KinoKultura: Issue 46 (2014)

Karlovy Vary 2014

By Peter Hames (Staffordshire U)

Now in its 49th year, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is certainly the major festival in Central Europe and each year seems to go from strength to strength. It is also, of course, one of the world’s oldest, having been founded in 1946. Had it not been bi-annual during the “communist” era, this year would have marked its 68th outing.

As Christina Stojanova pointed out in her KinoKultura report on the 2010 festival, it has a remarkable record in presenting inventive trailers on the work of figures who have been honoured for their contributions to world cinema. In recent years, Jude Law and Helen Mirren have been added to the roster, with the first affixing the Crystal Globe to the front of his Rolls Royce as a figurehead and the second trying unsuccessfully to stow it away in various drawers and cupboards. This year was the turn of veteran cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček (The Firemen’s Ball/Hoří, má panenko [1967], If...,[1968] Amadeus [1984]), who received the Festival’s award in 2004, the year after his award from the American Society of Cinematographers. He made his last feature film in 2000 for US director Penny Marshall and founded the Film Academy of Miroslav Ondříček in Písek in 2003.

While the festival honors English-speaking cinema—this year it was the turn of Mel Gibson and William Friedkin (with a special presentation of Sorcerer [1977]—his remake of Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear/Le Salaire de la Peur [1953]), the net is cast considerably wider, its genuinely international reach reflected by its special sections on Elio Petri, Ben Rivers, and Anurag Kashyap. However, it remains a prime focus for Eastern and Central European cinema, not only in its increasingly impressive main competition, but also in the “East of the West” competition, with first and second feature films from the Baltic countries, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.

corn islandThe main prize, the Crystal Globe, deservedly went to George Ovashvili’s Corn Island (Simindis kundzuli). Set on the Inguri River on the border between Georgia and Abkhazia, it tells a simple story of an old peasant and his granddaughter who cultivate a small island. These small (and temporary) islands are apparently a phenomenon of the region and the film is essentially the story of the seasons and of the struggle with (and against) nature. Unable to find a suitable island, Ovashvili eventually constructed one (not on the Inguri River) but this in no way diminishes the film. While the continuing Georgian and Abkhazi river patrols remind us of the political conflict, they are seen as interruptions in the progression. Virtually without dialogue, we learn all that we need to know through the faces and actions of the protagonists.

The photography of landscape and forest by the veteran Hungarian cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi reminds us that this is a truly international production, with Turkish actor Ilyas Salman in the main part and Dutch screenwriter Roelof Jan Minneboo collaborating on the script. It is also a Georgian–German–French–Czech–Kazakh co-production with the crew, according to the publicity, speaking thirteen different languages. While it has surface similarities with Kaneto Shindo’s Japanese film The Island [Hadaka no Shima, 1960] the team pointedly avoided seeing the film until theirs was complete. Certainly international but, I would argue, culturally Georgian for all that.

free fallThe award for best director and the Special Jury award went to György Pálfi for his film Free Fall [Szabadesés], a Hungarian–South Korean–French co-production. Made on a low budget, Palfi saw this as a form of liberation that allowed him considerable artistic freedom. The film begins with an old woman laboring her way to the top of a seven storey apartment building and throwing herself off the top. Miraculously surviving, she repeats the process, passing by various apartments where episodes from contemporary life are enacted. There is the woman who visits a gynecologist to have her baby returned to the womb, a couple who have sex while hygienically wrapped from head to toe, and various other episodes for which the adjective “surreal” is appropriate. Despite the recent crises in the Hungarian industry, it’s somewhat surprising to see that the best Hungarian films seem to continue with their bleak and absurdist take on reality. Virág Zombarácz’s Afterlife (Utóélet) was a strong contender in the East of the West competition.  It’s a black comedy about a young man who has a mental breakdown. Subsequently, his father dies and his “ghost” then appears at odd (and frequently inconvenient) moments. To exorcise the ghost (his father was a pastor), he takes on his father’s unfinished business. With its sharp observation of friends and family, it’s an accomplished debut. Hungary also had a second feature in the competition—Gábor Reisz’s For Some Inexplicable Reason (VAN valami furcsa és megmagyarázhatatian), a witty take on the life of an unemployed 30-year-old who gets drunk and wakes up with a one-way ticket to Lisbon.

Unusually, the Czech Republic had two films in the main competition. Neither won any awards but both, one suspects, will have something of an after life. Andrea Sedláčková’s Fair Play is a story about a promising Czech sprinter (played by Slovak Hungarian actress Judit Bárdos), who hopes to compete in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984. During her preparation, she is tricked into taking steroids as part of her official training program. Her mother (Anna Geislerová), a former tennis champion whose career has ended because of her support for the Prague Spring, agrees with the program as her only wish is for her daughter to emigrate and live her life in freedom. Mainstream in its approach, it’s a dramatic and chilling exposure of the way in which the state entered all aspects of life during the era of normalization. It’s the Czech nomination for next year’s Academy Awards.

nowhere in moraviaNowhere in Moravia (Díra u Hanušovic) is the first film to be directed by stage director Miroslav Krobot, who has been a familiar face on screen in recent years (The House [Dom, 2011], Alois Nebel [2011]). Set in a down-at-heel Sudetenland village in Moravia, its focus is on the local characters, few of whom have any hope of leaving or of changing their life expectations. Working with familiar members of his theatre company, Dejvické Divadlo/Dejvice Theatre (David Novotný, Ivan Trojan, and others), the narrative seems to have been constructed from the observation of character and environment. One of the daughters leaves to marry a rich German and two of the local men are arrested for murder; yet it is less the narrative than the characterization that stays in the mind – a film that, as Krobot and screenwriter Lubomír Smékal observed, is also a tribute to those who “stay behind’. A bleak and “slightly dark comedy” (Krobot), its characters are immediately recognizable if one looks beneath the surface. Its use of wide screen composition effectively conveys the importance of their environment.

While the logic of the “East of the West” competition’s commitment to new directors is understandable, it does leave the fates of many other films to the idiosyncrasies of the festival circuit. The main prize in the East of the West section went to Ivan Tverdovskii’s Corrections Class (Klass korrektsii), following on from his Best Debut award at Sochi. As many will probably know, it deals with a young girl suffering from myopathy, who joins a “corrections class” at a local school with the intention of being reintegrated into the educational system. An effective and sympathetic story filmed in semi-documentary style, its dramatic climax with the attempted rape of the central character seems unnecessary to the narrative (although probably not exceptional in reality).

adventureApart from the Kazakh involvement in Corn Island, there were also screenings of Nariman Turebaev’s Adventure (Prikliuchenie, Kazakhstan-France) [in the main competition] and Zhanna Issabaeva’s Nagima (2013). Turebaev’s almost Bressonian adaptation of Dostoevsky’s White Nights (transferred to Almaty) is something of an achievement if likely to be ignored by mainstream critics. His own comment accurately encapsulates its mood—“in my film, the loudest thing is the touch of fingers.” Issabaeva’s film Nagima, previously shown in the Forum section at Berlin, is a heartrending story of a young 18-year-old orphan living in the slums of Almaty, focusing on the apparently literal impossibility of living as a single woman. A powerful statement, it recalls the neo-realist tradition. Also in the “East of the West” competition was Asif Rustamov’s Down the River (Axinia Aşaği, Azerbaijan). A cleverly constructed narrative about a rowing coach who expels his son from the national team only for him to disappear presumed to be drowned. The film follows his father’s search and confrontation with his conscience and internal realities and features a strong performance from Namig Agayev in the central role.

kebab and horoscopeThe best films from Poland were Grzegorz Jaroszuk’s Kebab and Horoscope, a story of life in an unsuccessful carpet shop where marketing consultants engage in an absurd exercise in “team building’. While its director admits and demonstrates his admiration for Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismaki, this is a witty and droll film and I was surprised that it didn’t make a bigger impact at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia. Anna Kazejak’s persuasively acted The Word (Obietnica) tells the contemporary story of a 14-year old girl who persuades her boyfriend to kill her rival in a world where emotions and contacts are encapsulated in text and mobile phone messages. There was also a special screening of the director’s cut of Wałesa. Man of Hope (Wałesa. Człowiek z nadziei), reinstating ten scenes that were missing from last year’s release.

Films that have already attracted attention at other festivals included Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God (Trudno byt’ bogom, 2013), Andrei Zviagintsev’s Leviathan, Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, the Ukrainian film The Tribe (Plem’ia), the Georgian Blind Dates (Shemtkhveviti, 2013) and the Bulgarian-Romanian Viktoria, with their reputations firmly established.  Perhaps more likely to be overlooked was Natal’ia Meshchaninova’s The Hope Factory (Kombinat Nadezhda), examining the lives and hopes of teenagers living in the “closed” and isolated environment of Norilsk—the world’s northernmost city and the most polluted in Russia. Edgy and sometimes uneven, it is nonetheless a film that relentlessly draws you into its world.

unlikely romanceMost of the films in the Czech retrospective had ideas but tended towards “local” interest. Zdeněk Tyc’s Like Never Before (Jako nikdy, 2013) told the story of a painter who discovers that he is dying of cancer, and examines the effects on his immediate relations, focusing very much on the performances of its lead actors. Viktor Tauš’s Clownwise (Klauni, 2013), a somewhat gloomy account of three clowns, who once worked together, but whose lives have followed different paths, was also actor oriented. Scripted by Petr Jarchovský, best known for his collaborations with Jan Hřebejk, it was based on the memories of the mime artist and director Boris Hybner. Arguably the most cinematic of the films was Ivan Vojnár’s inventive and partly improvised An Unlikely Romance (Nepravděpodobná romance, 2013), the study of a psychiatrist’s fascination with a young female patient.Undoubtedly the best Czech film was Petr Václav’s The Way Out (Cesta ven), a compelling account of the life of a Roma family attempting to live a “normal” life—acted by non-professionals but with Klaudia Dudová projecting genuine charisma in the lead role. Václav had also used non-professionals in his important earlier film Marian (1996), about the life and fate of a Roma boy raised in an orphanage. For The Way Out, Václav apparently interviewed around 3,000 people to find his cast.

Finally to restorations, which seem to have become a necessity for any festival. Of particular note were the restorations of Jiri Menzel’s 1967 Oscar-winner Closely Observed Trains (Ostře sledováné vlaky, 1966) but also the little known Czech silent comedy An Old Gangster’s Molls (Milenky starého kriminálnika, 1927), featuring the Czech vaudeville comedian Vlasta Burian together with Anny Ondra, before her encounters with Hitchcock on The Manxman and Blackmail (both 1929).  Svatopluk Innemann’s direction showed considerable invention. But the highpoint of the festival for me was the restored version of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (Soliaris, 1972), a magic experience on the Velký sál’s Cinerama-sized screen.

Peter Hames
Staffordshire University

Peter Hames © 2014

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Updated: 04 Oct 14