This year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) was always going to have a lot to address. For Czechs (and Slovaks), 2018 is a year overladen with anniversaries, with two in particular impossible to ignore: the centenary of 1918’s foundation of Czechoslovakia after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the half-century to have passed since the Prague Spring of 1968 and its dreadful suppression by the invading troops of the Warsaw Pact nations. Throw in the appreciably raw, recent passing of the most beloved and garlanded of all the Czechoslovak New Wave filmmakers, Miloš Forman, and there was further cause for nostalgia, imbued with a mix of lamentation and celebration.
And lest anyone should have forgotten, the entire film industry had come under great scrutiny for its long-time failure to address the systemic ill treatment of women. With widespread normalised behaviour ranging from a blithe impedance of women’s professional and artistic advancement, to sexual harassment and assault, film had become placed squarely at the forefront of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, with film festivals implicated in some of the most egregious and criminal acts being brought to light.
I took it as given that the KVIFF, which prides itself on elaborate, razzle-dazzle curtain-raisers, would engage with all of the above on its scene-setting Opening Night. I had no doubt it would address the nationally significant anniversaries and Forman’s passing with worthy tributes. I was apprehensive though as to how it would approach #MeToo. After all, the festival couldn’t help but start out of step when unveiling its latest znělek, or “jingle”, at Opening Night, already promoted as starring a guest awarded at last year’s KVIFF who for some time has been under suspicion of conduct unbefitting a man of his station.
A much loved feature of the festival, the KVIFF jingle was celebrating an anniversary too. It was ten years ago it was first conceived of by Ivan Zachariáš. The template was set from the get-go; in each, the Crystal Globe – the KVIFF’s trophy given to award-winning films, and to personalities for outstanding contributions to Czech or world cinema – is treated with irreverence by a recipient once away from the festival, often culminating in its destruction. Of the first four recipients, two were Hollywood stars: Danny DeVito and Harvey Keitel. The other two were Věra Chytilová – what a shame she didn’t live long enough to see Time’s Up! – and Miloš Forman, who is shown using his Crystal Globe to pulverise some pills.
Whose turn should it be in 2018 to be granted the honour of disrespecting the Crystal Globe in one of Zachariáš’ crisply shot, comical, black-and-white trailers? Why, none other than Casey Affleck. Affleck did at least have the grace to be upstaged by Sandy Martin, who plays a potty-mouthed pawnbroker who refuses to take his Crystal Globe; it turns out she already has several she can’t get rid of…
Then there’s the matter of the ceremony proper, annually the work of Michal and Šimon Caban. Women’s bodies are always front and centre in the Caban brothers’ highly choreographed spectaculars; last year’s was memorably summed up by first-time Karlovy Vary visitor Leonard Maltin:
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!)1
Hence my apprehension about the latest manifestation of a key component of the KVIFF’s personality, brand and public face – one I’d already described as problematic in a report on a previous KVIFF for Senses of Cinema four years ago 2. Surely the KVIFF would realise that #MeToo and Time’s Up are movements with gains for women that it really ought to hitch its wagon too?
Well, this year’s ceremony was less chauvinistic than usual. Women’s bodies were still made more show of than men’s, but this year’s gymnastics-flavoured routine, harking back kitschily to those days of exercises in mass bodily synchronisation beloved of socialist regimes everywhere, presented women’s bodies in motion in a meaningful context. In conjunction with projected imagery redolent of events and personalities connected to a centenary of Czechoslovakian life, the performance and costuming was indexed appropriately to the occasion, rather than serving as a gratuitous display of women’s bodies on misogyno-aesthetic grounds.
A measured, yet still Trump-thumping speech honouring Miloš Forman and Václav Havel from new Crystal Globe recipient Tim Robbins steered proceedings further towards a liberal footing, before throwing to the Opening Night film: Forman’s classic 1965 neorealist comedy Lásky jedné plavovlásky (Loves of a Blonde). Afterwards, there were fireworks and a performance outdoors from the Czech National Symphony Orchestra of themes from Forman’s films including Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball, 1967), Hair (1979) and, of course, Amadeus (1984). The first #MeToo-era KVIFF had opened without grievously wrong-footing itself. Hurrah!
Onto the festival proper. I wouldn’t say that competition was fierce in the main; there was a clear and predictable winner of the Main Competition in Radu Jude’s Îmi este indiferent dacă în istorie vom intra ca barbari (I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians). Jude drolly undercut expectations at its premiere, announcing that it starts well, is boring for a long stretch in the middle but, by its end, is a masterpiece. He even urged attendees to leave if the start didn’t captivate them!
He needn’t have worried. As good as some other Main Competition titles were, none had close to the ambition and accomplishment of the prolific and protean Jude’s latest film, in which the thorny subject of Romanian Holocaust denial – apparently so widespread that he discovered even his own cast and crew wasn’t immune – anchors a 140 minute-long Godardian exercise in meta-historiography. A theatre director played by the superb Ioana Iacob, initially as “herself” and serving overall, one might surmise, as a proxy for Jude, is hellbent on staging a public re-enactment of the 1941 Odessa massacre in which Romanian troops combined with Nazi forces to execute tens of thousands of Jews.
In a circuitous, protracted route to the climactic mayhem, Jude’s film embarks upon regular discursive and didactic tangents, and includes and interrogates a wealth of troubling still and moving archival imagery. It’s a film that, one would hope, most viewers will emerge from somewhat the wiser. That said, the re-enactment’s climax is drenched in such bathos that it suggests that trying to educate people about a grim, hushed-up episode like this particular massacre may in fact be futile, as many common folk may lack the tools – or the interest and empathy – to comprehend an atrocity’s enormity.
Also notable: Adam Sedlák’s intense minimalist chamber drama Domestik (Domestique), which shows its hand early as a cautionary tale by opening with words of wisdom from disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong: “The most important piece of equipment in a cyclist’s home is in the bathroom. It’s a scale.” A couple – Roman (Jiří Konvalinka), desperate to become fit enough to be an elite cyclist, and Šarlota (Tereza Hofová), no less determined to maximise her fertility and become pregnant – fall into a downward spiral in chilly isolation, even though they share the same confined domestic space. Excellent sound design and a score from Prague band Vložte kočku constantly ratchet up the suffocating tension in a most impressive and discomfiting debut feature.
Ivan I. Tverdovskiy’s Podbrosy (Jumpman) was highly anticipated after the success of his previous feature Zoologiya (Zoology, 2016), a Special Jury Prize winner two KVIFFs prior. Jumpman concerns a teenage boy living in a children’s home whose mother comes to whisk him away, less out of maternal duty or feelings, it transpires, but rather to exploit his peculiar imperviousness to pain in a blackmail racket with links to the upper echelons of contemporary Russian society. While the film has a few visceral thrills – I profoundly felt his impact with one of the cars he jumps out in front of, although I was completely unconvinced by another – its commentary upon the numbness and expendability of the current day Russian subject under a corrupt regime is under-nuanced, to the film’s detriment.
Olmo Omerzu’s Všechno bude (Winter Flies) also concerns teen boys trying to find their way in the world; in this case, a pair of runaways in a stolen car, one of whom is manipulated into relating their gormless misadventures to a policewoman in flashback. It’s an agreeable film, and the two boys are terrific, but it features something common in Eastern European film which I struggle with: characters freely dispensing homo and/or transphobic slurs. It’s not constant in Winter Flies; there’s only the one such scene here, and the culprit is in fact a policeman, who uses such language to cast aspersions on the masculinity and character of one of the young boys such that, affronted, he might blurt out something he wouldn’t otherwise. However, it’s so common in cinema from the region that I always find it troubling; I’m forever torn between a feeling that it belongs in the milieux it arises in and therefore isn’t gratuitous, and simply feeling that it’s just needlessly, and lazily, unpleasant and backward. At any rate, it dampened my enthusiasm for Winter Flies.
It was also central to, and nastily vehement in, one of the several story strands in Paweł Maślona’s Atak paniki (Panic Attack), a comedy in which multiple awkward scenarios escalate in discomfort before eventually being revealed as interlinked, with each of the scenarios’ place in space and time, relative to one another, slowly becoming clear – albeit to no great pay-off. It’s a very polished production, and everyone in it acquits themselves very well – if only it had been funnier!
Sonja Prosenc’s Zgodovina ljubezni (History of Love) was an offender of a different sort; her film’s already thin narrative was wholly subjugated by formal preciousness. No two shots seemed to have characters or action enter the frame in an expected fashion; every single composition was artful, but seemingly only for artfulness’ sake. It royally tested my patience, but maybe I missed a trick. Was it meant as an art film parody?
East of the West opens its borders
Belarusian director Darya Zhuk’s Khrustal (Crystal Swan) opened the KVIFF’s second competition strand, East of the West, which has now expanded its remit to admit films from the Middle East. In Crystal Swan a young, alienated woman (Alina Nasibullina) is at odds with her mother in Minsk in 1996 and dreams of traveling to the United States to find fame as a DJ. After making a rash, hashed attempt to game the system, she winds up in a small village and ingratiating herself into a family and community there instead. Notwithstanding a scene of sexual assault that was all too grimly inevitable, Zhuk’s energetic film is full of delights, not the least being Nasibullina’s ebullient performance.
Chvilky (Moments, Beata Parkanová) presented another female protagonist-female director combo. This new Czech film is what it says on the package, a series of vignettes in the life of a young woman, played by Jenovéfa Boková. Can the whole be said to have been greater than the sum of its parts, of all these “moments”? No, not really; it’s a very slight film.
Tomáš Pavlíček’s Chata na prodej (Bear with Us) is also slight, but much more satisfying. Surely drawing inspiration from Jaroslav Papoušek’s Homolka family comedies, Bear with Us features a Czech family having one last weekend together at their cottage in the woods before it’s sold. The only thing is, most family members don’t want to visit it even to farewell it. Humour emerges gently as the extended family, brought together by a matriarch’s nostalgic subterfuge, talk and act out their differences, enlivened by one or two absurd flourishes.
But what would East of the West be without some primo miserabilism? Cypriot filmmaker Tonia Mishiali’s Pafsi (Pause) didn’t skimp on it for a second, with Stela Fyrogeni superb as a harried woman in a loveless marriage who’s routinely terrorised by an ogrish husband, but who espies just enough of an opportunity for flight to consider a drastic act to make good an escape – if only she can bring herself to follow through on it. Bearing with her while she dithers, terrified of freedom, is every bit as pointedly painful as was doubtless intended.
Ewa Bukowska’s 53 wojny (53 Wars) was more miserable and powerful still. Magdalena Popławska – excellent playing brittleness for comedy in Panic Attack, even better pitching it here along a Repulsion-like trajectory – is a woman keen to resume a once-promising career but who is instead housebound in a state of ever rising anxiety concerning her war reporter husband’s safety in unreachable conflict hotspots around the globe. Each time he returns home, seemingly indifferent to her suffering, her fears that he’ll leave her again are palpably transmitted and increasingly hallucinogenic – and they’re even worse once he’s gone.
The winner of the East of the West Grand Prix was Suleiman gora (Suleiman Mountain), a road movie set in the Kyrgyz mountain ranges directed by Russian filmmaker Elizaveta Stishova. Its original premise: can a happy family emerge from the joining of one man, two wives – one of whom is putatively possessed of shamanic powers – and a boy who may be the shaman and the man’s long-lost son, in a harsh land where superstition, poverty and patriarchy all exert a strong foothold? Stishova’s feature debut is wonderfully evocative of a Central Asian world seldom explored on screen and augurs very well for her future projects.
Horizons and Another View: finding diversity?
While the majority of the 12 films in East of the West were, to my approval, directed or co-directed by women, I had to look farther afield in the program to get the queer film kicks I seek from any festival I attend, their inclusion or absence ever a good barometer of broader social progress in the lands and film culture host to any given festival.
The scantly differentiated Horizons and Another View sections offered an interesting array of queer narratives set in wildly divergent locations all known to be inhospitable to homosexual relationships, yet with often very convergent narrative trajectories. No matter that Olga Chajdas’ Nina is Polish and set in a bourgie Polish city, or that Wanuri Kahiu’s vibrant Rafiki is a very rare Kenyan small-town lesbian love story, or that As boas maneiras (Good Manners, Juliana Rojas, Marco Dutra) is an even rarer class-conscious Brazilian lesbian werewolf flick (for the first half, anyway), they all exhibit certain doomed, forbidden love tropes that make them each a strangely similar movie to one another.
While Desiree Akhavan’s wonderful gay conversion therapy dramedy The Miseducation of Cameron Post also traverses some of that same terrain, and despite its American setting being very familiar, it felt the freshest of the four. Nina felt a very old-fashioned queer film, even though I’m sure it’s a brave production in its Polish context. Rafiki is doubtless much braver still, though I have to wonder if such a film will ever find much of a domestic audience – I can only hope so.
Out of the Past: reviving cinematic gems
Almost invariably it’s the Out of the Past section of any given KVIFF that brings me the most joy. A new digital restoration of Jan Němec’s Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964) was a revelation. Made explicit during the film’s introduction by a representative of the National Film Archive in Prague, the variety of different and sometimes deliberately degraded film stocks utilised in its original production could be clearly appreciated in this restored version. Seen on the colossal screen in the Hotel Thermal Grand Hall, the restored Diamonds of the Night was an intensely claustrophobic experience, never mind that for most of its run time all that happens is two young escapees from a concentration camp transport run and run and run, a hunting party in pursuit, with nary a word uttered.
Martin Hollý’s Signum Laudis (1980) is another effective treatise on the horrors of war – in this case, focusing on the self-interested cowardice of the officer class – and a rare example of a film, especially by a Slovak director, made in Czechoslovakia under Normalisation and grasped as deserving of a fresh critical reception. Indeed, it’s an excellent film, full of superb performances across a terrific ensemble cast headed by the Bud Spencer-esque Vlado Müller. It also has one of the great Zdeněk Liška’s last film scores, one in which it is impossible not to hear echoes of so many of his glorious ‘60s masterworks.
I got a real kick too out of a screening of Bílý ráj (White Paradise, Karel Lamač). The print of this narratively complex 1924 silent film, previously unknown to me, featured numerous delightful tinted sequences, and it was granted a doomy live electronic score from Tomáš Vtípil which was piercingly loud only some of the time. Long may the tradition of little known silent film resurrections in the beautiful Karlovy Vary Municipal Theatre continue!
Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival: capturing the real
And, to close, a Karlovy Vary miscellany, beginning with a Jean-Luc Godard cameo. The Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival premiered its official festival spot 3 at the KVIFF. In a real coup for the festival, it was the work of none other than Godard himself. He was even seen and heard in it – heard in the voiceover and seen on-screen in a selfie as his hand swipes back and forth through flurries of photos in his mobile phone’s very own image book.
I am stricken with regret that I caught only one package of four from the “Reflections of Time: Baltic Poetic Documentary” program. Robertas Verba’s 1969 short Šimtamečių godos (The Dreams of the Centenarians) now has to rate among my all-time favourite documentaries, in presenting a humorous, highly moving series of dialogues between weathered rural Lithuanian centenarians. The other shorts in that package were no slouches either. Programmers everywhere should be put on notice that they ought secure and present these superb, formally playful and thematically rich films, linked to Bridges of Time, an excellent new essay film from Audrius Stonys and Kristine Briede, who are clearly highly enamoured of these little-travelled, Baltic New Wave treats themselves. They were presented in Karlovy Vary to acknowledge three more notable new centenarians: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
There were four prominent Kiwi guests at the festival: Anna Paquin, as well as the cohort of writer-actor-director Taika Waititi, his upcoming film Jojo Rabbit’s producer Carthew Neal, and an actress on that project, Thomasin McKenzie. (McKenzie is also in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, which screened in Horizons). Yet there were no New Zealand films in the program. Not a one! There were scarcely any Australian films either, with Warwick Thornton’s brilliant new Sweet Country the flagship of KVIFF 53’s three Aussie features.
Other prominent guests included Richard Linklater, in connection with a section of the program headered “Made in Texas: Tribute to Austin Film Society”, and Barry Levinson, who was awarded a Crystal Globe for his contribution to cinema. Robert Pattinson outed himself as British and accepted a Festival President’s Award on Closing Night. Beloved Czech actor Jaromír Hanzlík received one too.
Terry Gilliam dropped by the festival and, when asked if he still identifies as a member of Monty Python, replied “No – as a black lesbian.” With which utterance he made probably the funniest quip of the 53rd KVIFF but also proved himself tone-deaf to the intersectional debates raging necessarily around the film cultural ecosphere.
Which brings me to a rave about one last film to close my report on the KVIFF for another year, and to wrap some tendrils back round to where this report started. The new Czech documentary King Skate, listed in the program as a “special event”, proved a surprise highlight of the festival. I could only surmise it premiered out of competition because of director Šimon Šafránek’s role with the KVIFF Festival Daily newspaper. He shouldn’t be too put out; it’ll gain some garlands yet somewhere else.
King Skate covers a lo-fi skating subculture highly active in Czechoslovakia during the grey years of Normalisation, and unearths wonderful, hitherto unseen 8mm footage taken at the time by the skaters themselves – some of it clearly (and athletically) shot on skateboards. And, who’d have guessed – Karlovy Vary was a centre for this countercultural, decadent Western pastime! Moreover, one of the skaters profiled was Petr Forman – yes, one of Miloš’s sons who remained in Czechoslovakia while his father flourished Stateside.
Contemporary interviews with many of the almost exclusively male cohort of skaters profiled demonstrated that, for all that they were once associated with rebellion and punk rock, these same people today now form an old guard whose attitudes to the most pressing concerns of today’s younger people – as exemplified by proponents of #MeToo and Time’s Up – are retrograde and chauvinistic. I’m not sure that I should be surprised, and I credit Šafránek with steering his documentary away from hagiography in this respect, although… Could that footage have been included uncritically? It’s not always easy to tell.
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
29 June –7 July 2018
Festival website: http://www.kviff.com/en/
- Leonard Maltin, “Film Festival Diary: Karlovy Vary”, July 18, 2017, http://leonardmaltin.com/film-festival-diary-karlovy-vary/. ↩
- Cerise Howard, “In and Out of the Mood: The 49th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival”, Senses of Cinema, no. 72 (Oct. 2014), http://sensesofcinema.com/2014/festival-reports/in-and-out-of-the-mood-the-49th-karlovy-vary-international-film-festival/. ↩
- The 2018 Ji.hlava trailer can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_Sg31zxf38. ↩