Spectacular Comeback: KVIFF 2021

By Mihai Fulger  

  • After the 2020 edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 55th edition of the leading film festival in Central and Eastern Europe took place from 20th to 28th August 2021. Although the biggest Czech film event had previously been traditionally held in early July and this time it was separated by only six and four days from other two other A-list film festivals (Locarno and Venice, respectively), KVIFF’s 55th edition proved a spectacular comeback, thanks to the remarkable film programme put together by Karel Och, Artistic Director since 2010, and his team, as well as to the festival’s special guests, including renowned actors Michael Caine, Johnny Depp and Ethan Hawke. The Grand Prix for the Best Picture in the Crystal Globe Competition (comprising 12 international films, of which ten had their world premiere in Karlovy Vary) was awarded to As Far as I Can Walk (Strahinja Banović, a Serbia-France-Luxembourg-Bulgaria-Lithuania co-production), the second feature film directed by Stefan Arsenijević. Moreover, As Far as I Can Walk received the Best Actor Award (for Ibrahim Koma’s performance) and a Special Jury Mention (for Jelena Stanković’s cinematography), and the film’s impressive trophy list was completed with the Ecumenical Jury Award and the Europa Cinemas Label Award, bestowed by two of the four non-statutory juries of the festival (the other two being those of the critics, FIPRESCI and FEDEORA). Arsenijević, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bojan Vuletić and Nicolas Ducray, starts from a medieval epic poem by an anonymous author and relocates its 14th-century plot into Serbia in 2016. The affiliation is marked by a female voice-over reciting excerpts from the inspiring text in crucial moments of the filmic narrative. Samita, nicknamed “Strahinja”, is an immigrant from Mali who one year ago had arrived in Germany with his wife, the Ghanese professional actress Ababuo (Nancy Mensah-Offei). Unfortunately, they had been deported as “economic migrants” to a refugee camp in Serbia. Now Strahinja plays for a local football club, dreaming of making it to the big team, which would grant him permanent residence. While he has a promising sports career and additional sources of income as a middleman in the smuggling of migrants (an activity that apparently does not raise moral issues for the protagonist), Ababuo cannot content herself with the theatre workshops she gives to the children in the camp. During the same evening in which Strahinja celebrates, with his new “brothers”, his joining the club’s big team, Ababuo leaves for England accompanying a Syrian refugee, the intellectual Ali (the modern equivalent of the antagonist “Vlach” from the medieval poem). The protagonist cannot cope with his wife’s fleeing from him; therefore, he embarks on a journey full of perils, which could cost him his hard-earned residence permit. As Far as I Can Walk is a powerful drama, benefitting from constant tension, a poignant climax and a cyclical structure, and diligently examining illegal migration with the support of a legend that thus proves its eternal universal significance. The Special Jury Prize for the Crystal Globe Competition went to the Czech-Slovak documentary Every Single Minute (Každá minuta života), in which director Erika Hníková follows a year in the life of a 4-year-old boy whose parents spare no effort to turn him into a top athlete and an individual perfectly integrated into society. The Best Director Award went to German filmmaker Dietrich Brüggemann for , a critique of contemporary social values and attitudes, through 13 episodes that protagonize a couple belonging to today’s 30-something disillusioned generation. The international jury of the Crystal Globe Competition gave the Best Actress Award to Éléonore Loiselle, the persuasive lead actress in Nicolas Roy’s Canadian feature film debut, Wars (Guerres). When Emma turns 20, she chooses to pursue a military career, despite her mother’s opposition; after losing her husband, the latter does not want to lose her daughter as well. In the first part of the film, scripted by Cynthia Tremblay, the protagonist aces the draconian training to which Sergeant Richard (David La Haye) subjects those who want to be part of his elite company. However, Emma is attracted to Richard, and the young cadet is not indifferent to the officer. Three months after becoming a member of the Canadian Armed Forces on a mission somewhere in Eastern Europe, Emma refuses to follow the sergeant’s order in a situation that could endanger the lives of innocent civilians. Nevertheless, Richard does not hesitate and his actions have tragic consequences. Tormented by remorse, the sergeant approaches Emma, ​​but although the young woman does not reject his affection, he rapes her and later uses his position to get rid of her. Deeply scarred, the protagonist joins the war of several female soldiers against a system that favours the abuse of men. Yet, the real war she is waging is with herself. Roy’s psychological drama begins at full steam, but its energy gradually fades away. The jury of the main competition awarded two other special mentions, one for The Staffroom (Zbornica), the first feature film by Croatian writer-director Sonja Tarokić, and another one for the part played by the British actress Vinette Robinson in Boiling Point, the laborious tour-de-force, with no editing cuts, directed by Philip Baranti. The Croatian film focuses on Anamarija (Marina Redžepović, excellent), a school counsellor who faces various barriers in her attempt to integrate into an environment where students are much more conciliatory than teachers; the latter are implicitly compared to the animals depicted in the paintings decorating the walls of the staffroom. Step by step, Anamarija becomes acquainted with the backroom power games and learns to ignore or prevent the gossip and manoeuvres of her colleagues and the school principal. Consequently, the protagonist’s arc raises serious questions about the formal education system and how students are prepared for life. The dynamism of the camera movements and the editing, the continuous humming of the school and the obsessive score enhance the sense of alienation, demonstrating, together with the complex, carefully choreographed mise-en-scènes, the maturity of Sonja Tarokić’s debut, which also received a commendation of the Ecumenical Jury.