It’s been a while since I attended a major film festival outside the U.S., and I didn’t know what to expect at the 52nd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. This venerable and prestigious event is a vast movie sampler, with films from around the globe and a natural emphasis on Czech and Eastern European countries. Yet on opening night the honorees were all American—Casey Affleck, Uma Thurman, and composer James Newton Howard—and the kickoff film was The Big Sick, introduced on video by its star and co-writer Kumail Nanjiani. No power on earth can rival the allure of a Hollywood movie star; that was reaffirmed at the end of the festival when Jeremy Renner came to town to introduce Wind River, the powerful drama directed by successful screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water).
The rest of the week, for me, was a smorgasbord of selections from other countries. With scores of titles to choose from, my wife and I fared quite well seeing films that were in competition: Arrythmia, a Russian drama about dedicated paramedics suffering under new “efficiency” guidelines; the French film Corporate, about a Human Resources manager whose ethics (and culpability) are questioned after an employee commits suicide; a Slovak-Ukrainian coproduction called Ciara/The Line, about a smuggler who tries to maintain control in a situation that has gotten out of hand; Breaking News, a pointed Romanian film about a TV news reporter who is asked to memorialize a colleague who died on the job; and an Israeli-German crowd-pleaser called The Cakemaker, about a baker from Berlin who faces difficult decisions when his lover (from Jerusalem) is killed.
We also enjoyed the latest effort from Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki, The Other Side of Hope, which tells parallel stories of a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Helsinki and a salesman who uses his savings to open a woebegone restaurant. Non-sequitur, deadpan humor comes to the surface in a way that defies category—unless you know Kaurismaki’s work.
Every screening was preceded by a souvenir festival trailer featuring award winners from years past: these clever, funny (and in some cases poignant) shorts featured Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Andy Garcia, and such celebrated Czechs as cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek and writer-director Jiri Mendel.
Two personal highlights were a Master Class conversation I conducted with James Newton Howard and a more informal chat with one of this year’s jurors, film editor Sarah Flack (who was also represented onscreen with Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and Trudie Styler’s Freak Show). James is a great interviewee; what’s more, he brought along four versions of the opening title sequence for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them so we could see some of the variations he tried out for director David Yates. (There were forty-three in all!) He demonstrated several of his proposed themes at the piano and frankly, they all sounded good!
A Czech film composer joined me in asking questions along with the audience. The Festival has posted the entire program on YouTube HERE.
Sarah Flack has been working in films since the early 1990s and started out as a “gofer” for director Steven Soderbergh—a position now generally known as “production assistant.” Soderbergh took note of her, as did his producer, and she rose through the ranks, working on such features as Schizopolis and Kafka and graduating to become a full-fledged editor on The Limey and Full Frontal. A meeting with Sofia Coppola led to another long and fruitful collaboration. Sarah’s enthusiasm and candor made an hour fly by, and fortunately, this conversation is also available on YouTube HERE.
Karlovy Vary is to be commended for embracing such a wide array of cinema. “Future Frames” presents Ten Filmmakers to Follow who this year were mentored by Canada’s Denis Cote. A juried Works in Progress Award encourages young filmmakers with substantial cash and in-kind services, as does the annual Eurimages Award. Tributes to Ken Loach and his screenwriting partner Paul Laverty, Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, the European Film Academy, and current Czech cinema were all part of a very full menu. I can’t hope to enumerate all the facets of this event, from fireworks to outdoor concerts… and I wouldn’t know how to describe the opening night piece of performance art involving three rows of scantily-clad women gyrating and spewing blood while confined to plastic enclosures, accompanied by an opera singer, a full orchestra, and an actor portraying a butcher wielding a meat cleaver. (I’m not kidding!)
Every film we attended was sold out, with overflow crowds waiting for seats in many cases. My family and I were on a daily learning curve, enjoying the beauty of this 14th century spa town and its majestic Grand Hotel Pupp while contending with a variety of cultural differences—the language, cigarette smoke, a lack of air conditioning (no fun during a heat wave) and a tendency to shove when doors are opened to a theater or auditorium.
Still, travel is broadening, even when it presents challenges. Attending a world-class film festival leaves us richer for the experience.