check the very user-friendly festival app, perhaps while relaxing at the HBO GO Internet Cafe. (Never fear if you’re of the newspaper generation, though, as the Festival Daily can be found – in both Czech and English – throughout headquarters and in stands along main Vřídelní street.) Not interested in seeing this year’s Crystal Globe recipient Mel Gibson walk the red carpet (that would be me) or squeezing into the Master Class of William Friedkin? How about enjoying the sunny weather with a free bike rental instead? Maybe take in some open-air theater under the bridge on an endlessly long European summer night? Or perhaps Tea at Three with Czech filmmakers? Coffee at the Nespresso Café? Beer at the Lobowicz tent? Food (pretty much everywhere)? A makeover at the Douglas Beauty Studio? Clothing at the Festival Fashion Market? All-night discoing at the Peklo Club? Billiards? Fireworks? How about crashing from overstimulation at the Vodafone beach?
Call me old-fashioned, but I just wanted to see great movies. Luckily, that I did. Indeed, it took a bit of willpower for me to forego the predictable gems I could catch back in the states for the unheralded discoveries. Skipping Steve James’s Life Itself which played in the Out of the Past program, and Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth’s 20,000 Days on Earth, which screened in Another View – or the more helpfully titled Život Rogera Eberta and Nick Cave: 20 000 dni na Ziemi, respectively, in Czech – was especially difficult.
But several films made it worth the wait and then some, beginning with a refreshing Belgian flick that won’t be under the radar for long. Not surprisingly, Teodora Ana Mihai’s Waiting for August nabbed the top prize for Best Documentary Film over 30 minutes long. The film’s been on my radar since Hot Docs, where it won best international feature, and it’s a subtle stunner. Following a small town Romanian family headed by 15-year-old Georgiana, who acts as fulltime caregiver to her six siblings while their single mother works in Italy to provide for them, the doc eschews any moralizing or easy answers. Instead, we get a glimpse into the complicated everyday reality of a child forced to take on adult responsibilities while she blossoms into a teenager. With respectfully nonintrusive filmmaking, Mihai allows us to get close to Georgiana, whose quiet acceptance of her situation and protective love for her family are nothing short of remarkable. So is the iron will of the siblings’ mother, very present in their lives via Skype, who — though heartbroken by the decisions poverty has pushed her to make — is determined to be a strong parental figure, even from abroad. Waiting for August ends up being less a tale of one family’s struggle in a faraway foreign land, and more a universal look at the brave resiliency of impoverished children everywhere, who grow up without ever having known what it means to be young and carefree.
Which could also describe the youth of another standout, Rok Biček’s Class Enemy, a Slovenian feature that screened as part of the “Variety Critics’ Choice: Europe Now!” section. Ostensibly about a group of students who, reeling from the suicide of a classmate, decide to put the blame squarely on their hard-ass German teacher (a scary Igor Samobor), the film is much more than the sum of its synopsis. Quite simply, this under-30 director/co-screenwriter has crafted what amounts to the most assured debut I’ve seen in recent memory. Captured in gorgeous widescreen, Biček’s slow-burning thriller mesmerizes with its Lord of the Flies atmosphere, in which the potential for violence is an ever-present character itself — and, like Lord of the Flies, the narrative can be read as an allegory. The students who rebel against the authority figure easily equate to the masses attempting to overthrow a dictatorial system in which the individual matters less than structure and stability.
Interestingly, another impressive selection from the “Variety Critics’ Choice: Europe Now!” showcase similarly hailed from a former strongman-run nation and dealt with the theme of man versus The Man. Quod erat demonstrandum is Andrei Gruzsniczki’s sophomore feature, a B&W period piece set in the 80s that’s been billed as the Romanian The Lives of Others. But that’s too simplistic of a description for this drama about two academics, united by their tie to an unseen third who left the country for a conference in France and never returned. Now both friends – one the wife of the exile who is trying to leave with her son to join him, the other an anti-establishment mathematician whose Ph.D. is being stymied by the state – are under surveillance by the secret service, and the case is being handled by a dogged investigator who himself is frustrated by a career at a bureaucratic standstill. All find themselves forced into a chain of events that constantly test how far they will go for family and recognition. With its twisting script and unobtrusive cinematography Quod erat demonstrandum is ultimately an actors’ piece, fortunately one featuring a highly attuned ensemble wary of cliché.
And if I hadn’t already begun suspecting that some of this year’s crop of KVIFF filmmakers were still spiritually grappling with the ghosts of communism, Andrzej Wajda’s Walesa, Man of Hope – Director’s Cut, screening with ten scenes added specifically for the fest’s special event, put the notion front and center. Though I missed seeing the former Polish president and Nobel prize-winning subject, who showed up in person to present the premiere, I did manage to catch the legendary director’s surprisingly fun look at a sober moment in history at the luxe Pupp theater. As my colleague Brandon Harris succinctly noted in his TIFF coverage, it’s a satisfying biopic – which, I might add, is a feat in itself considering that a not-so-humble electrician’s rise to become a formidable force against the Iron Curtain ain’t exactly sexy material. But as evidenced by its rebellious postpunk score, the flick’s near-nonagenarian auteur seems to possess the vigor of the KVIFF audience that Walesa, Man of Hope played to. When the young at heart can capture the hearts of the young that’s some meaningful entertainment.