Mine was at least a twofold purpose for flying half way around the world to the far west late this June just passed. Long had I wanted to make my way to Karlovy Vary for the Czech Republic’s A-list film festival, all the more so lately with a first Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia (or “CaSFFA”) as Artistic Director just behind me. I’d almost as long craved, furthermore, to attend a film festival in summer months somewhere, the converse to the norm in the Australasian parts I hail from and call home.

So: this was a CaSFFA scouting and goodwill expedition, and a media excursion both, which, due to the happy proximity of the festival in Odessa to the one in Karlovy Vary, makes for the dual film festival report which follows, in which Festival A(-list), the elder statesman KVIFF, founded back in 1946, is pitted against Festival B, the OIFF, the new kid on the bloc and a four-year-old pretender to A-list status.

I wager that probing this dichotomy will prove productive, for these two festivals have much in common, well beyond just catering to those, like myself, with a penchant for cinema emerging, and re-emerging to overdue recognition, from the old Eastern Bloc.

Both are nine days long, price their wares very reasonably and thus draw a catholic audience, and each features a compellingly hideous Functionalist edifice as the festival epicentre. In Karlovy Vary, it’s the often derided Hotel Thermal, a spectacular blight, when viewed from without, upon this most gingerbread of West Bohemian towns, although very well outfitted within, with umpteen screening halls ranging from the colossal to the intimate, and with many more facilities besides.

While in Odessa, the Festival Palace (aka the Odessa Academical Theatre of Musical Comedy Named after M. Vodyanoy, reducible to various combined parts thereof) is not too ghastly to behold from the front, decked out in its festival finery and with a forecourt bustling with festive and tented goings-on, but is a distressed, dull, off-bronze eyesore when approached from behind.

The Palace, however, is host to only the one auditorium, a cavernous 1260 seater where all the competition screenings are held. Other screenings at the OIFF are held elsewhere, necessitating, save for the intrepid and those with time on their hands, shuttle bus trips across town or sweet-talking the festival drivers in cod-Russian in their innumerable spanky new sponsor’s vehicles.

Karlovy Vary too boasts screening venues quite a hike (or bike ride) from one another, and many and various in degrees of grandeur and atmosphere those venues are, too, consonant with the great plenty of offerings at the festival. There are typically several screenings on at any one time, and even more when one factors in the numerous media screenings at Hotel Thermal which occur each day, constituting in themselves a festival within the festival for the cosseted media corps, and with which screenings alone a media scribe could almost content herself.

Odessa, while spanning the same length of time as Karlovy Vary and demanding the adoption of motorised transport far more often to get about is nonetheless a much more compact affair. Often, there are no more than two conflicting sessions or events on at once. Happily, this leads to the ready accrual of “usual suspects” to hang out with during screenings and for extracurricular good times both, and in particular of an evening at the snazzy, partly open-air festival club, Bernardazzi, making Odessa’s a truly convivial festival.

Whereas the KVIFF is in fact so large that it can even boast of a festival without the festival, and I’m not referring to the spa town’s wholesale adoption of a carnival atmosphere while the festival’s on. It was not actually during the KVIFF proper that I caught up with Ben Wheatley’s wondrous strange psychotronic Special Jury Prize winner A Field in England. As is a commonplace occurrence with Czech film festivals, “echoes” of the festival resounded after its close in Karlovy Vary in Prague’s excellent Kino Světozor, affording Pražáks and passers-through nine days to catch a choice selection of films they’d just missed in the festival to their west.

On now then to considerations of each of the festivals proper, focusing more on what especially drew me to them both (films from the region and specialty offerings) and less on most of those titles that appeared at one or both festivals but which have also been reliably appearing elsewhere on the festival circuit. We’ll begin in Karlovy Vary.

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This year’s edition marked the 20th festival since 1994, when the KVIFF, facing oblivion, was taken over by an independent foundation which turned to the actor Jiří Bartoška and the critic Eva Zaoralová to right the sinking ship. Both are still heavily involved with this rudely healthy festival today; Bartoška as its President, a role he has filled throughout, and Zaoralová as Artistic Consultant, after performing as its Artistic Director from 1995-2010. Their 20th anniversary working alongside one another was celebrated in a photographic spread in the pages of day one’s Festivalový Deník (Festival Daily) and in a time-lapse montage during the closing ceremony. A touch self-indulgent? Perhaps, but few could have much begrudged them the tributes.

Looking forwards now, current day Artistic Director Karel Och advised in the festival catalogue that “we have digitized almost all festival theaters. The demise of the film reel is inevitable…” (1) Here then begins a new generation in KV, even with Bartoška and Zaoralová (80 years young) still on board. Indeed, very few films were projected off celluloid, including close to all of the Out of the Past archival program, although this scribe is happy that many of the digitised venues can still project film, for now, at least.

Honeymoon

Honeymoon

Onto the selections. Main competition entrant Líbánky (Honeymoon) finds Jan Hřebejk and regular scriptwriting cohort Petr Jarchovský mining similar thematic terrain to their Nevinnost (Innocence, 2011) and Kawasakiho růže (Kawasaki’s Rose, 2009). Once again, the past catches up with ostensibly good people, only for dark truths to emerge and characters to be indelibly stained. In Líbánky, it’s through the emergence of a creepy wedding crasher, a strange man who insists the bride doesn’t know the groom for the bully he is – or at least, has been.

Líbánky is an elegant and strongly cast if mirthless and occasionally prolix affair which left me feeling queasy. I found it difficult to tell whether Hřebejk and Jarchovský are looking to indict their imagined (especially domestic) audience as homophobes, or are unethically pandering to an assumed distaste in that audience for homosexuality and to presumptions that gays are somehow all predators, in the interests of generating a suspenseful dénouement. I find myself unwilling to give them the benefit of the doubt; I found the film’s resolution really rather icky and can’t help but wish the two of them would return to burlesquing Czech(oslovak) history and their people’s national character as they did to such winning effect in their Pelíškys (2) of yesteryear.

But bugger my misgivings; Líbánky won Hřebejk a Best Director Award.

Miracle

Miracle

Juraj Lehotský’s fiction feature debut, Zázrak (Miracle) opened East of the West, the festival’s second most prestigious competition strand, ultimately to win a Special Mention. It’s a film after a familiar social realist tradition in Eastern Europe where the main question concerning the protagonist’s plight will be where it can go next once it’s already soon gone from bad to very much worse. Here, the lead is a reedy adolescent girl, drugged into not resisting her institutionalisation in Slovak juvie hall, from which she is desperately keen to escape in order to join a gormless, addict boyfriend twice her age (Robert Roth). Upon their reunion, further slow-burn ghastliness inevitably ensues.

Michaela Bendulová is a huge asset to this grimly engaging film as Ela, its lead and anchor. Discovered after a thorough scouring of re-education facilities much like the one Ela is sent to, Bendulová may have just landed a lucky break of a nature utterly unthinkable to her character and antithetical to Zázrak‘s generic conventions.

A less conventional new Slovak film also vied for honours in East of the West. Zamatoví teroristi

(Velvet Terrorists) is a peculiar, largely documentary collaboration between three filmmakers of note, Ivan Ostrochovský, Pavol Pekarčík and Peter Kerekes, and catches up in the here-and-now with three men who each made comical botched attempts to destroy public property and/or public figures during the years of normalisation in Czechoslovakia, only to wind up in jail on terrorism charges. What, the film asks, would such people be doing now, in the 21st century, when there are no longer those same pricks to kick against? And could the romance of their would-have-been heroic guerrilla acts be transferred successfully to the interpersonal realm in middle age? The answers to these questions, it transpires, are drolly amusing and depressing in equal measure and, in one case, even rather creepy: one of the men is moulding a misguided young woman in his image as his protégée…

Burning Bush

Burning Bush

Of a level of ambition altogether above these local competition entries, and presented as a Special Event was Hořící keř (Burning Bush), a three part HBO Europe production which had already premiered on television, examining the wider societal and the narrower familial fallout of Jan Palach’s famous self-immolating protest on Prague’s Wenceslas Square, as distorted in its purpose by the increasingly oppressive Soviet regime of the time. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, who was a film student at Prague’s FAMU at the time of the protest in early 1969 (and present in Karlovy Vary to preside over the Grand Jury), and impressively researched and scripted by film historian Štěpán Hulík (born 1984), Burning Bush doesn’t at all feel its nearly four hour length when viewed in total; it fair races along in its period-perfect evocation of some very tough times indeed in Czechoslovakian history.

One of Holland’s cleverest ploys, following a most pertinent example set by The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1988), is to sometimes let the colour be slowly drained out of her filmed images, such that characters and events in her dramatised scenes can seep into black-and-white archival footage. That aside, Burning Bush is the stuff of straightforward but expert storytelling, doing justice to a symbolic act of resistance that continues to reverberate around Eastern Europe. Why, several self-immolations have occurred in Bulgaria just this year alone.

Onto further encore screenings, and there was Czech Films 2012-13, a several film strong wrap of the year in Czech cinema that just was, exclusive of Czech films to have already played at the festival but extensible to Slovak films that were Czech co-productions, indicative of the close ties that remain between the two nations even come the 20th anniversary this year of Czechoslovakia’s dissolution.

Tomáš Vorel’s earthy Cesta do lesa (To the Woods) surprised as a sumptuously shot, bucolic fish-out-of-water tale where, to the benefit of the narrative but to the disappointment of this viewer, a free-thinking but persecuted family’s subsumption to traditional country values saves their bacon and unites one and all. Still, To the Woods has its pleasures along the way, including two episodes of impressionistic shrooming, with the psychedelia depicted no doubt inspired by Věra Chytilová and Jaroslav Kučera’s colour-shifting experiments in first Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966) and later in the outdoorsier Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1969).

Also screened in this section was David Ondříček’s compelling, show trial-damning totalitarian film noir Ve stínu (In the Shadow), in which an excellent, fedora-clad Ivan Trojan portrays a Communist cop a little less ethically-challenged than his similar but more minor character in Burning Bush and whose compulsive detective work unearths a dreadful conspiracy sure to be his undoing.

Some have levelled accusations at In the Shadow of taking liberties with historical truths and especially, in its adherence to an arguably gratuitous genre-consistent noir mise en scène, of privileging style over facticity, but for mine In the Shadow is comfortably amongst the very strongest films from the Czech and Slovak Republics for many years.

My Dog Killer

My Dog Killer

Equally impressive was Mira Fornay’s second feature Môj pes Killer (My Dog Killer), a bleak but powerful drama concerning Marek, a rudderless young skinhead (Adam Mihál, possessed of a curious, compelling androgyny, as if made-up under the cowl of his hoodie for a 1920s silent horror flick). Marek lives in a small rural bordertown, where he struggles to garner acceptance from a bunch of local neo-Nazi heavies, a quest abetted by his owning and training a vicious dog. Marek also struggles deeply with his estranged mother’s betrayal – she left him and his father many years back and has scandalously borne and raised a Romany child, an innocent who would love to have his big brother in his life. It probably goes without saying that this cannot end well.

Much more a Slovak than a Czech film, My Dog Killer is far more artfully shot than the grim scenario and its quest for verism demand, all “slow cinema” long takes and elegant tracking shots, yet done without robbing the film of affect. It’s an upliftingly well-made downer of a film.

A couple of recent Czech documentaries were also of interest. Silvie Dymáková’s Šmejdi (Crooks) investigates a post-Communism scourge in the Czech Republic, mixing clandestine footage of hard-sell conventions and bus tours, where the elderly are addictively browbeaten into winning (read “purchasing”) bargain-priced things they neither want nor need, with interviews with these ubiquitous businesses’ patsies. And Lukáš Kokeš and Klára Tasovská’s Pevnost (Fortress) is an undercover investigation of current day life in Transnistria (aka Pridnestrovie, or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic), one of four breakaway republics formed in the collapse of the Soviet Union whose Absurdistani claims to autonomy and legitimacy are scarcely acknowledged by anyone but one another. The filmmakers’ timing in turning their focus on this strange, time-stood-still land is propitious; the film covers the lead-up to an election in late 2011, when there was in fact a suggestion that someone other than the 20 year incumbent President, Igor Smirnov, had a sniff of becoming Head of State. What emerges is fascinating.

Incidentally, Odessa is one of the very few places from which one can, should one be comfortable taking a cavalier attitude towards personal travel insurance, readily attain transport into Transnistria…

Out of the Past

The Arrival from the Darkness

The Arrival from the Darkness. Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

The quality of several of the new Czech and Slovak titles at Karlovy Vary notwithstanding, the greatest programming delights from the region came in the form of wonders excavated from the archives and newly restored. The most fun and rarefied both was a screening of the 1921 horror film Příchozí z temnot (The Arrival from the Darkness, Jan Stanislav Kolár), presented in the beautiful, neo-baroque Municipal Theatre with a charming, witty and unorthodox live score by Andrea Rottin and in, we were advised at the outset, the correct reel order for the first time in sixty years (so, yes, off 35mm)! 

Rottin’s score wasn’t the only agreeable nexus forged between the film’s screening and Karlovy Vary in 2013; its star, Theodor Pištěk was the father of his costume designer and hyperrealist artist namesake, who was in town to accept a Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema just ahead of a screening of Amadeus (Miloš Forman, 1984), for whose costume design he won an Oscar.

(Incidentally, the penultimate edition of the Festival Daily ran a very amusing letter written by Pištěk Jr. to the festival President back in 2005, in which he outlined a comical list of demands in order to ever accept an invitation to Karlovy Vary, including, but not limited to “adequate accommodation for my valet, dresser, make-up artists, Thai coach, Chinese doctor, Japanese chef, Ukrainian food taster, Tibetan lama and two (female) bodyguards” and “Jan Svěrák must not be accommodated in the same hotel”.) (3) 

Just as delightful was a screening of a restoration, courtesy of Prague’s new Karel Zeman Museum, of Cesta do pravěku (Journey to the Beginning of Time, 1955). Zeman’s gently didactic boys’ own adventure is a Jaroslav Foglar’s “Rapid Arrows” meets Jules Verne affair concerning four intrepid young lads’ journey upstream along the river of time, passing from the present day through successive prehistoric eras full of colourful Zdeněk Burian-inspired puppets and ingeniously incorporated stop motion animated beasts. In terms of homespun charm, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) comes a distant second. 

Věra Chytilová’s 42 minute long Pytel blech (A Bag of Fleas, 1962) has a lot of fun in dramatising, vérité-style, clashes with the powers that were of some non-conformist elements troubling the staff and student bodies alike at a boarding school in a regional Czech town. Only hinting at Chytilová’s radicalism to come, it’s nonetheless delightfully impish. It was preceded by Zablácené město (Mud-Covered City, Václav Táborský), a gorgeous 8 minute long visual poem humorously documenting the muddy, slapsticky comings and goings of new inhabitants of a Prague housing estate, all to a zesty, honking score from Ferdinand Havlík. It’s really terrific to see the lavishing of such restorative attention on short films, all too easily dismissed as minor works next to Big Daddy Feature Film.

All My Good Countrymen

All My Good Countrymen

The biggest drawcard of the section was surely Vojtěch Jasný’s Všichni dobří rodáci (All My Good Countrymen, 1968). Actually, make that second biggest, after Festival President’s Award recipient Jasný himself who, at 87, is still a real livewire, upstaging his film with his own introduction to it in which his poor translator was one minute being called upon to translate his Czech into English, and the next his perfectly good English into Czech. Worse, she often then had to suffer the indignity of Jasný correcting her mid-translation. All very comical, even when the director, who knows an adoring crowd when he has one in the palm of his hand, started to waffle on long-windedly about matters spiritual, usually a hard sell in the super-secular Czech Republic.

Všichni dobří rodáci remains a wonderful, lyrical film, kaleidoscopic in depicting ghastly changes to lives of simple Moravian villagers wrought by the onset of Communist Party rule and collectivisation in 1948, without sacrificing drama and emotion in the slightest. Seasons change, folkloric rituals are enacted, years pass, the body count rises. For all its beauty and poetry, it requires no great stretch of the imagination to see why the government of the time sought to have it banned forever.

Before Tonight is Over

Before Tonight is Over

Less of a crowd-puller, Kým sa skončí táto noc (Before Tonight is Over, Peter Solan, 1965) proved revelatory, having been restored by a Slovak Film Institute celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. A chamber piece set over a few late hours in a happening nightclub in a Slovakian alpine resort town, Kým sa skončí táto noc is a remarkably fluid, free-flowing affair, revelling in the caprices of its liquored-up characters, a function of a very loose shoot in which multiple cameras roamed the location and the actors were given a lot of license to improvise, both when they did and didn’t think the cameras were rolling, as revealed by Dagmar Ditrichová, daughter of screenwriter Tibor Vichta, who was on hand to provide eloquent, erudite background on the production prior to the screening.

It’s not an “important”, epochal film the way Jasný’s is, but it’s a joyous discovery nonetheless and essential catch-up viewing for anyone already bitten by the Czechoslovakian New Wave bug.

Rare opportunities to catch two of Kira Muratova’s most famed films were also up for grabs in Karlovy Vary. I missed “one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated banned films” Dolgie provody (A Long Goodbye, 1971) (4) but was delighted to catch another, the director’s earlier Korotkie vstrechi (Brief Encounters, 1967), in which the director stars as one third of a love triangle, the implications of which are revealed every bit as formally adventurously as this scarce film’s reputation has long held, all flashbacks and shifting perspectives, yoked very much to a feminine point of view. Marvellous.

If one were churlish though, one might gripe that Karlovy Vary had been slipshod in only landing two old Muratovas and not her new film, ceding it, with or without contest I don’t know, to a gala Ukrainian premiere in her hometown, Odessa, yet with a world premiere already had in Rome late in 2012. That said, Karlovy Vary did land the world premiere of Paradjanov (Serge Avedikian & Olena Fetisova) and plonked it squarely in East of the West, which could be seen as putting the upstart Odessan festival in its place, not least because the Ukrainian festival would be presenting a Sergei Paradjanov retrospective, along with an exhibition of his collage work, and Paradjanov himself had extensive historical connections with Ukraine.

Dissent and Sensibility in Odessa

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

The Paradjanov retrospective was undoubtedly Odessa’s programming highlight, even if it couldn’t boast of new restorations, whether digital or analogue, or of screenings of rare archival prints. Tini zabutykh predkiv (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, 1964), et al were all projected off – was it even just DVD? 

(On which note, I don’t think, alas, that a single film was projected in Odessa on film. Consulting the catalogue, I cannot confirm or deny this though, as, unlike the KVIFF, no mention is made of screening formats anywhere.) 

Nevertheless, the festival had a few Paradjanov cards up its sleeve, proudly presenting Sayat Nova rather than The Colour of Pomegranates, the latter being the version long distributed but which had been bastardised to meet Soviet censorship requirements.

Secondly, the OIFF screened Maestro (1993), an only recently rediscovered documentary on Paradjanov, heavy on interview footage and made not long before his death by Alexander Kaidanovsky – the Stalker in Paradjanov’s great friend Tarkovsky’s film. Irksomely though, a lengthy introduction from representatives of screening partner ArtoDocs International Film Festival focused rather single-mindedly on Kaidanovsky’s contribution to cinema, considerable though it may be, rather than on Paradjanov, as one might have expected and preferred.

Thirdly, there was quite a kick to be had in seeing the astonishing Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in Ukraine, and grasping that it was a Ukrainian film, albeit one celebrating the folklore and rituals of a particular group of Ukrainians, the Carpathian mountain-dwelling Hutsuls, possessed of their own distinct dialect. (Not that folks in Odessa speak Ukrainian much anyway, favouring Russian.) Still, it was fantastic to enjoy so ecstatic and resolutely outdoorsy a film outdoors myself, perched as I was upon the steps of the Langeron Descent, a poor man’s Potemkin Stairs, if still charming (even when used as a thoroughfare by locals throughout the screening) and located close to the real deal.

Paradjanov

Paradjanov

And as for Avedikian and Fetisova’s biopic, Paradjanov? It’s good – Golden Duke for the Best Ukrainian feature-good – but to expect it to be of the calibre of the work of the man himself could only be to expect far too much. Certainly, it’s well-served by co-director Avedikian’s wholesale, charismatic adoption of the role of the Georgian-born Armenian genius, and by a few nifty bits of trickery whereby Paradjanov is inserted into footage from his masterpieces, as if blocking them ahead of their actual shoot. Indeed, Paradjanov’s flair for collage – a key creative refuge when grimly imprisoned for so many years – inspires several clever compositional decisions made by the filmmakers. So, while Paradjanov skates over great swathes of biographical detail, it does nonetheless express, in content and in form, a strong sense of the personality of the man – his devil-may-care joie de vivre when on song, and the degree to which he was an irascible, impossible curmudgeon when not.

One quibble is inescapable though, and that concerns Paradjanov’s queerness. It’s not that the film skirts around it altogether – how could it, after all, when the reason for his jailing for four brutal years in the ’70s was not merely for aesthetic crimes against Socialist Realism but explicitly for “homosexuality and illegal trafficking in religious icons”? (5)

Paradjanov tackles his bisexuality very chastely, very much in a few words rather than in any deeds. It could be argued that this reflects the on- and off-screen mores of the period depicted, and is thus appropriate, but I suspect it’s more a reflection of the mores of present day Ukraine and surrounds, where homosexuality is still taboo and underground, if not outright vilified. Just consider the stream of distressing stories emerging presently from Russia.

I think it’ll be some years before Odessa will be game enough to follow the KVIFF’s lead and run, let alone look to break, a film like Tomasz Wasilewski’s Płynące wieżowce (Floating Skyscrapers), the Karlovy Vary East of the West Award winner and the “first Polish LGBT film”. (6) Moreover, the very idea of so prominent a slot as the closing night selection being given in Odessa to so queer a film as Steven Soderbergh’s highly entertaining Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, like it was at the KVIFF, will doubtless be held pretty outlandish for quite some time to come.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Pussy Riot A Punk Prayer

That’s not to say there wasn’t any daring shown in Odessa. There was surely no little spunk in their scheduling the russophone premiere of Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary concerning the events and the trial leading up to the high profile imprisonment of three dissident feminist punk rock performance artist-activists for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. While it’s a worthy, well made documentary, it struck a slight discord with me in that it was neither the work of women filmmakers nor, in its simple reportage approach, at all activistic. Was this film made “for the right reasons”? The received wisdom might well be that maintaining some objective distance from a documentary subject is the done thing, but I had a real sense that Lerner and Pozdorovkin just weren’t close enough to their subjects, not least because on the very day of the screening in Odessa, Pussy Riot had released a new video targeting the Russian fossil fuel industry, “Like a Red Prison”, something I had every impression the directors were completely oblivious to at the Q&A they fronted up for.

(Which reminds me: Truba (Pipeline), a Russian/German/Czech co-production from Ukrainian director Vitaly Manskiy, won the award for Best Documentary Film Over 30 Minutes Long back in Karlovy Vary; I caught it instead in Russian Films Week in Odessa. It’s a superb, gently subversive observational documentary road movie, charting a slow but consistent rags-to-riches trajectory in standards of living as it traverses the vast Trans-Siberian natural gas pipeline from Siberia, where the partly Ukrainian-owned pipeline is understatedly implicated in environmental destruction and sullying of traditional lives and livelihoods, all the way through to the casually well-to-do in Germany, stopping at many hardscrabble stations along the way.)

Anyway, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer strikes me as the work of professional filmmakers with a good nose for a story rather than the rawer, rage-fuelled polemical piece I think would have been preferable.

Still, this could have been redressed for the occasion, if only members of FEMEN, Ukraine’s own direct action “sextremist” feminist group (and a target of very heavy-handed, physical reprisal attacks allegedly from on high) had been invited to the festival to weigh in on the Pussy Riot doco. It would even have made for a nice, timely cinephile linkage, for the very day prior had seen reports that Olivier Ciappa’s postage stamp design for the new figure of the French national emblem, Marianne, was inspired by prominent FEMEN member Inna Shevchenko, (7) introducing her to a lineage that also contains Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve!

I do expect though that really would have been a bridge too far. Let us not forget that the President of the Odessa festival, the entrepreneuse Viktoria Tigipko, could scarcely be more “establishment” – she’s married to the Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine…

Eternal Homecoming

Eternal Homecoming

And back to Kira Muratova. Her new film Vechnoe vozvraschenie (Eternal Homecoming) demonstrates that the director’s playfulness with narrative is undiminished since the watershed days of Brief Encounters over 45 years prior. It concerns itself with umpteen variations, laid out one after the next, of the same scenario: a woman admits into her home a schoolmate she barely remembers, who importunes her for advice on a troubling matter – he’s in love with two women. Different actors, some well known, reprise the scene in different surrounds in each iteration, each bringing their own inflections upon proceedings.

Watching it, one soon settles in to enjoy the game, much as one does when watching Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) – a game for a game’s sake, or so it seems. It comes as a real disappointment then when the game is explained away in a maladroit and protracted final sequence designed to take a none too subtle, nor original, dig at the commercial imperatives of the film industry.

Muratova was also represented in critic-filmmaker Mark Cousins’ sprawling film essay A Story of Children and Film, which featured a gorgeous clip from Melodiya dlya sharmanki (Melody for a Street Organ, 2009) – more than enough to make me wish for a thorough retrospective, something her hometown is surely obliged to provide before overlong, i.e., while she’s still alive, vital and making films.

A Story of Children and Film bore plenty of other treats, introducing me, as I’m sure it would many others, to several more films to add to my eternally long log of films to seek out, in demonstrating and considering the various ways children have conducted themselves on film, utilising clips from 53 films and 25 countries, including, rather more often than one could reasonably have anticipated, Albania. All well and nice, but I was far from convinced by Cousins’ ploy of drawing upon the play of his nephew and niece, captured on home video in footage incorporated in the film, as springboards for his trawlings through film history, not least because for all that Cousins covers in his film inspired by what these children do in front of the camera, there’s almost as much inspired by what they don’t do, as ruminated over long after the fact in an extensive coda. So: why include the little strops at all in this otherwise very winning project?

Cousins’ compendium of cinema childhood was not the only clip-heavy ode to cinephilia programmed at Odessa; there was also György Palfi’s Final Cut: Hölgyeim és uraim (Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen), an exercise in telling a (love) story using only found footage, as well as in pushing fair use provisions in international copyright law to their limits – none of the 450 clips included, mostly taken from mainstream or canonical titles, were cleared for the film. Hence, the film can only be screened (ahem) “for educational purposes”.

Knowing this was the work of the creator of 2006’s marvellously grotesque Taxidermia, my expectations were high, even with the broadcast caveat that Palfi was drawn to make this film due to difficulty in getting other projects up, owing to the financial crisis that has stricken the Hungarian film industry. What I really did not expect was a conventional love story between a man and a woman, yet the sexual politics in Final Cut are really pretty darned retrograde, as flagged by the overextended use of audio from Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946). To think, that in 2013, we’re still putting the blame squarely on Mame!

It’s also surprising that Palfi was so conservative in his approach to the collage of the clips he employed; only seldom did he approach his montage with any real mischief, as with a shot-reverse shot from Basic Instinct‘s (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) crossing her legs to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) leering back in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). Disappointingly, Final Cut just isn’t anywhere near as much fun, or half so playful, as Virgil Widrich’s magnificent, hyper-dynamic found-footage short animation Fast Film (2003), which accomplishes a much richer dialogue between all its component found parts and much more ingeniously, and in but a sixth of the time.

Sunrise on the Potemkin Stairs

Sunrise on the Potemkin Stairs

Anyway, the greatest monument to cinephilia at Odessa was not to be found projected on a screen within in a cinema, but rather it became a cinema. I speak of the aforementioned Potemkin Stairs, utilised this year also for a concert on opening night by The No Smoking Orchestra, featuring Emir Kusturica, recipient of a Golden Duke award for lifetime achievement. (Incidentally, you know a festival has serious tickets on itself when it’s already issuing lifetime achievement awards when its own lifetime can be counted in years on the fingers of one hand.)

More’s the point, the following night the OIFF presented, in what has become an annual ritual, a screening of a silent era classic on the stairs given live orchestral accompaniment and made admirably free to all comers – all two to three thousand of them. This year it was F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), which agreeably commenced screening at sundown. I could scarcely have any greater got my film geek on, though the festival might like to give thought to a contingency plan, as one day the unthinkable will happen – it will rain.

* * *

It might not be theirs, but it is my hope that the OIFF doesn’t realise its aspiration to become the Cannes of the Southern Palmira, a bold, express ambition drolly undercut by an article in Panorama, the in-flight magazine of national carrier Ukrainian International Airlines, no less, which in the same breath as it applauded the festival’s better access to stars and guests than at Cannes, reminded that one might find in a bar in Odessa the likes of “Jos Stelling, who is smoking thoughtfully near the cinema waiting for the film to resume: the electricity has been suddenly cut to the whole district” (8) –ha!

I’d rather the OIFF content itself instead with being a manageably proportioned, good-time, yet still regionally important, festival, at which the talent remain readily accessible. Moreover, I’d like it to continue putting energy and resources towards cultivating the local industry with its excellent Summer Film School program, nurturing new generations of filmmakers and critics, both of which will prove vital to the restoration of the local film culture. The city of Odessa has a storied film history, but its once famed studios are in a parlous state of neglect. This, however, will hopefully be remedied in tandem with the festival’s growth. The studios’ condition is presently irreconcilable with both the glamour of the red carpet at the spectacular Odessa Opera House, used on opening and closing nights, and the festival’s drawing the likes of Roger Corman, Jiří Menzel and Alexander Rodnyansky to impart their wisdom to what it hopes will be future Ukrainian filmmakers of note, who will accordingly come to need access to facilities of a world-class standard.

Karlovy Vary, meanwhile, is cruising, having had 20 years to define and secure its comfortable second tier A-list spot on the festival landscape, long having arrived at a salutary balance of glamour and celebrity (this year dishing out Crystal Globes to John Travolta! Oliver Stone!) with programming heft and forums for regional industry development, ever boosting the international prospects of the best output from a national industry which is already highly productive and is well supported by established and respected state cultural bodies.

Now, while much of what I enjoyed most at both of these festivals was connected more to the glories of cinema’s yesteryears than present day production, or concerned nexuses of the former with the latter, it behooves me as I wrap up this report to mention a couple of areas in which both festivals are up with today’s state-of-the-art. Both are to be highly commended on the quality of their smartphone apps, which make it so much easier to orient one’s way around the festival locations and their host cities, with most of the most important program, venue and scheduling information all at one’s fingertips. GPS is especially a blessing in signage-challenged Odessa.

Audiences at both festivals, however, are less to be commended for their in-cinema smartphone etiquette…

With barely a few days to separate the two festivals in time, and only a few hours’ cheap and cheerful flights (Prague → Kiev → Odessa) to separate them in space (not withstanding the likelihood of a delay in Kiev en route), the festivals in Karlovy Vary and Odessa are sure to become a regular one-two on the summer festival circuit for many. Were that I might regularly yet be amongst their number.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
28 June – 6 July 2013
Festival website: http://www.kviff.com/en/

Odessa International Film Festival
12–20 July 2013
Festival website: http://www.oiff.com.ua/en/index.htm

 

Endnotes

  1. Catalogue of the 48th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, p. 9.
  2. Pelíšky (Cosy Dens, 1999). See also Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall, 2000) and Pupendo (2003).
  3. Theodor Pištěk, “Dopis prezidentovi” (“Letter to the President”) in Festivalový Deník, 5 July 2013, p. 2. Translation mine.
  4.  “A Long Goodbye” on the KVIFF website: http://www.kviff.com/en/films/film-detail/4040-a-long-goodbye/
  5. From the biography for Paradjanov on Artificial Eye’s DVD release of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.
  6. Catalogue of the 48th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, p. 55.
  7.  “FEMEN became the prototype of a new official symbol of France” posted 15 July, 2013, on the FEMEN website: http://femen.org/en/news/id/490
  8. Nadia Sheikina, “Black Sea, Red Carpet ”, Panorama, July 2013, p. 45. Power outages are a notorious nuisance in Odessa, though I encountered no such problems during my stay.