The Phenomenon of Festival Films

in 51st Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Martina Vackova

It is a subtly striking fact that the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival had most success this year with films made to the east of the Czech Republic. Central and Eastern Europe represents the surest terrain of discovery for the festival’s programmers – they know the region’s filmmakers well, and they understand that the festival and its receptive audiences will offer a good start for their movies.

With It’s Not the Time of My Life (Ernelláék Farkaséknál), Hungarian actor and director Szabolcs Hajdu was awarded the main festival prize, the Crystal Globe, as well as the award for best actor. Hajdu belongs to the best of contemporary Hungarian filmmakers, who have already entered the major festival circuit. His new film tells the story of two sisters and their families. Ernella, her husband and teenage daughter have returned home to Hungary after an unsuccessful stay in Scotland, moving temporarily into the Budapest home of her sister, Eszter, her husband and young son. Most of the action takes place in the large apartment, where they talk, argue and reconcile, revisiting the past and contemplating the future. Despite the tensions, we recognize the family bonds between them.

The film was not a crowd pleaser in Karlovy Vary, but it was immediately evident that it would be appreciated by the festival’s juries.

It’s Not the Time of My Life is not typical of those films from the region that tend to appear in international festivals, which focus on tough social issues and might be regarded as gloomy and pessimistic. In fact, Hungarian filmmakers demonstrate an ambition to make films that will impress both festivals and a general audience. It’s a balancing in stark contrast to, say, many Czech and Slovak films.

But another Hungarian film was appreciated by the audience in Karlovy Vary – topping the audience award – Kills on Wheels (Tiszta szível) by Attila Till, which screened in the parallel East of the West competition. Two disabled lads get together with an ex-fireman and form a gang of hired assassins. But, as is the way with life, the reality is a little more prosaic…

In general, Central and Eastern Europe produces many films for festivals, but outside the festival circuit they are neither well attended by domestic audiences nor successful in gaining distribution abroad. Slovakia has rapidly increased its film production in the past three years, to an astonishing 20-30 feature films per year, but only two or three of those attract more than 50,000 viewers. The others have attendances below 10,000, or are seen only at festivals.

The same applies to the Czech Republic, where the box office numbers can be a bit higher, but many films are unable to secure distribution at all. Cinema has mass appeal in the country, but many domestic and European films arouse little curiosity.

Two competition films in Karlovy Vary, Czech production The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street (Vlk z Královských Vinohrad) and Slovak-Czech co-production Teacher (Ucitelka) may serve as an example of this difference.

The presence in the festival of The Wolf from Royal Vineyard Street, directed by Jan Nemec before his recent death, could be considered a significant honour for the director, and is an interesting commentary on the life of a rebel, but it will be very probably be a flop on its Czech theatrical release. And people who are not familiar with Czech history might not fully understand the film, limiting its potential elsewhere.

In contrast, Czech and Slovak history is much more recognisable in Teacher, which was originally intended for television and will probably reach satisfactory numbers at the cinema box office. Czech screenwriter Petr Jarchovský wrote the script based on his past experience with the Socialist school system. The film was directed by renowned Czech director Jan Hrebejk, but as a major Slovak co-production, and shot in Slovakia. In Karlovy Vary it was a favourite of foreign journalists, for its depiction of the way people lived and were manipulated during the communist normalization period in the former Czechoslovakia of the 70s and 80s. Zuzana Mauréry was awarded the best actress prize for her role of the manipulative teacher.

The Russian competition film Zoology (Zoologiya) has a fantastical background – a lonely older woman grows a tail and, with it, surprisingly discovers her sexuality – and is made with a distinctive sense of humour. It’s a little crazy, a little fun. But director Ivan I. Tverdovskij’s story is founded on serious themes, of loneliness, the courage to be different and the courage to surrender to one’s feelings. And in many respects it’s another typical festival film, definitely more attractive for festival viewers than for a general public. It won the second main prize.

Russians constitute a distinct ethnic minority in Karlovy Vary and visit mostly Russian films here. This year, these included the excellent The Student (Uchenik) which was selected for the section Another View.

The film was previously selected for the Cannes Film Festival and this is appreciated in Czechia as a sign of quality. The provocative Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov combines religion, Darwin’s theory of evolution and homosexuality. It’s possible to view the film literally as the story of a teenager who is persuaded that Christians should be able to sacrifice themselves for the Bible, but also to see it as an indirect comparison between Christianity and Islam, or the story of the inception of extremism.

A bold film, The Student is both accessible and challenging, with a high level of artistry. If it is important for a film to appeal to the festival circuit and make an impact in cinemas, then The Student suggests how to achieve that.

Edited by Demetrios Matheou