While there was a KVIFF last year (held uncharacteristically in August, from the 20th to the 28th) and a 16-film-strong roaming festival-in-miniature (“KVIFF at Your Cinema”) staged in 2020, I could attend neither, locked down as I was in faraway Melbourne. Never mind – this year’s was at pains to communicate that it was the real deal – a KVIFF as ever before! Pandemic or no pandemic, with all festivaling – seemingly as with all other activity in the Czech Republic, as in many of its neighbouring nations – proceeding as if we were anything but in the middle still of a pandemic with no clear picture of when it might all yet end, or how. This year’s KVIFF can only have been what, back in the day, was quaintly referred to as a “superspreading event” – and of grand proportions, at that! But, it seems, we’ve all made our peace with that… Haven’t we?

The opening ceremony of this pageantry-loving festival correspondingly served as an acknowledgement of the two years-strong pandemic – and counting – through an exuberant, pyrotechnical display of song-and-dance denial!

At the ceremony’s commencement, we were all unsubtly beseeched over the PA to do turn our mobile phones on. Repeatedly, lest we struggle to credulously fathom what we were really hearing. A QR code appeared on the Hotel Thermal Grand Hall’s supersized big screen and those who had decent wi-fi or mobile reception on their devices were promptly transported, in the palms of their hands, to YouTube, where dancers who’d soon take to the stage introduced themselves (in English, curiously) within a mock Instagram frame, succeeded by a panoply of videos of dancers speaking to camera, surrounded by allusions to social media brands and behaviours – likes, comment bubbles and such.

“Everything is possible in the virtual world”, asserts one of the minority male dancers, before adding “isn’t it?” Some of the dancers now start to express doubts – interacting in the virtual world mightn’t be all that great, after all – leading comically to that ole spinning circle o’ death… Cue musical spectacular on the Grand Hall stage! Less with all the bells and whistles and more with explosions of smoke and flame, with questions posed on screen and on the mic along the lines of “Do you want it?” and “What are you waiting for?”, goading the crowd to embrace the superiority of the real, onsite festival experience vis-à-vis the lesser, asocial online experience offered by events held virtually. This all culminated in a celebratory, mobile-sculptural throwing of black and white garments into the air – the surprise being that, contrary to past festivals, no ladyfolk were left on stage in their scanties at ceremony’s end. Huzzah!

Jiří Bartoška (left) and MC Marek Eben stand before the likeness of Eva Zaoralová

Gravitas was introduced to proceedings by festival president Jiří Bartoška to lament the recent passing of Eva Zaoralová, his offsider for 30 years as festival figureheads, in which time they combined to bring the festival back from the precipice to a state of sustained prominence in the A-list festival landscape. A commemorative video clip ran in which Bartoška appeared alongside Zaoralová more often than not – it almost feels churlish writing this, but I wished for more pictures in this tribute of her without him, notwithstanding how inseparable they were in the public consciousness as festival supremos for so long. Happily, a photographic exhibition entitled “Our festival legend”, celebrating her pre-festival life as well as their shared time together steering the KVIFF, had been mounted on the first floor of the Hotel Thermal. She will ever be much missed.

Bartoška also acknowledged the ongoing horrors of Russia’s war in Ukraine, a neighbour but once removed, and reminded audiences that the KVIFF this year would be hosting the Works-In-Progress program of the Odesa Film Festival in a gesture of solidarity for Ukraine and its film industry, which had latterly been flourishing, per commentary on select titles within the festival program, below.

The Opening Night film couldn’t match the sense of occasion generated by the ebullience of the performance and the gravity in Bartoška’s address, however. Curiously announced only two days prior to the festival’s commencement, and lacking any in-person representation – most odd, as if there’s anything the KVIFF prides itself on, it’s parading a delegation of cast and crew attached to a film before a full house, especially in the Grand Hall – Paolo Genovese’s Supereroi (Superheroes) (2021) underwhelmed, notwithstanding a formally adventurous play with time. Constantly flashing forward and back, this very bourgie tale concerned the triumphs and missteps over many years, singly and together, of a comic book writer-illustrator and the theoretical physicist she loved. The superheroes of the title? Why, it’s those two – for coupledom, apparently, is the domain of people with everyday superpowers… 


Drawn from the festival’s “Horizons” program – one of its non-competitive “festival of festivals” strands – Superheroes’ last-minute securing of the Opening Night slot smacks of a Plan B – if not a C or a D. Was something else meant to have occupied that spot, perhaps with star power in tow, but fall over with but days to spare? Perhaps!

Changes to Regular Programming

A November 2021 KVIFF press release trumpeted changes to the festival’s competition structure in farewelling its staple “East of the West” and documentary competitions in favour of the curiously titled “Proxima”, “showcasing works by upcoming filmmakers and adventurous works by renowned auteurs”, noting that this new competition, second in importance only to the Crystal Globe (and like it, amounting to 12 films vying for glory), “will drop the geographical limitations associated with East of the West and open the submissions window to the rest of the world”.

In that same press release, KVIFF´s artistic director Karel Och noted that East of the West “was established in the 1990s [(and became a competition strand in 2005)] with the aim to aid filmmakers from the former Eastern bloc to emerge out of the region’s politically indoctrinated isolation, an isolation that existed on both institutional and psychological levels”, before asserting that “the festival is confident [that] the mission [has] been accomplished”. While this claim may not be particularly contentious, this nonetheless appears a risky manoeuvre, with so much of the KVIFF’s identity attached to its bridging of East and West. It’s too soon to say whether this shift might backfire any – perhaps in enabling a festival lower down the pecking order to assume the mantle of principal champion of films from Central and Eastern Europe – or whether it’ll prove a masterstroke, enabling the KVIFF to secure premieres of films that would previously have eluded it. Time will tell.

Proxima’s advent at the expense of East of the West and a documentary-specific competition was not the only change this year; there were further jettisonings, with “Another View” – another “festival of festivals”-type grab-bag of filmic treats to have previously gadded about the festival circuit – fading out of view altogether. Its disappearance won’t be mourned – it was a fairly redundant section, with any of its usual fare surely able to find a berth under “Horizons” or, if of a more experimental bent, under the “Imagina” umbrella instead. I don’t know that the same can be said though for the wholesale, yet quiet, disappearance of a section dedicated to Czech cinema of the last year. The thinking there perhaps is that there’s an established event – the Finále Plzeň Film Festival – that serves as a comprehensive annual showcase of the latest in Czech cinema (and more besides). If so, though, that would be rather parochial thinking, based on an assumption that overseas visitors to the KVIFF don’t have an interest in the domestic cinema of the festival’s host nation. I don’t believe that’s wholly so; it certainly isn’t in my case. Had any market research been done on this?

It was also disappointing that there were no retrospectives of substance programmed this year – not least in a year after the festival ran, I gather, with an eclectic, 10 film-strong “Tribute to The Film Foundation”, screening restored, seldom-seen gems ranging from Edward Yang’s Gŭ lĭng jiē shàonián shārén shìjiàn (A Brighter Summer Day, 1991) to Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope (1969). Previous years’ retros had highlighted poetic documentaries from the Baltics (“Reflections of Time” in 2018) or honed in on directors like Larisa Shepitko (2015) or Ben Rivers (2014) – programming of this nature, and calibre, was sorely missed this time around – by this writer, at least.

In Competition


The five out of 12 titles I caught jockeying for Crystal Globe honours were an agreeably catholic bunch. It’s seldom that sci-fi films appear in competition in Karlovy Vary; less often still would they be dystopian, English language, Lithuanian-French-Belgian co-productions aimed, I suspect, at Young Adult audiences. Yet just such a film was Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper’s remarkably ambitious Vesper.

Its eponymous protagonist (Raffiella Chapman) is a defiant, extraordinarily precocious young teen biochemist with a chatty drone sidekick (her paralysed father’s proxy) whose chief antagonist, in a world of stark divisions between haves and have-nots, is her uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan), a have-not in vampiric cahoots with the haves. The haves, moreover, have created genetically engineered lifeforms to do their bidding; Vesper meets just such a creature (Rosy McEwen) – between them, can they not restore the devastated natural world to order?

Somewhat overcooked, and with its recourse to English amidst Lithuanian forestscapes reducing its mysteriousness, Vesper impressed more for its ambition than its ultimate accomplishment. In bringing Eddie Marsan to the festival, it did though effect a delightful reunion; in one of the festival’s “Moment[s] of the Day” which preceded any given screening, Marsan reflected, amused, upon his casting in a KVIFF festival trailer back in 2001, in which he played a projectionist who places a couple of bread rolls into a projector – “for some reason, the director thought that I looked Czech”. (And in fact, he did.)

The Ordinaries

At a similar distance from the naturalistic dramas that are more commonplace in competitions like the Crystal Globe was Sophie Linnenbaum’s German production, The Ordinaries, a playful imagining of a world in which the idea of roles in life being assigned to individuals by societal forces greater than them makes very literal Shakespeare’s dictum in As You Like It that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” For everyone in The Ordinaries, life is a film. To live is to be an actor in a film – and to know one’s lines and one’s place.

The allegorical brunt of The Ordinaries is very clear – and made clearer by the inclusion of film snippets from the East German studio DEFA’s library – but there’s a lot of fun to be had in following Paula (Fine Sendel), a designated “Supporting Character” aspiring to be promoted to a lead role, as she struggles to break through, burdened though she is by the mystery of her father’s inexplicable absence from the official archives. Surely he couldn’t… he just couldn’t have been, or become… an outtake?

Jonás Trueba’s Tenéis que venir a verla (You Have to Come and See It) was a compact yet unhurried delight unafraid – like conspicuously few films presently – to expressly position itself in the pandemic-afflicted present day. Two couples meet at a piano concert in a Madrid bar for the first time in quite some time; one couple has moved to a lovely place in the not-too-distant countryside and wishes for the other to come and see it. Spoiler alert: they do, heading there on a train while we – and they – are treated to the unmistakeable strains of Bill Callahan as he sings “Let’s Move to the Country”. There is a delicate sleight-of-hand at work here, as matters to have arisen since the other couple first made that move are teased out to lend this film a gentle, ambivalent bittersweetness that the seemingly too-prosaic inclusion of the Callahan song doesn’t telegraph. There’s a Kiarostami-esque formal twist at the very end as well.

A Room of My Own

My pick of the five Crystal Globe candidates I caught was Ioseb “Soso” Bliadze’s hugely satisfying Chemi otakhi (A Room of My Own), a lovely share house drama set in Tbilisi centred around the burgeoning closeness between two young women who’d been strangers when one moved into the other’s pad at the film’s outset. Another rare film shot and explicitly set within COVID times. it’s a little hard to talk about aspects of this film’s significance and daring without going into spoiler territory; suffice it to say it’s a film which would make a wonderful addition to a certain niche sort of festival worldwide but which would lose some of its impact through the very act of programming it within such a framework. Nonetheless, it’s a lovely, naturalistic film, and a firm yet uncontrived “fuck you” to Georgian patriarchy. Its two terrific leads, Tamar “Taki” Mumladze and Mariam Khundadze, would later jointly be awarded Best Actress.

The Crystal Globe winner, however, was Sadaf Foroughi’s Tabestan Ba Omid (Summer With Hope), ostensibly concerned with a young Iranian swimmer’s simple desire to compete in a particular swim meet, wishes that are stymied by bureaucracy, the officious imposition of which may, or may not, be personally motivated. The more that family members strive to right this wrong, the worse the situation becomes, with the company young Omid (Mehdi Ghorbani) is keeping, as he tries to find a workaround in order still to compete, soon emerging as the stuff of cast aspersions. But Summer With Hope is as coy as its characters, keeping much of its action in medium to long shot, and often out of direct light – making it clear that matters unspeakable within contemporary Iranian society are no more the subject of this film than the very fact of there being matters that cannot be spoken of – or shown – on film. A rich viewing experience, to be sure.

The Uncle

Three out of the four of Proxima’s initial offerings I caught provided less rich pickings, for mine. David Kapac and Andrija Mardešić’s Stric (The Uncle) was declared “an unnerving debut à la Haneke” in the KVIFF program, but I found this unsettling, absurdist Yuletide dramedy a closer relative of Kynodontas (Dogtooth) (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009) – perhaps its awkward, ostalgie-afflicted Serbian-Croatian cousin once removed. The moral of the story: beware wishing that all your Christmases should ever come at once – or in rapid, ritualised succession.

Argentinian filmmaker Marco Berger’s Los Agitadores (Horseplay) amounts to an unsubtle, sustained critique of machismo and the homoeroticism simultaneously avowed and denied when groups of buff, macho young men gather – of a Christmas holidays at a luxury villa, for example – to collectively assert their heterosexuality through “horseplay”: pantomimical, supposedly hilarious, mimicry of gay male sexual activity, which they document and share amongst their personal networks. Is it a spoiler to say that this can’t end well? I think not, notwithstanding all the cake-having-and-eating Berger indulges in throughout.

The less said about Tomasz Wasilewski’s Głupcy (Fools), the better, as I found out to my detriment, as the very stuff of the film’s closing reveal had been communicated to me ahead of time. But even without the foreknowledge of the taboo relationship revelation that closes the film, I’ll wager I’d have found Fools a test of my patience, not least the incessant groaning of an extremely ill character whose introduction to the story and its central location overwhelm its narrative, and place not just the relationship between the couple at the film’s centre under great duress, but the audience, too.

Art Talent Show

Ultimately it was a documentary that won the inaugural Proxima competition. In Tomáš Bojar and Adéla Komrzý’s wonderful Zkouška umění (Art Talent Show), we are afforded a Wiseman-esque outlook upon the entrance exams to Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts. The exchanges between tutors and prospective students throughout illuminate so much more than merely what it takes to be admitted to a prestigious learning institution; for all that the faculty members throw curly questions at the applicants concerning art’s place in the world, and its ethical dimensions, there are times when the younger generation offer their elders an education in return – one such exchange involves a student identifying themselves using a plural Czech first person pronoun. How else to express a non-binary identity, when the Czech language forces all speakers using past or conditional tenses to expressly gender themselves?

Out of Competition: The Perils of Ukraine

It’s a given that films outside of competition will include highlights for any festival-goer; what can’t be taken for granted is how much more poignant it is when films speaking to the current moment – and I’m speaking especially of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – play to an audience who carry within them, whether at any generational removes or not, historical and embodied memory of occupation by forces representing the will of a former manifestation of that same superpower. There was certainly a gravity that attended the screening of several Ukrainian films, and films concerning Ukraine, in the Horizons program that could only have been different – greater, necessarily? I’m not sure – but doubtless transmitting a quite different resonance to audiences receiving them when they premiered previously at Venice last year or in Sundance or Cannes this year. The presence of key personnel for Q&As for many of these films only added to the potency and urgency of the experience; in the tragic case of Mariupolis 2’s Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravičius, it was of course instead his absence that was deeply felt, it being common knowledge that the documentary’s director had perished while filming the devastated city of Mariupol and a cohort of its matter-of-factly desperate inhabitants, in March of this year.


Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Reflection (2021) impresses hugely as a companion piece to his equally rigorous and compelling Atlantis (2019), looking backwards to 2014 in its regard of the Russo-Ukrainian war as the earlier film looked forwards to 2025 and a grimly prescient depiction of its aftermath. Torrid, squalid scenes of torture carried a veracity to them only bolstered by their director’s accounts of his pre-production research during the post-screening Q&A, and cast an anxious pall over all of the film’s subsequent action. Vasyanovych – also the film’s virtuoso DOP, writer and editor – extracted great mileage in Reflection out of glass and windows as a motif: as a membrane all-too easily shattered, one otherwise separating a world of cosy bourgeois comfort from another of extreme existential torment and peril. The fourth wall too proves permeable in an intriguing coda – is it an actors’ workshop we’re witnessing, or a therapeutic performance of human connection for the traumatised? Or both?

The equal of Vasyanovych when it comes to unflinching long takes, Maryna Er Gorbach’s Klondike (2022) superbly dramatises familial discord against a backdrop of the encroaching conflict in the Donbass in 2014, incorporating that year’s shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 into its immediate narrative universe, one equal parts real and surreal. What a time to bring a child into this world! Not least if you’re as stubbornly insistent upon staying put as Irka (Oxana Cherkashyna), wed to a man seemingly sympathetic to the Russians while being regularly hectored by a frantic separatist sibling to evacuate, stat! Never mind that the separatists accidentally(?) blew a wall off Irka’s farmhouse at the story’s outset, and there’s soon the demands of sinister, unwelcome marauders to be met – armed forces and a media circus both. Probably goes without saying that it can’t end well.


The Carpathians borderlands-set smuggling drama Pamfir (2022) felt like a warm, hearty bear hug, by contrast – one given, at that, by the compellingly ursine, eponymous strongman protagonist played by Oleksandr Yatsentyuk, seemingly channelling both Jean Reno and Ron Perlman. Writer-director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk pitched his tale of endemic corruption and mob influence in backwoods Ukraine, very close to the Romanian and EU border, towards a fantastical genre register at least as much as in a naturalistic tenor, abetted by setting the action amidst preparations for a folklore-steeped Malanka (Ukrainian New Year’s Eve) celebration that the film will culminate amidst, and served as a massively enjoyable (and beautifully shot) palate-cleanser, notwithstanding certain violent and tragic twists and turns.

I missed Bachennya metelyka (Butterfly Vision), Maksym Nakonechnyi’s tale of a PTSD-afflicted female soldier who had experienced sexual abuse at the hands of her separatist captors in the Donbass – a story no doubt with many awful real-life counterparts. But having made sure to catch Reflection, Klondike and Mariupolis 2 – the last out of a conflicted sense of (self-flagellatory?) obligation to bear witness to the work of one who died making it – I also am not sure I had the stomach for more traumatic viewing in such a compressed period of time. Oh, how fortunate and privileged am I, who can opt out!

I did though ensure I saw the one Russian feature controversially included in the program – included against the express wishes of many Ukrainian filmmakers by dint of its having received Russian government funding. But I fully understand why the KVIFF programmed Kapitan Volkonogov bezhal (Captain Volkonogov Escaped) (2021) in Horizons. For co-directors Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov have indeed, per a statement to explain its inclusion issued by the KVIFF and signed by Jiří Bartoška, Karel Och and executive director Kryštof Mucha, crafted a film which serves as “an indirect, but very distinct criticism of the current Russian state regime”, in the vein of so many Czechoslovak films of those golden ‘60s that were set in other eras and were ostensibly concerned with the horrors perpetrated by the corresponding regimes of those other times, but which served simultaneously to skewer the status quo for audiences reliably in the know.

Captain Volkonogov Escaped

It has to be said that Captain Volkonogov Escaped is a superb film, concerning a high-ranked cog in the machinery of Stalinism who seeks redemption for the horrific torture, extraction of false confessions under duress and murder of innocents he’s complicit in – innocents, despite a superior officer’s assertion that, while they might indeed not have done anything wrong yet (i.e., anything contrary to the principles of total adherence to the Stalinist Party line circa 1938), they were very likely to – so why not nip that in the bud? A Stalinist take on Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report (1956), you might say.

It’s a superbly conceived and executed cat-and-mouse thriller with Yuriy Borisov magnificent (and very reminiscent of Ewan McGregor) in the title role. And its closing scene is one for the ages – the protagonist’s imagined ascension by way of a vertiginous physical descent that is resoundingly felt. Ouch.

And, to Close…

Were this any other festival, I might have been surprised by Geoffrey Rush’s visitation – inclusive of a bestowal on Closing Night with a Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema – and by the distinct lack of opprobrium greeting it. The KVIFF has developed quite the track record for inviting fallen males of the thespian species whose reputations for inappropriate behaviour, whether on-set or off, have preceded them. Last year: Johnny Depp; in recent years Mel Gibson and Casey Affleck (twice) – the latter two both having participated gamely in a festival trailer for their (alleged) sins.

As a Melburnian once accustomed to the presence of Geoffrey Rush at her local international film festival, where over many years he wittily gave a patron’s address at launches and openings, only for him to be very quietly disappeared from any official representative duties for MIFF after his name became mud, it was all the odder to encounter him in Karlovy Vary.

Geoffrey Rush, Boleslav Polívka and Benicio del Toro

Nevertheless, it must be said he was a gracious awardee who impressed all on Closing Night – and in lead-up appearances – with a knowledgeable appreciation for Czech culture, paying tribute to the formative influence upon him of Miloš Forman’s films after encountering them in the ‘70s at the Cinémathèque Française and, more surprisingly, attesting to the influence upon his acting chops of his fellow Closing Night awardee, Boleslav Polívka, recipient of the Festival President’s Award for Contribution to Czech Cinematography, going so far as to declare “Bolek, you were my man-muse”, having first been wowed by Polívka’s clowning on stage in Paris in 1977.

I wonder whether Rush – or anyone else – noticed that the Closing Night’s obit montage rendered David Gulpilil’s first name as “Daniel”? Probably its biggest misstep this year; there are always a few. Pride of place in this solemn traditional component of KVIFF Closing Nights went to an extended montage to Josef Abrhám – one of my favourite actors to emerge in Czechoslovakia in the ‘60s, not least for his performance as a dandy baddie in Oldřich Lipský’s brilliant Happy End (1967) – followed by a closing tribute to Eva Zaoralová.

I suppose next year we might expect a new festival trailer featuring Geoffrey Rush? This year’s was one of the most fun in some time, featuring the wonderfully twitchy talents of Iva Janžurová. Many other aspects of the festival’s brand ran with the new energy granted it by this year’s shift away from monochromatic minimalism towards a fun, colourful, very busy – animated, even – (presumably) Where’s Wally?-inspired look. But the trailers – in which KVIFF award recipients’ supposedly prized Crystal Globes typically meet a mocking, strange fate – are sure to remain crisply shot in beautiful black-and-white for aeons to come. In their case: rightly so!

KVIFF 2022 poster art

One or two of the festival’s choices of partnerships might raise eyebrows elsewhere – theirs with Philip Morris ČR a.s. certainly would, notwithstanding that its official website asserts that the company is “Designing a Smoke-Free Future”(!) Festivals of all sorts in other lands are being lobbied to drop energy companies’ sponsorship, so KVIFF’s key relationship with innogy might be subjected to some scrutiny in years to come too. That said, with Czechia’s fundamental reliance on Russian gas in serious jeopardy at the time of writing, and a Plan B unclear, energy company sponsorship might be essential in future at the level of providing the very barest of infrastructural necessities, let alone helping cover the costs of flying in the Geoffrey Rushes and Benicio del Toros (this year’s other high-profile Hollywood guest) as festival drawcards.

I’ll close with a final plea for a reversion to type – and I mean that quite literally. I know I wasn’t alone in lamenting the absence this year of Festivalový deník – the Festival Daily newspaper, long a staple of the KVIFF. Leafing through its pages – pressing my iffy Czech into service over the bulk of its daily offerings, and poring over its English language middle insert – was a ritual and a pleasure missing this year, despite a lookalike, two-edition, festival-centric publication disseminated around town on newsstands bearing the Právo imprimatur – that of a respected Czech daily newspaper. Perhaps I have a greater attachment to the Daily than most, having served as a reporter for it one hectic KVIFF back in 2017. But all the same, I think this festival – so enjoyable in the wholesale way that KVIFFs were pre-pandemic and, subject to the vicissitudes of plagues and attitudes towards them, and to the calculations of a warmongering neighbourhood dictator, hopefully will be again next year – is the lesser for its absence.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
1 – 9 July 2022
Festival website: https://www.kviff.com/en/homepage

About The Author

Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Cerise Howard has been Program Director of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival since May 2023. A co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque for several years now, she previously co-founded the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia and was its Artistic Director from 2013-2018; she was also a co-founding member of tilde: Melbourne Trans and Gender Diverse Film Festival. For five years she has been a Studio Leader at RMIT University, specialising in studios interrogating the shortcomings of the canon and incubating film festivals. She plays a mean bass guitar.

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