Och carries on work of mentor Zaoralova

When Karlovy Vary announced a changing of the guard in December, ushering out Eva Zaoralova — artistic director for 15 years and a guiding force in the fest’s post-1989 rise — Karel Och, her successor, had some awfully big shoes to fill.

Zaoralova had just been feted by the collected members of the Czech press last year and won the Medal of Merit from the Czech president for helping rebuild what had become a lackluster fest fraught with politics. Although Karlovy Vary has a long and star-studded history, having been founded in 1946, it had been deeply compromised under the pre-Velvet Revolution regime, which at one point took to holding it in Moscow in alternate years.

Och joined the fest in 2001 and established his rep by curating Karlovy Vary’s documentary sections and tributes, and scouting groundbreaking pics from abroad. As a result, Zaoralova considered the 37-year-old Vysocina native her natural heir apparent.

The new a.d. similarly credits his mentor for helping lead a young team of four main programmers who travel the globe all year.

The principal goal in finding the 200-plus films for Karlovy Vary remains the same, says Och. “Every festival tries to — and I’m not going to be different — discover a new talent. Every film is at least a European premiere.”

The pool of possibilities consists of no fewer than “all the promising young filmmakers from Eastern Europe,” says Och. He adds that he’d also like to see “some unusual animation from Poland, some genre crossover … (and) hopefully a really interesting Czech film (as a) world premiere.”

Building a kind of brand loyalty is also in the brief, he adds. “It’s not difficult to get someone to come once, but it’s difficult to get them to come twice.”

Audiences will detect a consolidation of sections this year, with the sidebar previously dedicated to pics from Cannes, Open Eyes, now blended into existing sections such as Horizons or Another View.

Meanwhile, such restored classics as “Taxi Driver” will no longer screen under the title Treasures From the Archives. They’ll screen under the hipper moniker Out of the Past.

The fest’s educational component is also a priority, Och says, taking evident pride in exposing young Czechs — and many foreign film vets — to the work of pioneers they likely have rarely seen on the bigscreen.

In this Och says he’s taken some inspiration from the dozens of fests he visits while scouting, such as Cannes, where he recently heard a programmer ask viewers how many of them had seen Marcel Carne’s seminal 1945 pic “Children of Paradise” in a theater. A minority of hands made it clear there’s still a role for the classics at a sophisticated fest.

One thing an artistic director must wrestle with is the fest’s role in an increasingly crowded market. So how does Karlovy Vary continue to distinguish itself?

“We’re doing a big revamping of the East of the West competition,” says Och of the fest’s $10,000 prize competition for films of the former East Bloc. “If there’s a program to distinguish Karlovy Vary from the others, it’s this or it should be.”

The fest’s casual, low-key atmosphere, enhanced greatly by the summer setting of the glittering west Bohemia spa town where it’s based, is another only-at-KV asset, he says.

“You get to see people for more than just five minutes, which is very important,” he says, adding that he gets the feeling “there’s a revival of the sort of cinephilia, resulting in prominent media like Sight & Sound (giving) more attention to smaller festivals.”

Such distinctions are more important still when fests are rated on the scale established by the Intl. Federation of Film Producers Assns., which counts Karlovy Vary in its A category — on the same playing field as Cannes, Berlin and Venice. The drawback might be that competition films may choose only one of these venues to enter.

While Karlovy Vary did manage to score foreign-lingo Oscar-nominated French pics “The Chorus” in 2004 and “Amélie” in 2001, plus Germany’s Oscar foreign-language film winner “Nowhere in Africa” in 2002, Och admits it’s increasingly tough to compete for excellence in main competition premieres against such heavyweights. Warsaw’s fest joining the A ranks, makes it tougher still.

Thinking in context helps, he says.

“You have a local audience that’s pretty faithful,” says Ochs. “In their eyes, they don’t really care if the films have been around for a year — they just want to see good film.”

And keeping Karlovy Vary popular with non-critics is also key to the program slate, he adds. “You should not end up programming only premieres because you risk having the audience fed up.”

But perhaps the best lesson Och carries forward from his eightysomething mentor — who remains an active artistic consultant to the fest — is more related to the team than to the process.

“One important thing she’s been championing over the years,” says Och, “is it’s really important to have a really good group of people. Anyone who says they program all alone is lying.”

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