Karlovy Vary artistic director puts fresh spin on American cinema

Like so many international cinephiles, Karel Och considers American movies of the 1970s among the high points of film history. The difference between Och — who serves as artistic director of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival — and many of his movie-loving peers is that the Czech enthusiast was raised in a communist country where access to the likes of “The Last Detail,” “Night Moves” and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was forbidden until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

“We read a lot about these films, either from film magazines or books, starting in the ’90s, when you could finally talk about these films. The cult status in your head would get bigger and bigger until you finally had a chance to catch up with them,” says Och, who pursued a film studies degree in Prague, and later binged on all the cinema he’d missed out on as a teen during a six-month exchange program in Paris. It was there that Karlovy Vary enlisted him as a jury secretary in 2001.

As Och’s role expanded, he helped program documentaries and retrospectives for the festival, the second-oldest sprocket opera in the world (though it suffered from 1948 until the fall of communism, when the same person served as jury head each year to ensure the result was “correct”). Och has been instrumental in its re-emergence as a preeminent showcase, bringing ’70s American cinema — and other vintage treasures — to the Czech Republic for the first time.

“In a way, it’s easy to impress in the Czech Republic. Films that are widely known in the States are often quite new to our audience,” Och says. “That reminds me of a unique screening of “Harold and Maude” introduced by (Variety editor-at-large) Peter Bart in Karlovy Vary. There were 1,200 people in the cinema, and none of them had seen the film. That screening just completely changed the mood of the whole festival.”

Despite Och’s fondness for classic movies, under his direction Karlovy Vary has also gained in prominence as a platform for new international cinema, often debuting important work by Eastern European helmers overlooked by Cannes and Berlin. Och spends much of his year traveling the international festival circuit in search of exciting new work, visiting the U.S. each January to attend Sundance and the Golden Globes, taking meetings in Los Angeles between the two events.

Those trips can sometimes be a bit surreal for Och, who often feels far removed from Hollywood, despite a compulsion to help spotlight both the country’s 1970s masters (this year’s fest will showcase The Panic in Needle Park director Jerry Schatzberg) and dynamic emerging voices (including the Borderline team, responsible for such recent indies as Simon Killer and Martha Marcy May Marlene).

Per Och, for Hollywood outsiders working in the industry abroad, “That world can seem like somewhere high and far away, which is why it’s so important for us to go to Hollywood and have meetings with managers, agents and publicists. It really gives us a chance to share our vision and our work with people in the same field.”

Though Och shares a universal enthusiasm for cinema, he finds many of the professionals he meets in Hollywood seem to speak a different language — one in which money and distribution are the dominant concerns. It’s not uncommon for fest programmers to pursue a film Och feels passionate about, only to be turned down because the sales companies prefer to hold out for a territory that offers bigger possibilities for a commercial release.

“We’ve learned not to worry about it so much. We figure if we continue to go our way and put together a program that shows films in a different context, then we can build up our reputation,” he says.

Och’s unique diet of international art cinema also gives him a unique perspective on the Sundance program. Where domestic critics see variety, Och senses a tremendous amount of overlap. “Once you get to Sundance, you see 10 out of 20 films that are coming-of-age stories about young kids in New York or somewhere. It’s getting harder and harder to find something a little different,” he says. “And yet, one thing I find interesting is that they are all very well made. The level of craft is very high, which makes it hard to figure out whether you’re watching a good film or not. In Europe (where the technique is not always so polished), it’s very obvious right away, but at Sundance, it can be misleading.”

For Och, this year’s discoveries include Chad Hartigan’s “This Is Martin Bonner,” which bowed in Sundance’s Next section, and Lance Edmands’ “Bluebird” from Tribeca. “Sometimes, when I see an American indie film, it’s hard for me to strip it down past all the different layers and masks. With ‘This Is Martin Bonner,’ I was impressed by the simplicity.”

With each selection, Och aims to transmit his passion for particular films to Karlovy Vary’s unique youthful audience, simultaneously eager for discovery and open to being artistically challenged. Though managing the nine-day fest can be incredibly demanding, Och is energized by the act of introducing locals to films they might never see otherwise: “Sometimes, if I am really exhausted, I pick a movie that I know will be successful with our audience, and I just go there at the end of the show and let the applause recharge my batteries. The reaction at the festival is something unique.”

Photo: Fest head Karel Och is an evangelist for classic American cinema in the Czech Republic, inviting guests such as “Raging Bull” editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

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