The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival at 55: Observations and Reflections

By Natascha Drubek

  • When the Covid epidemic broke out in spring 2020, most film festivals in Europe were cancelled. In the Czech Republic the 55th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) had to be postponed. When it finally took place in August 2021, the festival was, at least outwardly, hardly different from previous years. The cinema halls and theatres were filled to capacity. People crowded the streets and hotels of the West Bohemian spa town, which had been empty during the Covid lockdown and the border closure, gradually lifted in spring 2021. As a matter of fact, the festival was only possible by scheduling it in summer and by instituting a number of intelligent Covid protection safety measures. Still, some guests could not participate – due to quarantine regulations or the lack of a vaccine valid in the EU. Overall, in Karlovy Vary in 2021 there was less English to be heard, especially British English. This is all the more surprising as Michael Caine personally received one of the 2021 Crystal Globes, and Johnny Depp had come for the premiere of Julien Temple's "Crock of Gold. A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan" (2021, USA, GB, Ireland), together with a screening of “Minamata,” a film he also produced and starred in. Was this perchance a consequence of Covid combined with Brexit? There was also little Russian presence compared to earlier years. As it happens, the main prize of Karlovy Vary`s most watched competition, called "East of the West", went to "Nuučča" / "The Russian" (2021), a film made in the Russian Federation. Its Yakutian director Vladimir Munkuev succeeded in creating a striking fable of imperial colonisation. The language we predominantly hear is indigenous, the scale of oppression is dramatic, the visual form of the narrative in its inclusion of nature is epic, fully demanding the return of the big screen. The film shows how Yakutia (Sakha) was colonised, by installing local “princes” and sending offenders into exile, in order to spread the Russian `seed`, leading to the destruction of a Sakha family. Remarkably, the inspiration for the film came from the pen of a Polish writer and ethnographer, Wacław Sieroszewski (1858-1945). He had been exiled in Siberia for fifteen years, where he studied local peoples. His work represents a democratic mindset, as expressed in Poland's unofficial motto "For our freedom and yours". “Nuučča” is a film of such paramount importance because its plot, as well as the melancholy of Sakha's barren nature, shows how colonial conquest, and indeed the annihilation of indigenous people and their culture, was accomplished from both outside and inside. It is a universal parable of genocide without weapons and not only limitedto the tsarist empire. It is a rare instance of full awareness of ongoing coloniality. The Fedeora Award of the European Film Critics for the best "East of the West" film went to the Georgian-German-Lithuanian co-production “Otar's Death” (2021), directed by Ioseb Bliadze. Elmar Imanov's script employs a surreal, relentless logic that apparently springs from the ever-fertile Georgian film soil as well as literary education. Only a dead man can reveal what the living are up to, as a variation on Gogol's novel “The Dead Souls.” What the well-constructed tragedy "Otar's Death" lacked, though, is the humanity that lifted the tragic outcome of another Georgian entry, "Brighton 4th" (2021, Levan Koguashvili, Georgia, Russia, USA, Bulgaria, Monaco). Both films deal with material hardship (greater and more dangerous in New York's Brighton Beach than in Tbilisi) and the fading significance of family; however, in "Brighton 4th", the hopeless situation of a son addicted to gambling leads to a heroic sacrifice by the father (played by former wrestler Levan Tediashvili). While "Otar's death" pits the (grand)mothers' senseless greed against each other, the father's sacrifice in "Brighton 4th" is by no means in vain. The film, which is based on a script by Boris Frumin, sings the praises of selfless love that parents are said to have for their children. Many films at the 55th KVIFF revolved around dysfunctional or broken families, often in combination with an aggressive virtual world, viciously interfering with real life. As a culmination of the family film genre, the last evening in the Great Hall featured the drama "The Nest" (2020, Sean Durkin, UK, Canada) with Jude Law as an impostor who sweeps his family into the misfortunes of British country life. In the Central European (anti-)family films, the generations have grown so far apart that relationships take on odious forms. In Olmo Omerzu’s “Bird Atlas” (2021, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia), the widower Ivo Róna is cheated out of the assets of his company "Aron" by accountant and former mistress Marie, with the help of her fictitious Facebook friend. However, the real beneficiaries seem to be the Róna`s children, who are hawking their father's company to China or using the stolen identity of an American soldier to access their father's money through the accountant. The title of the film, “Bird Atlas”, has many meanings beyond the obvious one of an encyclopedia of ornithology: Atlas is a figure of Greek mythology whom his rival Zeus burdens with the responsibility of keeping heaven and earth apart, the birds refer both to the women in Róna's life and to real birds tweeting messages of doom (ecological and humanistic aphorisms appear on the screen as tweets). The situation of the Róna family is similar to the one in the film "Dear Ones" (2020, Grzegorz Jaroszuk, Poland/Czech Republic), in which a man, with the help of a story enacted by employees of his company, denies the truth about his wife's illness and death to his own children. Jaroszuk lends his film a touch of absurdism in keeping with Polish tradition. In both films, fictions develop their own life, fleshed out to the smallest detail, witnessed by a virtual or surrogate community. In "Dear Ones", the company successfully replaces the widower's family. The takeover of intimate spheres by alternative families or a fake lover, however, is conditioned by real social or human problems of the present: The film shows the exploitation of a hunger for love and respect by the embraces of the virtual worlds as well as the need to be fully invested in one's profession, dedicating one's entire time to a company. Both protagonists are widowers, both estranged from their offspring, both 'married to their company'. The higher the stakes, the more criminal the energy of the estranged (future) heirs. Omerzu as well as Jaroszuk display the distance between children and parents against the background of wealth or bourgeois prosperity, revealing that in post-socialist societies the bonds between generations are severed. It is not the children fighting each other for daddy´s love or the company´s “Succession” – as in the eponymous HBO series, produced by Jesse Armstrong’s company “Project Zeus”, which “Bird Atlas” is a persiflage of, down to the film title itself. Omerzu´s film presents us with a ‘Project Atlas’ in a parallel to Zeus, the Titan`s cousin. In the Czech, Polish, and Georgian competition films we witness generations battling each other as in the ancient Titanomachia. However, neither of these coolly constructed and heady family dramas won a prize. The Grand Prix of the main competition was scooped by a film full of emotion, "Strahinja Banović / As Far as I Can Walk" (Serbia, France, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Lithuania, 2021) by Serbian director Stefan Arsenijević. In the Serbian medieval epic, Strahinja Banović – who is robbed of his wife – fights against the foreign rule of the Ottoman Empire; the Strahinja of today comes from Ghana. In the (post-)pandemic situation of summer 2021, people in the Czech Republic were eager to shed their masks. At the festival speeches and galas the topic of death, or, specifically, Covid-19 did not surface – apart from the standard obituary montage film which this time included Covid victim Jiří Menzel (23.2.1938 – 5.9.2020). This silence at the most significant international cultural event in the Czech Republic seemed unnatural; after all, during one and a half years of Covid, more people died (over 30,000) than Czechoslovakians fell in the entire Second World War (25,000). One must therefore give the selection and programme team credit for including two Czech films in the two competitions which dealt with illness and death – it seemed like an eloquent protest against the public muteness around Covid. Václav Kadrnka`s spiritual film “Saving One Who Was Dead“ (2021) and Adéla Komrzý`s “Intensive Life Unit” (2021), which was warmly received by the fetsival audiences. It was awarded a Special Mention from FEDEORA and has continued winning prizes at other Festivals. It is the not always easily digestible film art presented at this festival that could break the silence of the public about our anxieties and fears today, both in the East and the West – and therefore it was necessary as well as therapeutic that numerous films confronted us with the body in extremis, reminding us of our fragility.