This July just past I attended my second Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, my second in succession, as a member of a five critic-strong FIPRESCI jury. Accordingly, my main focus at the KVIFF this year was necessarily the official competition.

That’s not to say the following report won’t take a look at select highlights from elsewhere in the festival’s hefty program, or that it won’t consider certain aspects of the festival’s weltanschauung, as it seems highly propitious to do so now. An epochal 50th edition of the festival will arrive in the new year, and in light of certain observations of mine, described below, there are changes from this year I’d like to flag as desirable. I’ll be most interested to see whether any of them will be adopted, or whether this key anniversary will be used simply to entrench the status quo, never mind that elements of it are problematic.

But we’ll come to that in due course. First things first; here follows an overview of my duty-bound main event at the festival this year, covering the seven world and five international premieres that often filled the1146 seater Grand Hall of the Hotel Thermal and which comprised the main competition.

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The Kazakhstani Priklyuchenie (Adventure, Nariman Turebaev) is the latest in a long line of adaptations of Dostoyevsky’s White Nights, flagged by its protagonist conspicuously holding a tome of the great writer’s work at one point. Like its director’s previous Solnetchniye dni (Sunny Days, 2011), it has a taciturn, sad-sack lead and is exceedingly sparing in its employment of cinematic language. It’s not without interest though, especially once sleepy security guard Marat (Azamat Nigmanov) finally embarks upon his titular adventure. Coming to the aid of a woman assaulted outside his apartment, and fascinated by her despite her fits of ill temper, he is drawn into a travelogue through lively parts of Almaty he would doubtless otherwise never have ventured into – and which I would likely never become acquainted with either. Not much else in the film surprises, however.

Angelina Nikonova, who so impressed with 2011’s Stockholm Syndrome rape-revenge drama Portret v sumerkakh (Twilight Portrait), has returned with another collaboration with actress Olga Dykhovichnaya. Unfortunately, Welkome Home is an unfunny, awkwardly anglophone comedy, per its title, about the struggles of six immigrants, variously Armenian, Russian and English, whose lives intersect in New York City. It’s one of those unfortunate follow-ups that just doesn’t work, and to such an extent that one can’t help but wonder whether the prior film was really half as good as first impressions had led one to believe. Moreover in this case, in light of Welkome Home‘s dated approach to LGBTIQ issues, I also couldn’t help but wonder whether the brave exploration of difficult psychosexual terrain in the earlier film had in fact been less daring and actually rather more retrograde than had appeared at first sight. Disappointing.

The new Czech film Díra u Hanušovic (Nowhere in Moravia) represents the feature film directorial debut of Miroslav Krobot, a distinctively craggy, laconic presence on-screen in Czech cinema (highly recognisable even, for example, when rotoscoped as Alois Nebel in the film of the same name [Tomáš Luňák, 2011]). Krobot is also very well known locally and respected as the Artistic Director of the prominent Prague theatre company, Dejvické divadlo. It’s little wonder then that he could marshal a cast full of esteemed film and theatre thesps for his kooky comedy set in a similar part of the country as Alois Nebel had been, in the former Sudetenland and within the region historically known as Moravia, where a particular dialect is spoken. Seemingly, the adoption of this dialect was a large part of this film’s appeal at its premiere; the audience was in stitches throughout for what, to my eyes and ears (and I can speak and understand a certain amount of Czech), was neither a funny nor clever deadpan rural comedy. This was a most odd selection for a main competition, as I can’t see it gaining any traction on the international festival circuit whatsoever – it’s surely altogether too parochial a work to ever travel beyond the Czech borders.

Fair Play

Fair Play

The other new local title, Fair Play, should prove to have much broader appeal. Andrea Sedláčková’s film eschews any flashiness, the better to evoke the enveloping dreariness of Czechoslovakia in 1983, the backdrop to a story concerning Anna, a young female athlete (Judit Bárdos), and her preparation for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Anna is right to be concerned about a doping regimen she’s ordered to participate in, not least when she starts sprouting hairs in strange places. Where Fair Play gets really interesting is in the moral conundrum that faces her once-dissident mother (the ever impressive Anna Geislerová). Should she cave in to her daughter’s trainer’s demands from on high, and dope the resistant Anna herself with the anabolic steroids that undoubtedly improve her performance, such that her daughter might in turn enjoy a brighter future overseas, one she’s been denied herself, having been forced to work as a cleaner?

Fair Play‘s a compelling enough film, but only mother and daughter have any real depth to their characterisations. All other roles are two-dimensionally true to type (an idealistic dissident writer/former lover here, unsmiling apparatchiks there, etc.) Perhaps this has become equal parts ironed-on convention for dramas set during Normalisation, and a cliché that almost can’t be avoided, for perhaps this really was the grey reality of life in those straitened times. Surely though there could still be a few other shades of grey that could be employed in such films’ characterisations – couldn’t there?

The competition film I expected to be easily the wackiest of the bunch was certainly that, and more! And yet sadly less, too. György Pálfi’s Szabadesés (Free Fall) is a wildly uneven look at oddball goings-on in several homes within a Budapest apartment block, as we ascend its stairway and go from stor(e)y to stor(e)y in tandem with an elderly woman who has survived plummeting from the building’s rooftop at the film’s attention-grabbing outset.

Free Fall

Free Fall

When Free Fall works, it’s wonderful, most particularly in a scene in which a couple, appreciably going to great lengths to maintain a household uncontaminated by absolutely anything whatsoever, gamely embark upon sexual congress, only for panic to set in, with hilarious and gross consequences. When Free Fall doesn’t work, as in a way overlong episode which turns into a demented, canned laughter-heavy sitcom, or in two other episodes where I saw the punchlines coming a mile away, it is at least still… different.

For all its waywardness, Free Fall was a double prize winner, reaping a US$15,000 Special Jury Prize, with the effervescent Pálfi receiving a Best Director gong as well.

At the other extreme, I’d have to rate Pascal Rabaté’s Du goudron et des plumes (Patchwork Family) as altogether too conventional a film to merit a place in the main competition at a Category A festival. It’s not that it’s a bad film; it’s just that its slightly cartoonish look at race, class and sexual relations in a small city in current day France never gives any sense that it might seriously subvert expectations. Accordingly, it doesn’t.

Of a similarly mainstream-arthouse persuasion was Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s more sober París norðursins (Paris of the North), an enjoyable but slightly bland masculinity-in-crisis, father-son, small town, love triangle affair set, in predictably ironic counterpoint to its title, in a tiny village in a remote, if beautiful, pocket of Iceland.

With its measured pace and long takes, it was nonetheless well out-slow cinema’d by Jorge Pérez Solano’s La tirisia, which had a very different landscape – all desert sands, salt pans and spectacular cacti – as a backdrop to similar analogical effect; the desolation of the land mirroring that of its troubled inhabitants’ souls.

In Paris of the North, the protagonist is an alcoholic sure to fall off the wagon in his overbearing father’s presence; in La tirisia, the afflicted are two women, one pregnant, who are simply very, very sad, both having been deprived of the same particular male company. Curiously, they can derive some comfort from a friendship with a rare sympathetic gay character in Mexican cinema, though why the film returns intermittently to his rendezvousing with a military figure is a bit of a mystery. Is it meant to signal something on a metaphoric level I don’t have the specific cultural knowledge to grasp?

The strongest live-action film in competition was certainly Georgian director George Ovashvili’s Simindis kundzuli (Corn Island). Doubtless the first co-production between Georgia, Germany, France, the Czech Republic and Kazakhstan, Corn Island‘s concerns are altogether to do with straddling borders, with all its action centred around, and mostly on, a tiny island set smack in the middle of the Enguri, a river which separates Georgia from the scantly recognised Republic of Abkhazia.

Every spring, we are advised, the Enguri brings fertile soil downstream, forming islands where simple peasant folk can sow their staple crops. The film tracks one such elderly Abkhazian man’s painstaking development of his very own corn island, which comes to fruition in tandem over several months with the blossoming of his granddaughter, his sole accomplice. For quite some time, the film uneventfully sustains a hypnotic, gentle pace, as the crops grow and grow and time’s passage is recorded (on 35mm, I might add, even if the film’s destiny is surely only to ever be projected, like everything else in this year’s competition, from DCP).

Corn Island

Corn Island

However, as this island is in a conflict zone, they’re inevitably going to have visitors. The old man isn’t interested in the least in politics; his habitation of the temporary island is simply an act of survival in preparation for the certainty of a harsh winter. But the visitors are variously Georgian, Abkhazian and Russian, and all make their presence felt, in ways not just threatening to his sense of propriety surrounding his virginal granddaughter, but in potentially much more dangerous, warfaring ways besides.

A beautiful film, Corn Island is a more than worthy follow-up to the director’s excellent 2009 feature debut, Gagma Napiri (The Other Bank), and surprised no-one in being awarded the Grand Prix: a Crystal Globe and US$25,000, by a Grand Jury presided over by prolific Spanish producer, Luis Miñarro.

The FIPRESCI jury, however, bestowed its award upon Signe Baumane’s autobiographical animated feature, Rocks in my Pockets. Drolly funny (and distinctly feminist) in sensibility, Rocks is nonetheless chiefly concerned with mental illness, with interrogating the extent to which depression might be attributable to hereditary, or to environmental, factors, from the viewpoint of a Latvian-American artist thus afflicted, after she became fascinated by a tale of her grandmother and a probable failed suicide bid. So doing, it also provides a blackly comical pocket history of 20th century Latvia.

Rocks in my Pockets

Rocks in my Pockets

Baumane combines her own 3D papier-mâché sculptures and hand-drawn character animation with a voiceover all her own too, even if it changes slightly (but only slightly) from one characterisation to the next. All throughout, she takes advantage of animation’s singular facility to exteriorise interior states, with flights of fantasy seamlessly sliding in and out of more concrete narrative events. Perhaps this is equally a narrative strategy as it is a simulacrum of how someone quite, quite mad might perceive the world?

All Yours

All Yours

The two remaining competition films to cover here were prizewinners too, both for the excellence of central performances. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart won a Best Actor award for his fabulous turn as a slight Argentine rent boy selling himself across the Internet who winds up in unglamorous, small town Belgium at the frustrated beck and call of a portly, opera-loving baker (Jean-Michel Balthazar, also excellent) in David Lambert’s highly enjoyable queer dramedy All Yours (Je suis à toi). Lambert’s earlier Hors les murs (Beyond the Walls, 2012) had marked him as one to watch; All Yours confirms a rare talent in accessibly portraying explorations in fluid sexuality attached to strong narratives and sympathetic yet complex characterisations, as well as a deft touch for combining the comic with the dramatic.

Lastly, Best Actress award winner Elle Fanning impressed in Jeff Preiss’ Low Down, even if hers was largely a role positioned in the sidelines, observing and swooning over John Hawkes as her bad but well-intentioned Dad, the highly talented jazz musician Joe Albany. Per co-writer Amy-Jo Albany’s memoir that inspired the film, father Joe was reliably given to making poor life decisions in connection with enduring addiction issues.

Shot on 16mm, Low Down superbly evokes a gritty, hard-up 1970s LA milieu not often depicted on-screen and, while light on for narrative drive, is captivating throughout, a tribute to multiple great performances, including one of surprising richness from Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, Flea. Of course, there’s some excellent music, some of which Hawkes gives a brilliant impression of having performed himself. However, a subplot about a short-statured person (Peter Dinklage) eking out a living in an apartment basement by shooting porno seemed a little surplus to requirement!

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And now to mention a few notable films and goings-on from outside of the competition.

Word of mouth about its being the buzz film at Cannes was very strong on the Ukrainian feature Plemya (The Tribe, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy), but even my foreknowledge that it was made with a wholly non-professional, deaf-mute cast, with all its dialogue signed and absolutely none of it subtitled, did little to prepare me for the shattering effect the film had on me as a viewer.

The Tribe

The Tribe

With this high concept approach, The Tribe could have become little more than an exercise in the study of gesture just for its own sake. Even though one has, perforce, to adopt an unfamiliar form of spectatorship to grasp anything of what’s being communicated between its characters, this particular mode of dialogue, with considerable implications for the film’s diegetic soundtrack, very much operates on an affective basis as well. This is not least because the film’s narrative, concerning organised crime and prostitution rings operating within a dystopian boarding school, would be harrowing under any circumstances anyway. But combine a remarkably sure directorial hand in presenting relentlessly bleak imagery and storytelling – inclusive of a hugely distressing abortion scene and no small lashings of ultra-violence – with regular anguished vocalisations from the film’s cast that they themselves cannot hear, as they furiously sign their lines, but which we, the audience, most assuredly can – and you have a film of a very great potency.

An extraordinary accomplishment by any measure. The Tribe may even become sui generis, so high has it set the bar for any subsequent project considering adopting body language, for whatever underlying motive, as its only means of communicating its characters’ conversational exchanges.

In Silence

In Silence

Another new film of great emotional impact which coincidentally employed no spoken dialogue, but which was pitched in more of a melancholic, rather than an outrightly brutalising, register, was the Slovak/Czech co-production V tichu (In Silence), directed by Zdeněk Jiráský and essaying its world premiere outside of competition. In Silence concerns a variety of notable Jewish musicians of the interwar era whose once merry lives and great careers, whether realised or still emerging, ran up against the horrors of forced transportations to Nazi concentration camps. Both before and after scenarios are dramatised in this most unusual, but very affecting film, which abandons all traditional documentary impulses in favour of letting wonderful music, alternately lyrical and horrific images strong in narrative, and plaintive voiceovers tell these musicians’ desperately upsetting true stories.

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Elsewhere around the festival, retrospectives celebrated the posthumously resurgent oeuvre of Elio Petri; the multi-hyphenate contribution to contemporary Indian cinema of Anurag Kashyap, who was present in KV, and the ethnographic-experimental works of Ben Rivers, who was also present, including his and Ben Russell’s recent collaboration, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (2013), which divines astonishing synaesthetic connections between landscape, a reflective lake surface, the fading of natural light, and musical forms, in a revelatory, mesmerising opening shot for the ages.

The guest list at this year’s festival was extensive, with the KVIFF landing a few real coups. Amongst the high profile participants with new films in tow were Andrey Zvyagintsev; Asia Argento; Paweł Pawlikowski; Fanny Ardant and Franco Nero (as director and a star respectively of Cadences obstinées (Obsessive Rhythms)); Bong Joon-ho (Seolguk-yeolcha [Snowpiercer], was, after all, largely shot in Prague’s legendary Barrandov Studios), and both the real Lech Wałęsa and his actor double Robert Więckiewicz, representing a director’s cut of Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei (Walesa. Man of Hope, 2013) prepared especially for the festival by the absent Andrzej Wajda.

Laura Dern was there too, because… well, why wouldn’t you lure Laura Dern to present a screening of Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990) at your festival, if you could?

Jan Švankmajer with the 2014 FIAF Award

Jan Švankmajer with the 2014 FIAF Award

Local legends were legion too. As a prelude to a strangely sparsely attended screening of beautiful 35mm prints of Možnosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue, 1982) and Šílení (Lunacy, 2005), Jan Švankmajer accepted the 2014 FIAF Award, for which the International Federation of Film Archives recognises the recipient’s “dedication to the preservation and restoration of, and access to the world film heritage for the pleasure of the audiences, as well as for the benefit of future generations.” (1) Švankmajer, who is known to refuse awards he doesn’t value, was appreciably pleased to accept this rare one.

Another familiar beardy visage, that of beloved screenwriter and actor Zdeněk Svěrák, looked similarly pleased to accept the Festival President’s Award for his contribution to Czech cinematography, which was celebrated with a screening of a film he both wrote and appears in, and which, furthermore, features some glorious Karlovy Vary locations: the classic farce Vrchní, prchni! (Waiter, Scarper!, aka Run, Waiter, Run!, Ladislav Smoljak, 1981).

Meanwhile, the perennially youthful and clean-shaven Jiří Menzel was in town to present a glorious digital restoration of his timelessly charming Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains, 1966), with which he was so pleased he announced he’d happily help bankroll the restoration of another of his Bohumil Hrabal adaptations, 1981’s Postřižiny (Cutting it Short). May it prove so!

Menzel seemed very pally with William Friedkin, who paid Menzel and his fellow New Wavers due respect when on hand to present a screening of the restoration of his Wages of Fear redux, Sorceror (1977), as well as a master class. Principally, though, Friedkin was in KV to accept a Crystal Globe for an “Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema”.

And would you believe such an honour was also bestowed upon Mel Gibson? Yes, that Mel Gibson. “Our” Mel. Mad Mel. Good grief. Mel Gibson, still in the doghouse in almost all other parts of the film world, and unattached to any new project to be rolled out at the festival, strode the red carpet on Opening Night into the Grand Hall nonetheless, in order to be honoured for his contributions to the art of cinema.

Which brings me to the problems I was alluding to in this report’s opening.

Sure, a chastened Gibson wasn’t about to say anything outrageously anti-Semitic in the few minutes he took to the stage on Opening Night to receive his prize. However, he did let rip with a few throwaway quips of a gormless, chauvinistic flavour in admiration of the comeliness of the Czech Republic’s womenfolk, or rather its “hot chicks”, as he put it. Stay classy, Mel!

Whatever might have led him to think that was appropriate?

Well, maybe Mel’s gonna be Mel, no matter what, but where sexual politics are concerned, this year’s opening ceremony (and later, its closing too) left a hell of a lot to be desired and could only have flagged to Mr Gibson that, round those parts, the bar’s really not set very high.

Created by Michal and Šimon Caban, the longtime masterminds of these spectacular events, this year’s ceremonies looked to Karlovy Vary’s famously mercurial weather for inspiration and began with perhaps twenty men and women in evening dress performing an a capella simulation of a variety of climatic phenomena, in concert with some simple but effective live foley artistry.

So far, so good.

However, after evoking a thunderstorm, the female performers raised their arms, in order that each could then be mechanically relieved of their dresses, revealing black bikinis beneath. With the stage receiving a through soaking after the back-of-house heavens opened, the women then skidded across stage at regular intervals from either side to the other and across one another, receiving regular pats on the bum from the still suited men to keep them sliding merrily on their way, cheesecake smiles flashing all awhile to the gallery. All to the strains of Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood”, for fuck’s sake.

2014 KVIFF opening ceremony

2014 KVIFF opening ceremony

This was already quite embarrassing on Opening Night, but the embarrassment was compounded when this elaborate routine was repeated – and extended – on Closing Night during the awards presentations. With urbane MC Marek Eben’s every announcement of another notable guest to emerge from the wings to hand out another award, the latter half of this routine was repeated in miniature, with a couple more scantily clad girls skidding across the stage this way and that, hamming it up to that same old same old song.

Zdeněk Svěrák emerging to present an award at the 2014 KVIFF closing ceremony

Zdeněk Svěrák emerging to present an award at the 2014 KVIFF closing ceremony

A small mercy: someone at least saw fit not to have this happen before or during the obit reel, which was a genuinely touching compilation noting the passing of tens of important personages of Hollywood, foreign and domestic cinema, culminating in a tribute to the great and famously ferocious Věra Chytilová. I like to think she’d have fairly torn the organisers another one had they tried this on in her living presence.

These ceremonies and Gibson’s invitation and gauche conduct are not the only symptoms of a cultural problem within the festival. Consider this from day nine of the festival mouthpiece, Festivalový Deník (Festival Daily), from a brief article headered “Explainer” and subtitled “All eyes are on the prize”:

Official Selection directors and their producers are vying for the chance to take home a Czech model tonight. The iconic leggy nymphet of the Crystal Globe award was inspired by the shapely Ema Černáková, a Miss Czech Republic finalist, whose statuesque physique (au naturel and forever young, as captured in 2001 by sculptor Martin Krejzlík) holds aloft the orb atop the festival award. (2)

The lingering sexism and embrace of hetero-normative paradigms of yesteryear (yestermillennium!) received a further boost in the strictly enforced Black Tie policy for the official Opening and Closing Night parties, providing very little wriggle room for anyone who might find alienating having to conform to a very narrow and anachronistic mode of starkly gender segregated apparel for an evening out.

This ingrained sexism and binarism is quite at odds with the adventurous programming in the main competition of, for example, a film with such frank scenes of queer sexuality as All Yours. It’s also antagonistic to that film’s rapturous reception by an audience clearly unfazed by its brazen-to-the-point-of-being-matter-of-fact depictions of gay/bisexual relationships and certain corresponding sexual acts.

For all the ingenuity and high production values of the KVIFF’s opening and closing ceremonies, it’s high time they joined the festival’s programming, and its audience too, in speaking to 21st century mores. And then reports such as this might wind up covering the Opening and Closing Night films rather more than all the attendant hoopla!

(For the record, the Opening Night film, I Origins (dir. Mike Cahill) was lacklustre, daftly linking developments in ocular science with the transmigration of souls, although it did kill someone off with an elevator in a manner reminiscent of an on-song Dario Argento. The Closing Night film, however, was very enjoyable. Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales) is a terrific, star-studded Argentinean revenge comedy omnibus from talented writer-director Damián Szifrón.)

Can and will the KVIFF remedy matters in time for its 50th edition in 2015? In fact, next year will represent 69 years since the festival’s founding. It’s one of the oldest, one of the most venerable around. Let’s hope then that the Brothers Caban, if still in the employ of the festival, will look beyond the schoolboy temptation to milk that particular anniversary for inspiration in their next year’s choreography. Or might, just might, the festival look to adopt a new approach, and look to a new team for its ceremonies altogether, to signal that it’s ready now for the vitality of its programming, and the openness of its audience, to be reflected in how the festival positions itself socio-politically?

While the KVIFF continues to be a wonderfully festive and convivial affair, transforming its beautiful but otherwise sleepy cake tin, spa town surrounds into an ebullient nine day long wild carnival of the silver screen, there is definitely scope to shake things up for the better. A little cultural change would go a long way, especially concerning the very high profile events that not just bookend the festival but which also establish, and publicise, its tone and sensibility.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
4–12 July, 2014
Festival website: http://www.kviff.com/en/

Endnotes

1. “2014 FIAF Award”, on the FIAF website.

2. Brian Kenety, “All eyes are on the prize”, Festival Daily, 12 July, 2014, p. 1.

 

About The Author

Cerise Howard is the Artistic Director of the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia and a committee member of both the Melbourne Cinémathèque and tilde: Melbourne's Trans & Gender Diverse Film Festival. A freelance writer and peregrine film critic, she can regularly be heard on Plato’s Cave on Melbourne radio station 3RRR.