Feature image: Eva Zaoralová holding aloft her book, The Story of a Festival
2015 found the summertime festivals in Karlovy Vary and Odessa in introspective but nonetheless celebratory moods. In Karlovy Vary, this year brought the 50th edition of the most prestigious showcase for cinema from those European lands east of Prague, occasioning much contemplation, on screen and off, of the KVIFF’s place in the film world historically, presently and, subject to some worrisome speculation, in the future too. The Odessa International Film Festival, separated by 1600km, 44 editions and 63 years from its distant cousin in Karlovy Vary, 1 looked inwardly for altogether different reasons. It was deemed that the parlous situation in Ukraine demanded the OIFF place a greater focus on its national cinema and, especially, on films concerned with Odessa itself. This made good sense; Ukrainian filmmaking has become highly engaged with the events and aftermath of Euromaidan, with the short films in this year’s program, almost without exception, alluding to Ukraine’s recent revolutionary goings-on as well as the ongoing unrest in the east. Ukrainian feature filmmaking, with its much longer pre-production times, is catching up with those events now too.
Those differing motivations for their introspection noted, the following report will focus on those aspects of these two festivals where the host cities’ genius loci greatly amplified the effect of the films screened or events staged, and/or instances where those events simply couldn’t have happened, or made any sense or impact, elsewhere. For it is in such particular, charged intersections of locale and event where the real film festival gold is to be mined, my friends, far more so than in simply catching films which could be caught equally felicitously anywhere else, any time, excepting those screenings enlivened by the participation of guests. (A salutary lesson from Karlovy Vary: all films, whether he’s in them or not, would surely benefit from being introduced by Udo Kier.)
This rather awkward pun and, less cumbersomely, the sentiment behind it, were all over Karlovy Vary those eight hot summer days not long gone. The Opening Night ceremony, once more the work of the stalwart Caban brothers, Michal and Šimon, eschewed their trademark surreal, and sometimes sexopolitically-challenged, razzle-dazzle in favour of a fascinating, superbly compiled big screen journey through KVIFFs #1 through #50 and across all the political intrigue behind them, accompanied by expert, humorous live narration from longtime KVIFF Master of Ceremonies Marek Eben.
A few typos infiltrated the presentation – were she alive, I can’t imagine Ms Bacall much appreciating being called “Laura” – but to complain of such things is but to quibble; it was an excellent, intelligent way to kick off a landmark edition. True to another tradition, star power was then provided by Richard Gere, who waxed long and wishy-washy in accepting a Crystal Globe for his lifetime of achievement.
Despite the festival operating perforce under the sway of Soviet propagandists for many long years, much wonderful documentation of this venerable festival is extant to enliven not just an Opening Ceremony but, it transpired, celebratory texts as well, whether on screen or in print.
Miroslav Janek’s breezy Filmová lázeň (Film Spa) provides a fascinating, feature-length account of the festival’s 50 (69)2 years. Many anecdote-laden figures from the festival’s past are interviewed by Eva Zaoralová, the KVIFF’s iconic saviour alongside actor Jiří Bartoška from early ’90s moribundity; its Artistic Director from 1995-2010, and now the author of a copiously illustrated 50th anniversary commemorative book, Příběh festivalu (The Story of a Festival). The equally iconic Bartoška meanwhile has been its President ever since 1994, recent ill health notwithstanding.
As fascinating as the stories were, as told by the festival’s past staff, of lofty and lowly stations alike – and from Zaoralová too, who laughs heartily over recollections of the great Czech director František Vláčil setting fire to several hotels(!), the real revelation of Film Spa is the footage of its Communist-era Momenty filmového festivalu (Film Festival Moments), which provided daily doses of irreverence and inspired clowning during the festival from 1957-68, presented by Miroslav Horníček.
While the Czechoslovak New Wave was roundly ignored by apparatchiks using the festival for propagandistic ends, to cite but one ignominious case of unwelcome Communist interference in the festival’s operations and curation, Horníček and his cohort nonetheless managed to produce several years’ worth of material cocking a snook at the festival, as well as capturing wonderful footage of foreign stars, seldom otherwise sighted in those lands, enjoying themselves in Karlovy Vary’s beautiful surrounds. Frank Capra! Henry Fonda! Claudia Cardinale! Tony Curtis! What’s shown in Film Spa must just be the tip of the iceberg; won’t some kindly soul devote a few years to monastically excavating the rest of it and making it available in some sort of home theatrical edition for future generations to goggle at?
Film Spa highlighted further marvels still. Today’s Festivalový deník (Festival Daily) is an essential, digitally produced, bilingual guide to what the KVIFF has to offer and whom it is playing host to on any given day, whereas, way back when, it was produced daily in five typeset editions, requiring constant transportation of textual and photographic materials, by land and by air, from Karlovy Vary to Prague and back again!
While today’s paper is pretty well-behaved and of the moment, down to its cutesy incorporation of emoji genre tags to accompany synopses of the day’s films, a kind of analogue of yesteryears’ Moments does exist and even thrives in the present day. The festival’s trailers retain something of their self-deprecating élan, with a major figure in world cinema – this year, the elsewhere-still-disgraced Mel Gibson – a party to the humorous mistreatment of a Crystal Globe previously issued to them by the festival.
Where the KVIFF began on-screen, and ended off it, was blurry in at least another couple of this year’s offerings. Stricken with a summer cold, I missed seeing, but heard terrific things about, Matej Mináč’s Očima fotografky (Through the Eyes of the Photographer). However, I have often seen the film’s subject during my three visits to Karlovy Vary across successive KVIFFs. She’s the director’s mother, the celebrated photographer Zuzana Mináčová (b. 1931), who still claims pole position in the press pack alongside the red carpet in Karlovy Vary. Furthermore, festival President Jiří Bartoška plays an important unseen role, inadvertently initially, in the redemption story of Mallory Neradová in the latest time-lapse documentary from the peerless Helena Třeštíková.
Mallory follows several years in the life of a woman who wishes only for some semblance of a normal life with her son, but homelessness and addiction compound strings of bad luck with relationships, Czech bureaucracy and her own perfectly human failings. It’s exasperating viewing for much of its runtime – even Třeštíková is seen to lose her cool in a rare, momentary incursion into her own film – but it’s utterly compelling, and one comes away from it even feeling hopeful for the Mallories of this world, and grateful for the benevolence of its Bartoškas, too.
Mallory won the prize for Best Documentary Film over 60 Minutes. Local films weren’t big winners otherwise this year, excepting for the Best Actor and Actress gongs. The former went to Kryštof Hádek for his turn as the meth-addled younger brother to his own real-life brother Matěj’s fellow loser in Jan Prušinovský’s blackly comic, small town social drama Kobry a užovky (The Snake Brothers). Best Actress went to Alena Mihulová for Domácí péče (Home Care), surely the funniest dramedy ever made about palliative care, and an excellent feature debut from Slávek Horák, which occasioned a huge standing ovation in the Hotel Thermal’s colossal Grand Hall. When there’s that much love in the room celebrating the work of a gifted young filmmaker and an excellent and close-knit cast and crew, it’s a lovely thing to find yourself caught up in.
* * *
On July 11, while legendary Czech actress Iva Janžurová was receiving her President’s Award at the Closing Night ceremony in Karlovy Vary, I was already in Odessa, but not quite soon enough to see the awarding of a prize to a landmark – not a landmark film but, quite literally, a landmark. There are no prizes for guessing what it was.
Annually since its inception, the Odessa International Film Festival has hosted the screening of a silent film classic on a certain lengthy outdoor set of steps. This year, the Potemkin Stairs, newly the fifth location on the list of “Treasures of European Film Culture” and boasting a plaque bearing Wim Wenders’ signature to prove it, played host to a screening of Chelovek s kinoapparatom (Man with a Movie Camera). I hadn’t known it before, but Dziga Vertov’s 1929 classic, viewed here by around 15,000 people, has no small amount of footage of Odessa in it, one of four melded cityscapes depicted. (Two other Ukrainian cities also feature: Kiev and Kharkiv.)
And whom that night should provide the symphony for this, perhaps the greatest city symphony of all?
Why, the Michael Nyman Band, of course, after Nyman had received the Golden Duke award for Lifetime Achievement the night before.
While this event generated a great sense of occasion – surely, any future viewing of mine of Vertov’s masterpiece can’t help but pale in comparison – Nyman still had a trump card to play. Man with a Movie Camera finished, but the band would not leave the stage. Noticing this, nor would much of the crowd and duly, a few minutes later, the Odessa Steps sequence from Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) was projected onto the huge screen near the base of the Stairs. The band played a frantic, stirring score and everything was just blissful in the world for at least those few minutes.
My only regret from this evening was that it created a disappointment, in its collision of Eisenstein and Nyman, that Peter Greenaway’s voluptuous and unabashedly queer Eisenstein in Guanajuato didn’t appear in the program, notwithstanding that Greenaway and Nyman haven’t worked together for more than twenty years. With Odessa’s connection with the great montage pioneer now memorialised, one wonders whether the rampant homosexuality and regular male nudity in Greenaway’s film scuppered its chances of screening in Odessa, where such things are still rather taboo. Or maybe it was just a matter of timing. Gaspar Noé’s Love did make it into the program, after all.
Odessan history – often with a closer index to real events (past and present) than those propagandistically, however brilliantly, portrayed in Potemkin – was highlighted in a program strand named “Odessa in Fiamme: Occupation/Liberation”, with several titles ranging from 1935 to 2014. Were that I could have caught more of it! I made sure though to catch the flagship film, Carmine Gallone’s Odessa in Flames, an Italian-Romanian co-production from which this section drew its name. I find it absolutely extraordinary that this film premiered in 1942, when the distressing WWII “Siege of Odessa” events depicted within it – both dramatised and shown in actuality footage – were from just the year prior. Such urgency! And while aspects of the film have a certain expected staginess, it is nonetheless remarkable that it hasn’t entered the canon of Italian neorealist film as a significant precursor. Have too few people seen it?
The other great engagement with (film) history at this year’s OIFF came in the form of a representative of one of the first four Treasures of European Film Culture, Thierry Fremaux. Best known as the Manager of the Cannes Film Festival, Fremaux was in Odessa representing Lyon’s Institut Lumière, to present a wonderful compilation of 99 short works of chronologically increasing sophistication by Auguste and Louis Lumière. Fremaux provided a vibrant commentary throughout, with any number of immensely knowledgeable, impassioned, yet droll – and eminently well-timed – observations to enliven the screenings of oh so many exquisitely restored films of great age and significance!
My principal reason for heading to Odessa though was to serve on a FIPRESCI jury, duty-bound to give out two awards at the OIFF, one for features and one for shorts. Only Ukrainian films are eligible, indicative of the festival’s commitment to its mission to revitalise the national cinema. (If only someone would throw as much love (read: money) at the terribly ailing Odessa Film Studios, which are in an awfully neglected state.) Certainly, I have never felt so up-to-speed with contemporary Ukrainian cinema as now.
There were six features in competition. Eva Neymann’s ravishingly shot, early 20th century Jewish shtetl-set Pesn pesney (Song of Songs) was far and away the strongest of the three fiction films in the mix; it had also been in competition in Karlovy Vary. Like the other two, however, it was unfortunately blighted by mannered performances, even if highly restrained in comparison to the brutalising tenor Anatoliy Mateshko’s Captum (Lat. Captivity) was pitched in. To its credit, Captum grapples for the first time in a feature film with the ghastly invasionary events in Ukraine’s east, but it’s terribly one-note and unforgivably cruel towards both a woman and a cat.
The third fiction film, Ivan Kravchyshyn’s Polit zolotoyi mushky (The Flight of the Golden Fly), almost doesn’t bear mentioning. Golden Fly is an extremely broad village comedy, all caricatures and no characters, which has inexplicably had money enough thrown at it to bestow upon it high production values altogether at odds with the gross lack of sophistication in its humour and narrative. It sure suffers – writhes in agony, even – in comparison to the lovely Russian film The Postman’s White Nights (Belye nochi pochtalona Alekseya Tryapitsyna), which screened at both festivals. It too is set in a small village far removed from city livin’, but is full of warmth, characters to give two tosses about and is blessed with a wholesale absence of mannerism. Such is the joy of casting non-professionals! That said, there are some very strangely shot interiors…
Director Andrei Konchalovsky’s oeuvre makes for ever more fascinating contemplation. Co-writer of Andrey Rublyov (Andrei Rublev, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966) and director of Tango & Cash (1989), he’s now brought us quite the delightful little docu-fictitious bucolic charmer. But I digress.
The standout feature in Odessa’s competition was Dybuk. Rzecz o wedrówce dusz (The Dybbuk. A Tale of Wandering Souls) from Polish documentarian Krzysztof Kopczynski. One fears that Ukraine may not see the Director’s Cut presented at the festival again any time soon; it’s known to have been cut by 20+ minutes for distribution deals already inked. Its sins? To depict neither Jews (highly excitable Hasidim making a Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to a sacred gravesite) nor Ukrainian nationalists favourably, with members of the latter group having erected near said gravesite a memorial to the Cossacks responsible for a 250 year-old massacre of Jews and Poles.
Of course, the Jews are not meant to stand for all Jews, nor the nationalists for all people proud to be Ukrainian. But now is evidently not the time to disseminate in Ukraine work open to interpretation as anti-Ukrainian and, similarly, one which could (unfairly) court accusations of anti-Semitism. What a terrible bind for the producers!
While we in the FIPRESCI Jury gave our prize to The Dybbuk, fancying it the strongest of the features and universal in fact, rather than particular, in its message about hidebound intolerance between two tribes going to war, the other two docos in competition also merit a mention. Ostap Kostyuk’s Zhyva Vatra (Living Fire) is a kindred spirit to The Postman’s White Nights, again profiling lives lived at a considerable remove from the modern world; here, it’s shepherds in the Ukrainian Carpathians. And Andrei Zagdansky’s Vagrich and the Black Square is an interesting portrait of a Ukrainian avant-garde artist of Armenian background who wound up a bon vivant in New York and evidently produced some wonderful work. A hilarious recombinatory cut-up of a Leonid Brezhnev soundbite certainly lends credence to the claims of the many in this film.
To round out the selection of contemporary Ukrainian cinema on offer, a special screening was held of, for mine, the most astonishing of all films released in the last year, from anywhere: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s Plemya (The Tribe). How this brilliantly conceived and executed film didn’t get picked as Ukraine’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Oscar remains the stuff of dark mutterings and tidings amongst Ukrainian cinephiles in Odessa today!
For the record, the Golden Duke award for Best Ukrainian feature film went to Song of Songs, along with a UAH 50,000 prize, which is worth roughly €2000 and, alas, still dropping. The International Jury, headed by Jeanne Labrune, thought highly of it too and awarded it the Jury Grand Prix and €4000, as its eligibility extended into the International Competition. It was not so lucky in Karlovy Vary.
Oddly, the €6000 Grand Prix of the OIFF is determined by audience voting. This year it went to the excellent Mustang (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven), a film equally upsetting and uplifting, concerning battling toxic, ingrained patriarchy in a Turkish village where five sisters’ adolescence comes to spell imprisonment for them at home and/or being married off. An unexpected, typically elegiac contribution to the soundtrack by Warren Ellis works wonders.
Quick Musings on the Future
Whither the KVIFF and OIFF now? Rumours swirled around KV this year that this 50th anniversary edition might, in fact, be the last, citing supposedly dire auguries like the closure of the Hotel Thermal’s swimming pool (and in such hot weather!) and matters less concrete still. There would, in fact, seem to be little substance to these concerns. Indeed, the festival has just announced a new distribution label, a cooperative venture being undertaken by it, Czech Television and Aerofilms, which is a Prague-based distribution company connected with Bio Oko, Aero and Svetozor cinemas; the latter two are where Prague’s official re-run “Echoes” of Karlovy Vary occur. Czech Television, atop their obvious involvement with small screen broadcasting, are co-producers of a huge amount of film production annually in the Czech Republic. In this collaboration I perceive only positive auguries for the festival.
As for the OIFF, theirs is a more precarious situation. Money is scarce in Ukraine and further unrest might not be far away. However, as evinced by Thierry Fremaux troubling to bring his Lumière Brothers presentation to Odessa – the only time he’s presented it outside of Cannes – there is a tremendous amount of goodwill out there for the OIFF. I too admire it greatly, noting also its advocacy for the rights of imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who at the time was illegally detained on trumped-up terrorism charges for more than a year by Russian authorities, and has since, deplorably, been sentenced to 20 years prison.
Next year both festivals will surely return and continue to flourish. I’ll wager they’ll both become a little more outward-gazing once again, but based on this year’s experiences, I’ll happily aver that for a festival to address the very context and location in which it is set is for it to play to its strengths, to create events and senses of occasion that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
And lookee here, they’ve even contrived not to overlap in 2016; it might not have been deliberately, but six days will separate them – or none at all, if one should partake of some catch-up viewing at the Echoes in Prague in between times…
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
3–11 July 2015
Festival website: http://www.kviff.com/en/homepage
Odessa International Film Festival
10–18 July 2015
Festival website: http://oiff.com.ua/en/index.htm