The architecture in this attractive spa town in the west of the Czech Republic is an interesting mix of Austro-Hungarian grandeur and decorative excess, with Soviet-era modernist austerity represented by the festival’s main site, the Hotel Thermal. Come Karlovy Vary’s long-standing summer film festival, tourists sipping spa water through the traditionally shaped porcelain cups rub shoulders with glamorous celebrities and models, film-industry delegates and guests, and a lot of young people from across the country keen to watch three or more movies a day, camp in the nearby parks and (on dry days) enjoy a cold beer in the sunshine. This is the Czech Cannes-meets-Woodstock.
4-12 July 2014 | Czech Republic
But for its programmers and its artistic director Karel Och, the key to the festival is its ability to function as a meeting point between the (European) West and East. The festival’s history as one of the two major festivals of the Soviet bloc (between 1948 and 1989 it alternated with the Moscow Film Festival) ties it closely to what was the European East; but Karlovy Vary’s location near the borders of what were East and West Germany makes it particularly suited for the role of intermediary.
This identity is most clearly encapsulated in the festival’s East of the West section – although this year even the International Competition found seven of its 12 films from countries east of Prague. According to Och, “it’s been always our focus and goal to find the talented filmmakers from East and Central Europe, the Caucasus countries and Central Asia.”
With an expansion of the East of the West programme this year to include Greece and Turkey, a conceptual realignment has taken place as East of the West no longer just connotes post-Communism, but takes on more explicitly geographical as well as more free-floating connotations: is the East meant to suggest a new dawn? And are any commonly implied hierarchies between East and West up for a challenge?
Twelve films from Russia, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Greece (some in co-productions, others not) competed for the East of the West award. Of the films I saw from this section, two led by women stood out: the Hungarian Afterlife, and Bota, an Albanian/Kossovar/Italian co-production which won the FEDEORA (Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean) award.
The latter’s story of a young woman working in a café named Bota (meaning ‘the World’) in a desolate part of Albania serves as a catalyst for the audience to discover repressed truths from the Communist past. But there’s nothing depressive or nihilist about this film, which plays like Baghdad Café in Albania. The café itself, perched on the edge of a swamp near an isolated village of deteriorating Communist blocks of flats, sets the tone: the parked car on its flat roof serves as a ready-made second floor and offers a source of both comedy and drama.
This very promising feature debut was co-directed by the wife-and-husband team of Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci. The screenplay, also by Elezi, brings together the frivolous and tragic Nora (Fioralba Kryemadhi), her two-timing lover Beni (Artur Gorishti), the café’s owner, and its manager Juli (brilliantly acted by Flonja Kodheli), whose understated strength and ability to rise above demeaning circumstances represents the film’s moral centre. Played by Tinka Kurti, the Albanian Lilian Gish, Juli’s grandmother Noje offers a silent and dignified figure from the past, while the engineers and builders working for the motorway’s extension foreground hopes and (missed) opportunities.
Bota’s restrained yet expressive storytelling allows contemplative moments whilst involving us in the characters and the plot; its languid cinematography finds beauty in barren landscapes. Not least, it also makes affective use of Albania’s forgotten tango – a music that survives only through Albanian exiles’ preciously kept recordings, as during the Communist era records were smashed and master tapes lost – and offers a powerful soundtrack that departs from stereotypical musical representations of the Balkans.
More explicitly funny and comically absurd is Virág Zomborácz’s Afterlife (Utóélet), a coming-of-age story about an awkward and shy young-adult son of an oppressive religious zealot. The main premise of the story – that the son continues to see his father after the latter’s death – is not only a source of comedy but also well weaved, motivating the central character’s transformation. The critique of small-town hypocrisies (religious and otherwise) is conveyed through a vivid sense of place and an unlikely compassion for the characters.
Despite the welcome presence of films with a lighter touch in East of the West, it was two films with weightier topics that appealed to the jury, which awarded the first and second prizes respectively to Ivan I. Tverdovskij’s Russian/German Class Corrective (Klass korrektsi) and Ivan Ikić’s Serbian/Montenegrin/Slovenian Barbarians (Varvari). The former foregrounds the plight of disabled students in the context of institutional and social discrimination; the latter challenges and provokes with a raw portrayal of young protesters during Kosovo’s declaration of independence. A gritty realist approach characterises both.
The same cannot be said for Greece’s East of the West entry, Yannis Verselmes’s Norway (Norviyia). A comic-book style parable of a vampire’s search of blood and good times and his ultimate confrontation with a figure from the past that will test his integrity, the film is confidently stylised with postmodern noir visuals, but freighted with double meanings that only audiences familiar with the Greek socio-political context of the last 30 years could fully unpack. (How many non-Greeks will spot the signed poster of 1980s prime minister Andreas Papandreou and ponder its significance?) Yet despite its occasional awkwardness, this coded parable seeks to restore some positive value to the metaphoric vampire of Greek society.
Alongside the three Greek films shown in the festival’s non-competitive sections, Yannis Economides’s powerful Scorsese-esque gangster film Stratos (To Mikro Psari), Panos Koutras’s beautifully camp, tender and imaginative Xenia and Athanassios Karanikolas’s sober, subtle and insightful character study of an immigrant domestic worker At Home (Sto Spiti), Greek cinema had a strong presence that exceeded its newly-found ‘weird wave’ identity.
Czech films of course feature in all sections, and this year the audience award went to a local documentary, Olga Sommerová’s The Magic Voice of a Rebel (Magický hlas rebelky), a portrait of dissident Czechoslovak singer Marta Kubišova. Another documentary with strong local resonance was Olga, a portrait of Olga Havlová, the first wife of Czech writer-turned-president Václav Havel, made by Miroslav Janek, the director of Citizen Havel.
But my personal highlight of the Czech films on show was the restored copy of Jiří Menzel’s 1966 Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky), the comico-tragic story of a young ‘railwayman’ during the country’s German occupation. And it was also the film by which American William Friedkin, one of the two recipients of the Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema (the other being, more controversially, Mel Gibson), opened his exquisite masterclass – one of the few such events in Karlovy Vary. Friedkin, who also prefaced the restored copy of his 1977 film Sorcerer the evening before, stressed how influential European cinema from both East and West had been to American filmmakers of his generation – thus reminding us that cross-cultural fertilisation is not new, and inviting us to embrace both Eastern promises and Western delights.