Czech Republic – the wallflower of European Film

Tracking the festival circuit, AIDAN CELESTE whets his appetite for cinema this July 2014 at the 49th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Karlovy Vary is yet another West Bohemian spa-town just four hours away from Prague.

Found at the back end of Europe, it holds an International Film Festival midway through the year that catches up with Cannes just before all eyes are back on Venice this September.

Eyes on the prize: Karlovy Vary’s coveted Crystal Globe (Photo: Film Servis Fastival Karlovy Vary)
Eyes on the prize: Karlovy Vary’s coveted Crystal Globe (Photo: Film Servis Fastival Karlovy Vary)

The special agents of Czech film history line up alongside familiar faces like Helen Mirren, Jude Law, and John Malkovich to introduce the festival in a two-minute short about their own goblet of a souvenir, the Lifetime Achievement Award. Helen Mirren calls out in fear of its ghostly apparition, Jude Law rips off the crystal top in a fury, while Milos Forman hovers in silence to the track from a hospital ward he once shared with Jack Nicholson (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975), and slams down the globe to the table until each pill turns to powder.

All in tongue, cheek, and a sharp grain of black and white, each actor commemorates the old tradition of any prestigious festival, or in the words of John Malkovich playing himself, the moment when, “Oh, your f***ing career is over”.

Karlovy Vary’s repertoire does not try hard enough to step out of the same spotlight, as for its 49th edition, the festival opens with Michael Pitt, plays host to Fanny Ardant, and awards a Crystal Globe to Mel Gibson on his first ever visit to the Republic.

Honouring the self-styled surrealist Jan Svankmajer with the 2014 FIAF, it also attracts the right amount of dedicated cinephilia, and an audience that looks toward being part and parcel of the industry itself.

Czech stop-motion animation master Jan Svankmajer honoured by FIAF: director of International Federation of Film Archives (Photo: Film Servis Fastival Karlovy Vary)
Czech stop-motion animation master Jan Svankmajer honoured by FIAF: director of International Federation of Film Archives (Photo: Film Servis Fastival Karlovy Vary)

Staple traditions include the rain, people who never find their way to bed till daylight, and a hoard of Film Students, fresh from a semester of work at the legendary film school next door, FAMU in Prague. All caught up in this unadorned pilgrimage, students cross paths with a glimpse of Cannes, as the international press, directors, and producers alike, catch up with the future of the screen from the highly anticipated East of the West Competition.

Without an official film market to centralise over 800 industry guests, events spread themselves across town with a line up of workshops, meetings (read: parties) and press launches.

The more interesting ones develop their own word of mouth as each event builds a network of attendees who walk in by invitation or not. This kind of setup encourages thinking on one’s toes, something alien to the safe tradition of streamline production, but one which at Karlovy Vary, meshes the success stories of Slovak Film next to HBO Go, and anyone at the mercy of a two-minute ‘elevator pitch’.

Hollywood actress Laura Dern at an open air screening of Wild at Heart (1990) – the David Lynch film in which she starred alongside Nicolas Cage (Photo: Film Servis Fastival Karlovy Vary)
Hollywood actress Laura Dern at an open air screening of Wild at Heart (1990) – the David Lynch film in which she starred alongside Nicolas Cage (Photo: Film Servis Fastival Karlovy Vary)

With over a 180 independent programmers for a single festival, the week culminates in 33 world premieres and 62 debut directors. It isn’t the most happening corner of the world but it surely remains a place of discovery which one critic called the ‘Disneyworld of Bohemia’.

Why else would the world of cinema make its way to a number of makeshift theatres with an audience sprawled on the floor, against a wall, and uncomfortable halls, other than to find out more about Polish Cinema in 2014, the Prix Lux Top 10, and

Madame Ardant’s debut as a director, Obsessive Rhythms – or what she introduces as a crime of passion that unabashedly winks at a French love affair with Italian cinema.

At best, its intent lies between Holy Motors and La Grande Bellezza, at worst, it’s a bunch of overused tracking shots, money, and a highly overactive, but nonetheless compromised, view of francophilia.

Not knowing whether I had just witnessed utter greatness, or a complete farce, the louder the title the more ambivalent became my reaction. Not a statement that I can hold true to all, as a return to Mike Cahill’s I Origins and Jake (heir to Dustin)

Nahuel Perez Biscayart from Je suis a toi – Canadian Best Actor winner at Karlovy Vary and one of the guests at this year’s 10th anniversary edition of Malta’s Kinemastik Film Festival (Photo: Film Servis Fastival Karlovy Vary)
Nahuel Perez Biscayart from Je suis a toi – Canadian Best Actor winner at Karlovy Vary and one of the guests at this year’s 10th anniversary edition of Malta’s Kinemastik Film Festival (Photo: Film Servis Fastival Karlovy Vary)

Hoffman’s Asthma, is something I look forward to in theatres across Malta for sure.

Along with the next segment of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her, it’s been an interesting year for American indie, a year that’s turning fresh tides for the future of world cinema itself.

Film festivals are made up of a number of dark corners which can leave you to grab the first helping hand in fear, secretly tapping to Celine Dion in Quebecois (Xavier Dolan’s Tom a la ferme), or asking for a shot of gin after a bloody noir before midday (Black Coal Thin Ice, a film by Diao Yinan).

Karlovy Film Festival closing ceremony (Photo: Film Servis Fastival Karlovy Vary)
Karlovy Film Festival closing ceremony (Photo: Film Servis Fastival Karlovy Vary)

These are all telltale signs of good filmmaking, and if a festival like Karlovy Vary truly is where East meets West, it remains exemplar of how in a digital age where location is no longer an issue, there is no excuse to believe in such a thing as a ‘foreign film’.

More in Film