Karlovy Vary is a little Czech mountain town version of Cannes. For two weeks of every year, it is consumed by film festival fever. Its charming wedding cake architecture displays a history as the Austro-Hungarian Empire spa town of Carlsbad – something it shares with its sister town of Mariánské Lázně, otherwise known to film buffs as Marienbad. Today’s Karlovy Vary is dominated by what looks like a multi-story car park but is in fact the Hotel Thermal, where most of the screenings happen. During festival season, the hotel is surrounded by stalls selling festival-goers sausages and a hearty local dish of pasta, sauerkraut and bacon bound with lard, cream, or possibly a lethal mixture of both. It is served with a large pickle. Perhaps the hope is that if you eat enough of it, you will stay for a spa cure after the festival.
The Thermal was built in 1976, at the height of the Cold War, and no doubt it and the festival were designed to prove how modern and advanced the Soviet Bloc was. Those days are gone. Indeed, a section of this year’s event celebrated “20 Years of Freedom”. Today’s festival is much more relaxed and friendly than I imagine it was back then. The atmosphere is aided by the absence of a market and a Cannes-is-over-summer-is-here mood, even though it rained every day this year! However, like the former-Soviet Bloc countries, Karlovy Vary continues to be shaped by its history. Although it is an A-list festival with well over 200 films from around the world and 400-plus screenings, it is known primarily as the place to see the current East European cinema. Judging by this year’s crop, East European cinema is as shaped by the Soviet era and its aftermath as the festival.
This report focuses on Karlovy Vary’s twin centrepieces, the main competition and the East of the West Competition. However, first I must say that the real discovery of the festival for me was Indonesian director Edwin’s no-budget miracle, Babi Buta Yang Ingin Terbang (Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly). Whereas realism almost as heavy as the local cuisine dominates the East European films, Edwin responds to the social issue of being Chinese in Indonesia in a much more original cinematic manner. The film is composed of a series of vignettes: the girl who eats firecrackers; the blind dentist who sings “I Just Called to Say I Love You” while he works; and so on. The result is surreal, moving between the funny, the grating, and the disturbing. It is another sign of the new energy that has overtaken the cinemas of Southeast Asia in recent years.
Moving on to the main competition, as an A-list event and the first significant festival after Cannes, Karlovy is challenged to attract the world’s best. Indeed, a best-of-Cannes sidebar acknowledged this chronological difficulty, and flavour-of-the-month Romanian cinema was notably absent. Nevertheless, this year’s main competition had many strengths. The Grand Prix deservedly went to Frédéric Dumont for his 2009 Belgian-Canadian co-production, Un Ange à la Mer (Angel at Sea). Set mostly in Southern Morocco, this is one of those Francophone psychodramas confirming that family is the real f-word. 12 year-old Louis is the angel in question. His idyllic sun-sand-and-sea life comes to an end when his troubled father entrusts him with a horrible secret. Returning repeatedly to shots from underwater and inside the trunk of a car, Dumont communicates the suffocating pressures on the boy, as the rest of the family try to discover why his behaviour has changed so drastically while he struggles to stay loyal to his father. Animal lovers will be upset by a scene of father-son bonding based on cat torture, which Dumont revealed in an interview at the festival was based on his own childhood. Olivier Gourmet rightly walked off with the Best Actor award for his moving but disturbing portrayal of a father struggling with demons, leading him to cast his son as his own guardian angel.
Best Actress in the main competition went to Danish Paprika Steen, who is best known for various Dogme films. Her role as an actress who plays Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on and off stage in Martin Pieter Zandvliet’s Applause is “daring” in the sense that it is certainly unglamorous. Zandvliet sees the film as a tribute to Cassavetes. Steen’s performance is undeniably strong, but the film may seem less original to those familiar with either Cassavetes or Who’s Afraid… Nonetheless, it picked up the Europa Cinemas Label Award. Best Director went to German Andreas Dresen for a film which I missed, about a difficult actor rather than actress, Whisky mit Wodka (Whisky with Vodka).
The Jury Grand Prix was awarded to a social realist chamber drama set in a failing Iranian restaurant. The film is named Bist (Twenty) because the owner decides to close the restaurant in twenty days. Abdolreza Kahani’s film presents the restaurant as a cross-section of class and gender difference in Iranian society. Featuring a number of star turns from top actors, an atmosphere of desperation that matched the news headlines coming from Iran around the time of Karlovy Vary may have helped the film find favour. While it will be of interest to established fans of Iranian cinema, it does not break new ground.
The main competition also included a number of works that could have equally well appeared in the East of the West Competition. Each film was interesting in its own way, and in all cases national metaphor was evident. Nem Vagyok a Barátod (I Am not Your Friend, dir. György Pálfi) shifted back and forth in Altmanesque fashion between various improvised Budapest characters, all adrift in the market economy and lacking a firm value system. From the Slovak Republic, Pokoj v Duši (Soul at Peace, dir. Valdimír Balko) follows the doomed efforts to reform and redeem himself of a man released from jail who cannot avoid the corruption and criminality that pervades his home village. The Croatian-Serbian co-production Nije Kraj (Will Not Stop There, dir. Vinko Brešan) follows the impossible-but-possible love between a Croatian war veteran with a brain tumour and the porn star widow of the Serbian general he killed. A Kusturicaesque black comedy, it won the FIPRESCI award. From Poland and Germany came the third in a trio of films by Robert Gliński, Świnki (Piggies). This supposedly documentary-style work about German clients and teenage Polish prostitutes of both sexes went down well with audiences and won a Special Mention for actor Filip Gabacz. However, to me it seemed like a hypocritical combination of titillation, stereotypical prejudices about sex work, and homophobia. Finally, not in the official program but added at the last minute was Vassily Sigarev’s Volchuk (Wolfy, Russia), a harrowing Yeltsin-era tale of a violent alcoholic prostitute mother seen from the perspective of her little daughter. It arrived fresh from Sochi, where it had won Best Film. But maybe it was overhyped for Karlovy Vary, where it did not pick up any awards.
A similar array of films depicting the suffering and difficulties of Eastern Europe dominated the East of the West Competition itself. But, as in the case of the main competition, the jury wisely chose not to select one of these films for the prize. That award went to Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s Poltory Komnaty Ili Sentimentalnoje Putěšestvije na Rodinu (Room and a Half). The film is an elegiac biopic of the Nobel Laureate poet Joseph Brodsky (1940-96), who was expelled from Brezhnev’s Soviet Union and moved to the USA. Mixing documentary, docu-drama and animation it is both original in cinematic form and, as the title suggests, sentimental, even surprisingly nostalgic.
Among the other films in the competition, the majority dwelt on the aftermath of Soviet collapse. From Azerbaijan, 40-ci Qapi (The 40th Door, dir. Elchin Musaoglu) began with a subtitle that spoke of the chaos that followed the end of the Soviet Union, followed by a scene in which the teenage main character hears of his father’s death in Moscow. The metaphor could not have been clearer, as were the larger implications of the boy’s struggle to survive and the descent in to crime that followed. Žít! (Alive!, dir. Artan Minarolli), follows a student who finds himself inheriting his father’s blood-feud in Albania and then trying to flee the country. Vladimir Paskaljević’s Djavolja Varoš (Devil’s Town) was another black comedy about Serbia, this time focused on prostitutes, corruption, and the national obsession with tennis in Belgrade. El Paso (dir. Zdeněk Tyc) tried to give a comic and upbeat twist to what was otherwise a downbeat social issue film about a Romany widow’s efforts to stop the social services taking her children away. (The title is local Romany slang for a mugging.) Raci (Crayfish, dir. Ivan Cherkelov) is a Bulgarian film about two unemployed friends whose desperate efforts to make money lead them into the hands of the local mafia with devastating consequences. And Utolsó Idők (Lost Times, dir. Áron Mátyássy) is set on the borders of Hungary and Ukraine, following a young mechanic who makes money smuggling diesel, and his mentally disabled sister, Eszter. The beautiful countryside makes a shocking setting for Eszter’s rape, and the consequences that follow highlight the stultifying boredom of village life without money or prospects for the young as well as the dangers of lawlessness.
By itself, each one of these films has its own virtues. All of them are well-made and no doubt sincere representations of life in different corners of Eastern Europe. However, as I watched one after another, I began to wonder who these films were for. Do the people who live these difficult lives really want to see this in the cinema? If cinemas were still national and protected, maybe they would play to the concerned middle classes in the cities, and be part of a cinematic public sphere of public debate about social issues. Leaving aside the question of whether cinema should function in that way, it rarely does in these days when Hollywood has worked WTO treaties to transform cinema into a world of multiplexes and globalised popcorn entertainment. Is the expectation that they will find audiences at film festivals, which ever more form their own alternative distribution circuit? Perhaps, but does it verge on self-orientalism to produce pictures of one’s own exotic degradation for the pleasures of the metropolitan rich?
Against this background, films which did something different stood out. There were one or two genre pics, like the Lithuanian-German road movie Artimos Šviesos (Low Lights, dir. Ignas Miškinis). Lithuania is a small country. So, the roads in the film are all in the capital, and the driving around is done at night. Featuring two men and a femme fatale, the result is aesthetically appealing. Árpád Sopsits’ quasi-horror film based on real events involving children, A Hetedik Kör (The Seventh Circle) is a sort of Hungarian Lord of the Flies meets The Exorcist.
But perhaps most satisfying were those films that did address so-called social issues but in more novel and engaging ways than the rather earnest realism that dominated most of the East European films at Karlovy Vary. Edwin’s Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly is exemplary in that regard. Also well received at the festival were the Russian films. Even Wolfy, which I found histrionic, was nevertheless brilliantly executed both in the central performances and by drawing us into the world of the terrorised child who finds her torturer mesmerising. Room and a Half, which could easily have replicated the tedious drudgery of Brezhnev-era Russia, rightly pursued a cinematic poetry to match Brodsky’s own use of poetry to make that world bearable.
Two other Russian films also stood out. First, also appearing in the East of the West competition was Bumažnyj Soldat (Paper Soldier), the latest offering from Aleksey German Jr. Centred on the effort to put the first man into space, it makes a wonderful contrast to Hollywood’s Apollo 13. Although both films share a vision of heroism that is ultimately tragic, they approach things very differently. Instead of focusing on the cosmonauts, Paper Soldier’s main character is the Georgian doctor whose job it is to select the trainee who will go into space. Given the poor success rate of the launches so far, this looks like an executioner’s job. Set in Kazakhstan, which turns out to be cold, misty and wet rather than hot and sunny, the film is a triumph of production design dominated by greys and pale browns. All the characters cough and shiver, and Paper Soldier communicates almost viscerally an enervated nation desperately trying to recover its sense of mission.
Equally brilliant but no art film was Valery Todorovsky’s Stiljagi (Hipsters). This energetic musical takes the audience back to the early post-Stalin years. Moscow’s young elite are fascinated with living out their fantasy of American culture as colourful, vibrant and offering all the things they cannot find at home. However, beyond the sheer joy of the high energy musical is the certainty of social ostracism and the serious risk of persecution that joining the “hipster” sub-culture entailed.
Whether choosing cinematic experiment as with Paper Soldier and Room and a Half or full-on entertainment like Hipsters, each of these Russian films offered refreshing and exciting ways of dealing with difficult histories and their consequences. Passing through the Museum of Communism in Prague, Russian babushka dolls with fangs left me in no doubt about how many Czechs still feel about their big brother to the East. But, the lesson I gathered from Karlovy Vary was that, cinematically speaking, maybe Russia has a lot to offer to Eastern Europe all over again.
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival website: http://www.kviff.com