History Battles with “Fake News” at the 2018 Karlovy Vary Film Festival
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) concluded its 53rd edition on July 7th, and with it a solid line-up of both Western and Eastern European fare. Romanian director Radu Jude (Aferim!) won the Grand Prix for his darkly comedic past-meets-present holocaust drama I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians, and Barry Levinson won the Audience Award for Rain Man — a film that gave him the Oscar for Best Picture in 1989. The 76-year-old director was also honored with the Crystal Globe for outstanding artistic contribution to world cinema.
Before discussing the film and industry programming, I’ll note that it was my first time at the festival, and I was initially enchanted by the town’s spa charm as well as its bucolic surroundings flanked by hills and thermal baths that you can (apparently) drink from. (Town-branded mugs are available at each and every tourist shop.) Brightly-colored hotels line the canal that runs through the old town and include a peculiar range of healing treatments including Scottish showers, oxygenotherapy, dry carbon dioxide baths and even chocolate massages. This combo of medicinal treatment and stunning landscapes was seen in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, while Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel took further inspiration from The Palace Bristol Hotel’s pink façade and The Grandhotel Pupp’s neo-baroque architecture. As for the festival itself, first launched in 1946, it’s one of the oldest festivals in Central and Eastern Europe. From 1959 to 1993, it was mandated KVIFF would alternate yearly with the Moscow International Film Festival due to bureaucracy mandating that only one “category A” festival would be allowed in the socialist countries. The social and political changes that took place after the Velvet Revolution in November 1989 nearly put an end to the fest; however, thanks to support from filmmakers such as Miloš Forman, the festival trudged on, and in 1994 the 29th KVIFF was re-launched, no longer requiring the alternating placement with Moscow.
The festival’s history is visible in its rich line-up, particularly the East of the West section, which showcased 12 titles, seven of those from female directors and eight world premieres. To start, the Polish-Czech-Macedonia co-production Via Carpatia from debuting Polish feature directors Kasper Bajon and Klara Kochańska, who won a Student Academy Award for her short film The Tenants in 2016, drew a strong response for its look at a middle-class couple who embark on a journey to a refugee camp at the Greek-Macedonian border. Also well received was the dreamy, fable-like Hungarian drama Blossom Valley for its fresh take on lost, young lovers (the film was also the section’s Special Jury Prize). Tonia Mishiali’s Cypriate drama Pause was also affecting, highlighting the gender inequality women must contend with in many marriages around the world.
Other highlights included several competition titles: Sebastien Pilote’s Quebec coming-of-age tale The Fireflies are Gone, a heartwarming look at today’s youth who refuse to conform to their parents’s desires; the heart-wrenching Redemption, from Israeli filmmaker Joseph Madmony and South African-based Boaz Y. Yakov, that singles out a father who resurrects a childhood band in order to pay for his sick daughter’s health treatments; and Turkish writer-director Ömür Atay’s startling debut Brothers, about a teenager who is forced to face his family who are consumed with blood ties and rigid traditions. Argentinian director Ana Katz’s dysfunctional holiday drama Sueño Florianópolis was one of my favorites, as it was the festival’s, who awarded it with the special jury prize and best actress award for the performance of Mercedes Morán. Slovenian director Sonja Prosenc returned to KVIFF following her successful debut The Tree (2014) with History of Love, which offers a dream-like take on a girl’s loss of her mother. The jury awarded the film with a special jury mention.
The documentary side also impressed with revered filmmaker Vitaly Mansky’s superb take on Putin’s ascent to power with Putin’s Witnesses, winner of the Grand Prix for best documentary. Known for sourcing never-before-seen footage (in particular I’m thinking of his behind-the-scenes look at North Korea in Under the Sun), the Ukrainian-born filmmaker, now living in exile in Latvia with his family, gives an insightful look at the eerie years from 1999-2000, when he was head of documentaries for a Russian state television network. His role gave him unprecedented access to moments where we see Putin attempting to look human while visiting one of his older teachers, as well as footage with then-president Boris Yeltsin, who we see initially as proud of his successor while watching the election coverage from home with his family, but later demoralized when Putin doesn’t call him that night after his victory. Austrian-Swiss drama Walden is another stand-out, utilizing thirteen 360° panning shots that display a dense forest’s paradoxical migration into chopped wood that is then transferred to a secret, far-off destination. The film was awarded the documentary special jury prize. Skateboarding doc King Skate should also be mentioned for its riveting showcase of Czech skaters who paved the way for skillful skateboarding in communist Czechoslovakia despite a lack of Western resources and training. The soundtrack boasts an impactful score from the UK’s ’70s/’80s punk era.
Politics and Filmmakers
On the more “western” side of things, Karlovy Vary’s usual spattering of A-list talent were in attendance, including Tim Robbins who gave a number of impassioned speeches on the need to tell stories to “get us back to the future, to get back to the world of progress.” Awarded with the Crystal Globe for his outstanding contribution to world cinema, the writer/ director/ musician furthered in a masterclass talk that he never anticipated his film Bob Roberts would come to fruition in America today. Detailing a Republican senator’s run for office, the film gives a striking resemblance to Trump’s election campaign where fear, money, and media exploitation are at play. When asked about the film’s uncanny similarities to the Trump administration, Robbins replied, “I didn’t know at the time, oh my god.” He furthered that all of the elements that would propel Trump to the White House were being made at the time, and that the Reagan administration’s deregulation of media organizations is also to blame where America is today. “Thirty years later we have only four companies who control all the information. And there is fear that the conservative white voter is becoming a minority — so [the politicians] make people fear other people.” Robbins recalled Harry Belafonte telling him the quest for fairness is called the struggle – and that it would be an ongoing constant. “Fascism will always be there and it will always try to come back. Our job as artists and citizens is to try and call attention to it. In the long run, we will win, but there are no victories where it goes away forever, it’s part of the struggle, it’s human nature.”
Barry Levinson also detailed a similar real-life film comparison with his 1997 political satire Wag the Dog. “Wag is not some kind of documentary, it’s just looking at the tools that are available,” he said. “Now you’ve got more tools, you’ve got social media and you just post stories through all types of back channels that can get some traction. The public doesn’t know what to believe anymore. We don’t know what stories are supposedly true, this idea of ‘fake news.’ We watch it on what I guess you would call a split-focus. It’s half entertainment and half mystery. We can’t make sense out of it. There’s too many events that happen now where we can’t make any sense out of it, whatsoever.” Levinson continued that you can fake things much easier now than you could back then. “You can create images on social media that look 100 percent believable, but they’re not. Not to mention all the stories that you read. If you create a visual that actually captures the imagination, it will look real and that will spread at such lightning speed that by the time it’s found out, it has already done its damage. It’s a very, very scary time that we’re living in. I say it’s an age of absurdity.”
At the festival to support the screening of his controversial-ridden The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam had no shortage of raucous comments at the press conference, beginning with his diversity backlash to the BBC’s unveiling of its new comedy programming, which the BBC’s controller of comedy commissioning Shane Allen emphasized the corporation’s commitment to “the stories that haven’t been told and the voices we haven’t yet heard.”
Gilliam said, “It made me cry: the idea that … no longer six white Oxbridge men can make a comedy show. Now we need one of this, one of that, everybody represented… this is bullshit. I no longer want to be a white male, I don’t want to be blamed for everything wrong in the world: I tell the world now I’m a black lesbian… My name is Loretta and I’m a BLT, a black lesbian in transition.” He continued, “Comedy is not assembled, it’s not like putting together a boy band where you put together one of this, one of that, and everyone is represented.”
Meanwhile in the Austin Film Society talk, feature filmmakers Richard Linklater, David Zellner and Andrew Bujalski were more reticent to make a political stance with their films, with Linklater suggesting film is not as immediate as other forms of media. “You think about it, you want to do something, to make something.” During both the ’04 Bush elections, and recent Texas “bathroom bill” banning transgenders from using the bathroom of their choice, Linklater produced public service announcements to protest against lawmakers. “The anti-Bush ads got me audited,” laughed the Boyhood director.
There was no shortage of industry talks, with an overriding theme that television and film production across Central and Eastern Europe is receiving more international support and recognition. Since 2011, HBO has been emphasizing local content, and the cabler introduced a number of writers from series including Polish-based The Pack, Czech Republic’s local version of In Treatment, and Croatia’s Success in a panel held within KVIFF’s industry program.
“We want to continue to build and encourage local talent in places where it is less mature in developing high-end television content,” said HBO Europe’s VP of Drama Development, Steve Matthews. “We do it because we believe deeply our job is to build and nurture talent. My job is to help with the structure and architecture of the script — the character, what it’s about, that comes from the scriptwriter.”
Referencing local series adaptations such as In Treatment that were “high volume/low cost,” Matthews said HBO believes five to six years on they now can produce high-end original productions. During the panel, he announced HBO has ordered six-part Czech ’80s spy drama Oblivious that is written by newcomer Ondřej Gabriel, who studied political science at Prague’s Charles University before becoming a playwright, and directed by Ivan Zacharias, the Czech filmmaker behind HBO Europe’s Wasteland.
All local programming will be released day and date throughout HBO’s ever-growing offering of European channels, and on HBO GO in the US.
Elsewhere at another panel, representatives of the new TV and online serial production festival Serial Killer promoted its role in becoming Central and Eastern Europe’s biggest showcase of contemporary European and world serial content. Its first offering was this past May and included pilot titles from Poland, Croatia, Romania, Estonia, and Russia, as well as one exclusive Czech premiere. The program also presented current trends and top works from western Europe.
On the film production side, Czech industry leaders announced at KVIFF that they hoped to raise their tax incentives — currently, 20 percent for qualifying Czech spending and 10 percent for international spending that applies to film and TV, including all postproduction work — to compete with countries including Romania that recently announced their generous 35% incentives scheme, while Estonia offers rebates up to 30% of in-country production costs, as does incentive heavyweight Hungary, who have been offering tax incentives since 2004. Films currently shooting in the Czech Republic are Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, starring Scarlett Johansson, while previous films include Anthropoid, The Zookeeper’s Wife, Borg vs McEnroe, Casino Royale, Mission Impossible and Child 44. Within the festival, a total of 36 Czech classics as well as nine world premieres were in the competing sections. Reported within the festival’s paper, KVIFF artistic director Karel Och said, “It’s precisely why foreign journalists and industry come here, to discover local productions.”
Several panels tackled gender inequality, something industry guests told me needed to urgently be addressed in the Czech Republic where advertisements on the street are rife with half-naked women. Using the European statistic that dictates approximately 44% of film students are female, yet only one film out of five is directed by a woman in Europe, the panels touched on creating initiatives such as gender equality pledges, setting quantifiable targets, and new funds announced by European governments. Compared to discussions in other European countries including Sweden, France, the UK and the Czech Republic seems miles behind. But it was hopeful to see a slew of passionate speakers on hand to start the ball rolling.