Mesto na zemle

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, 4-14 July 2001

Any report on Karlovy Vary is by definition incomplete. With over 280 films in 22 different categories, it would theoretically take17 days (by a rough calculation) of non-stop viewing to see them all. And that, of course, would not allow any time for press conferences, discussions, related events (such as Bosnian film director Emir Kusturica playing with his band No Smoking to promote his new film Super 8 Stories by Emir Kusturica [2001]) or the many parties and social occasions – never mind such luxuries as sleep. Exhausted film buffs hoping to return next year must have breathed a sigh of relief when they read in the Festival bulletin that artistic director Eva Zaoralová believes that “unfortunately” further expansion in the number of films shown is impossible.

What makes Karlovy Vary such an important festival on the circuit, though, is not just the sheer number of films it shows. Rather, it is the balance between the East and West, especially in the European context, and the opportunity to see cinema in a broader framework than at most festivals. Karlovy Vary simply refuses to sign up to the idea that any one region of the world represents a single mainstream of film production from which all other cinemas represent some sort of minority interest offshoot.

Playing on home ground

Prominent among the Central and East European coverage is the section devoted to Czech cinema. Despite the recent praise for the younger generation of directors such as Petr “Knoflíkáři” Zelenka and Jan Hřebejk, this was something of a lean year for Czech filmmaking, and the most successful films were by the older generation of directors. Perhaps the most famous film on show was Hřebejk’s Oscar-nominated Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall, 2000). In contrast to this successful film, the Zelenka-scripted Samotáři (Loners, 2000), directed by David Ondříček, has failed to transfer the cult status it has in its domestic market to the international scene, despite numerous previous appearances on the festival circuit.

Among the international premieres of Czech films, there was a notable tendency towards using digital video. Vladimír Michálek exploits the medium to the full in his experimental and hallucinogenic And l exit (Angel Exit, 2000), and in the process creates a visually stunning but otherwise disappointing film. It is, however, worthy of mention since it lays down the gauntlet to other Czech filmmakers with its unusually frank treatment of the arduousness of contemporary Prague life.

On the other hand, Vĕra Chytilová, one of the driving forces of the Czech New Wave in the 1960s, turns in a highly disappointing film with Vyhnání z ráje (Expulsion from Paradise, 2000), a film which uses digital video as a financial short cut. The film didn’t even enjoy the succès de scandale it seemed it might have in the early stages of production when Chytilová was hauled in by the German police for suspicion that she was making child pornography. On the contrary, these were some rather innocuous shots of her granddaughter on the beach used for the film’s opening scene.

Nocní hovory s matkou

One of my biggest regrets of the Festival was missing Jan Nĕmec’s Nocní hovory s matkou (Night Talks with Mother, 2000). Another 1960s veteran of cutting-edge filmmaking, Nĕmec has reportedly survived the transition to digital video far better than Chytilová, making a semi-documentary series of conversations with his late mother shot through a series of specially adapted lenses. Peter Hames, the critic and author of The Czechoslovak New Wave, assured me at the Festival that the film compares favourably with the best of Nĕmec’s 1960s work, which includes the films Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964) and O slavnosti i hostech (The Party and the Guests, 1966). The fact that the film has since gone on to win a Golden Leopard in the video section at Locarno reinforces this view.

Also worthy of note was the latest offering from Czech master of the grotesque Jan Švankmajer. His Otesánek (2000), soon to be released in the United States under the uninspiring name of Little Otik and in Great Britain under an as-yet-undisclosed name, adapts a traditional Czech pohádka (fairy tale) about a childless couple who adopt a tree stump that turns out to have a fatally voracious appetite. It is, perhaps, his most narratively conventional film, yet at the same time it has all the traditional elements of a Švankmajer film: the animation of the inanimate, dark cellars, glass eyes, over-sized tongues, inedible food and a multi-levelled relationship between the original text and its actual narration.

Curiously enough, one of the most original and enjoyable Czech films, or rather sets of films, playing at Karlovy Vary were the Festival trailers that preceded each screening. Rejecting the ethos previously employed by the Festival clips, director Ivan Zachariáš made a series of different trailers, all of which aimed at a kind of retro mundanity rather than high glamour. The set of eight, along with most other publicity material, all depicted a grubby-overalled and cack-handed projectionist (played by English actor Eddie Marsan, whom Zachariáš was so keen to have he paid his wages out of his own pocket) in his dusty old projection room. They proved an enormous success with most Festival goers. However, the Festival’s projectionists were enraged and threatened to go on strike unless the series was binned. They relented when they realised their demands might jeopardise the Festival’s international reputation.

Grit and sermons

Neighbouring Poland was, naturally enough, less well represented than domestic films. Nevertheless, there were just as many interesting successes. The film that made the biggest splash was Robert Gliński’s Cześć Tereska (Hi, Tereska, 2000), picking up the Special Jury Prize, the FIPRESCI Prize and the Don Quixote Prize, awarded by the Federation of Film Societies. Shot in black and white, it’s a sensitive portrayal of the social circumstances that lead the film’s teenage heroine through truancy, alcohol abuse, theft, rape and finally murder. Whilst the film has to be admired for the handling of its central character, some viewers may find it difficult to relate to the extreme, fatalistic sense of social determinism and its refusal to consider individual free will as a significant factor in life.

Że życie ma sens

The film at the true cutting edge of urban grit, however, was Grzegorz Lipiec’s Że życie ma sens (That Life Makes Sense, 2001), which played, not in East of the West, but in the Forum of Independents to reflect its unusual production history: it was shot on VHS for around USD 1000 with the intention of just showing it to a close circle of friends before being picked up for national distribution. Using non-professional actors and improvised dialogues, the film is a reaction to the latest mania for slickly produced Polish literary adaptations, represented at this year’s Karlovy Vary by Filip Bajon’s Przedwiośnie (The Spring to Come, 2001). Lipiec’s film charts another set of social ills, this time with a slightly older set of people and a different focus – drugs. However, although it is highly successful on a scene-by-scene basis, the overall film comes across as dramatically flat.

This year, one of the many tributes was to Krzysztof Zanussi, leading light of the tendency in late 1970s and early 1980s Polish film called kino moralnego niepokoju (cinema of moral concern) and chair of this year’s competition jury. Three of his most recent films were on show, including his latest, Życie jako śmiertelna przenoszona drogą płciową (Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease, 2000). The title gives the unfortunate impression it is a screwball comedy, when it is in fact a deep and reflective film on finding God. Despite its somewhat limited philosophical framework and overtly sermonising nature, it proved to be one of the films I enjoyed watching most and represents a credit-worthy attempt to realise a film primarily through a strong script.

Auteur heirs and romantic comedies

The Russian presence has always been all-pervasive at Karlovy Vary, both the Festival and the town. This year there were nine feature films on show. Alleged heir to Tarkovsky’s artistic legacy, Aleksandr Sokurov managed to retain excitement with the second part of his tetrology on 20th century world leaders, Telets (Taurus, 2000), which focuses on the existential angst of Lenin in his final years as his faculties faded.

More controversial, however, was Artur Aristakisian’s Mesto na zemle (A Place on Earth, 2001). Following on from his groundbreaking debut, Ladoni (Hands, 1994), which charted the dispossessed of his native Chinisau, Mesto na zemle depicts those on the very edge of Moscow society. Whereas in Ladoni the outcasts are worshipped and idealised by the filmmaker, here the protagonists’ ideology of free love presents us with a series of personal crises. The impressively delirious and hypnotic first half of the film, though, is followed by a weak and aimless second half that left me wondering what exactly Artistakisian’s intentions were. Nevertheless, some days after the Festival was over I found that the film’s images and haunting soundtrack (by Robert Wyatt) still jumped into my mind at unexpected moments, making it one of the more enduring films I saw. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why it won the Philip Morris Freedom prize.

One that got a variable reception was Iady, ili Vsemirnaia istoriia otravlenii (Poisons or a World History of Poisoning, 2001) by Karen Shakhnazarov, whose output is now reduced as he is diverted by being head of the famous but troubled production company Mosfilm. Iady combines a tale of everyday marital infidelity in contemporary Russia with extended fantasy scenes, by turns whimsical and grotesque, in which the principle protagonist meets historical figures such as the Borgia family, Caligula and Nero. It’s a film that is hard to characterise, and one that never quite behaves how you want it to, right up to its deliberately anticlimactic ending – something that probably explains why it has divided critics.

Rather more predictable, but still highly watchable, was Oleg Yankovsky’s Prikhodi na menia posmotret’ (Come Look at Me, 2001). It’s an amusing but not particularly believable romantic romp saved by a strong script and fine acting on the part of Yankovsky in the lead male role. It certainly has a lot more to commend it than the average Hollywood attempt to appeal to the same kind of audience.

Good at Cannes, less impressive at Karlovy Vary

Slogans

One of the surprise hits this year at Cannes was Slogans (2001), a light but unsentimental comedy by Albanian director Gjergj Xhuvani. Much of the surprise will stem from the fact that most people will never even have suspected that Albania had a viable film industry. Not only was this French-Albanian co-production one of the highlights of the Directors’ Fortnight at the French festival, it also reportedly hosted one of the best parties there – although you can never be sure if the latter opinion might not have had some influence on the former.

At Karlovy Vary, there was no accompanying party to sway journalists’ opinions: just the high expectations that Cannes had given. The sober verdict this time generally seemed to be that the film, whilst a worthy addition to the vast canon of Central European film works that analyse the absurdity of Communism, is merely a good film rather than an exceptional one. Doubtless, though, the film will continue to win novelty points for being produced in a country with a hitherto unknown film production.

Another Balkan film to have achieved success at Cannes was Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2000), winning the Best Screenplay prize. At Karlovy Vary, set among several other films depicting the Balkan wars of the 1990s, this story of three soldiers trapped between the lines seemed curiously weak. No Man’s Land is perhaps a fitting title for the film, as Tanović is unable to capture the behavioural minutiae or driving motivation of any side portrayed. This is partly because the real subject is neither the Bosniaks nor the Serbs but UNPROFOR. However, Tanović clearly has no idea exactly what happens inside the UN peacekeeping organisation. His script seems merely to be an emotional guess fuelled by the – totally justified – frustration with the international community that was felt in the region. This makes it a poor critique of international structures, however, and it is primarily a fantasy of how incompetent they are, rather than an informed and educated exposé.

Serbs are nice people… honestly

Whilst Tanović seeks to implicate the UN in the hypocrisy of war, Rat uživo (War Live, 2000), which played in competition, tried to augment this view by absolving the Serbian people of the crimes committed by an unloved and unwanted regime. Noble aims, indeed. Sadly, this film too is flawed, not least by the appallingly bad standard of acting, the overworked and irritating theme of a film within a film and its general inability to present what life was really like under the NATO bombings of Belgrade.

Rat uživo is an interesting social document in illustrating the attempts to redefine Serbian patriotism as a phenomenon wholly independent of the discredited Milošević regime. But as a film, it is dramatically weak and almost propagandistic in its stance. Moreover, it is somewhat irrelevant for international observers: in spite of continual, shameful Serb-bashing in the Western media throughout the 1990s, few people in the modern political climate now have any doubt that there was a yawning gap in Serbia between those who govern and those who are governed. Thus, Rat uživo tells us just as little about modern Serbia as No Man’s Land does about UNPROFOR.

Considerably more successful was a film which chose to depict a bloody Balkan conflict of the 1990s without letting it dominate the plot – Hungarian director Ibolya Fekete’s Chico (2001). Described as an “ideological adventure film,” Chico at its most immediate level tells the story of a half-Jewish, half-Catholic hard-line Communist born in Bolivia and then travelling on to Chile, Sweden, Hungary, Albania, and Israel before ending up in Croatia, first as a journalist and then as soldier. The film is not without its controversial elements, as it depicts the life of someone who actively sided with the Croats in its war of succession. As such, it’s unlikely to be a film receiving widespread admiration in Serbia. Nevertheless, the points it makes go beyond the narrow historical confines in which it is set, and the narrative is novel and gripping. The jury recognised this by giving Fekete the Best Director Award.

More from the Magyars

Hungarian film often suffers at the hands of international festivals. At its best, it is frequently too demanding to convince festival curators it will attract a sufficient audience; at its worst, it is shallow, populist pap unworthy of international exhibition. Little lies between the two extremes. Short of going to the Magyar Filmszemle (Hungarian Filmweek) in Budapest, Karlovy Vary is one of the best festivals to see the cream of Hungarian filmmaking. Yet another film on the list of ones I would have liked to have seen was Ágnes Incze’s debut I Love Budapest (2001), playing as part of the Variety Critics’ Choice selection.

Péter Tímár, however, was a Hungarian director I did not miss. His comedy Csinibaba (Dollybirds, 1997) remains something of a 1990s comic masterpiece. Since then, unfortunately, he has gone progressively downhill, and I was disappointed to find that Vakvagányok (Blind Guys, 2000) saw him sink even lower. It is painful to criticise such a worthy film, starring young blind people and depicting the lows and highs of their loves and lives. However, the film compares very badly to an analogous project (shown at Karlovy Vary two years ago) by the Macedonian-born Czech director Ivo Trajkov, Minulost (The Past, 1998), which seeks to portray the lives of the deaf. Whereas Tímár has produced a limp and totally unfilmic work, Trajkov pushed film art to the very limits of its expressive capabilities to produce a truly innovative film (with all the profits going to charities for the deaf in the Czech Republic).

Fans of Hungarian art house film should instead head for Péter Gothár’s Paszport (Passport, 2000), another Central European film to have been shot on digital video. The film centres on drunkard Józsi and his Ukrainian wife, Jelizavyeta, who has come to Hungary enticed by the prospect of a better life. The marriage progressively fails and Jelizavyeta and their daughter decide they should escape back across the border. Their efforts are hampered, however, by a lack of the titular travel document.

Unrecognised power

It has become something of a mantra among Central and East European film critics that the quality is not what it used to be. This may be so among feature films, but the great undiscovered film treasure of the region is documentary, which seems to have retained far more integrity than its fictional counterpart.

Ferenc Moldoványi’s Деца-Fëmijët (Kosovo 2000) / Children (Kosovo 2000) (2001) was one of the most impressive documentaries from Central Europe, being a surprisingly filmic work that was obviously designed for the big screen. The film divides its time between ethnic Albanian and Serb children in Kosovo, who tell their camera how members of their family were killed and how it has affected them. Somehow, these youngsters breaking down on screen as they describe being robbed of their parents evokes the pain and futility of war more than pictures of mangled blood-stained bodies. It’s also a sobering film in that it emphasises just how much the war in Kosovo has ingrained inter-ethnic hatred in individuals who were previously peace-loving people.

Czech director Helena Třeštíková picked up a special mention for her Ženy na přelomu tisíciletí (V pasti) / Women at the Turn of the Millennium (Trapped) (2001), one of a series of five documentaries produced for Česká televize (Czech Television). As is typical of her style, Třeštíková uses a broad canvas – the film was shot over a period of five years – to focus on the female experience. In this case, it is the story of a heroin addict who through the course of the film falls first into crime and then into prostitution. Helena Třeštíková demonstrates with this series of films her remarkable talent for putting her subjects at ease and persuading them to be absolutely candid about their often astonishing lives.

Festival Poster

Other documentary films of note at the Festival were Russian director Sergei Loznitsa’s Poselenie (The Settlement, 2001), which won its director of photography, Pavel Kostomarov, a special mention from the jury, and Bitva o život (Battle for Life, 2000), by a trio of talented Czech directors – Miroslav Janek, Vít Janeček and Roman Vávra.

Whilst Central and East European cinema is, just as any region, not lacking in flops, the sheer number of films of interest from the region demonstrates the resilience of the erstwhile “most important art.” The range shown at Karlovy Vary was rich and varied, with DV and even VHS fostering a burgeoning independent tradition and directors increasingly willing to take risks. Moreover, interesting films from countries with hard-hit economies – such as Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Albania – were represented at the Festival. This is indeed cause for hope. If Central and East European film can hold its own at a festival such as Karlovy Vary, playing alongside films from America, Iran, Korea and dozens of other countries, it must be doing better than the pessimists would have us believe.