It’s been four years since Karel Och took over as artistic director of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, during which time the fest’s famously youthful audience has multiplied, while the programming has maintained its commitment to new voices and provocative aesthetics. It’s the kind of best-of-both-worlds success — popularity without easy populism — that could easily encourage complacency in the festival’s minders, but Och takes nothing for granted.
“Nothing really terrible has happened yet,” he says with a sly grin on the festival’s penultimate day, after a week of monitoring everything from projection requirements to the media reception for this year’s controversial Mel Gibson tribute. “I’m knocking on wood.”
For all these administrative concerns, however, the films themselves remain the first priority for Och, who joined the festival as a programmer in 2001. He’s at pains to balance Karlovy Vary’s dual identities as a hub of discovery for regional cinema, as well as a carefully curated roundup of other festival highlights. Cannes, in particular, gets generously showcased, with over 20 of this year’s Karlovy Vary selections handpicked from May’s Croisette crop.
“It’s not only about new films, but creating a context for older films,” he explains. “Our audience doesn’t care if something’s a world premiere or not. They just want to see a good movie. You try to pick the right ones and put them together in the right venue at the right time, and that’s an instinctive process. I don’t have to work to a brief: I just let the films work on me, as do my colleagues. So we hope that this collection of instincts creates a good programme.”
Och admits that he’s taken advantage of the festival’s loyal audience to push the programming in less obvious directions, giving broader exposure to avant-garde works that other festivals might relegate to murky sidebars. He elaborates: “There’s been a slight change of strategy from, say, five years ago. I like to take a film I find edgy and challenging, one you’d usually see in a 150-seat theater, book it into a hall with 500 or even 1000 seats, and just follow the reactions.
“There are moments when you can feel a refusal, but it’s refusal accompanied by argumentation and explanation. It used to be that, if there was a Q&A after a screening, I’d have to ask five warm-up questions and hope there’d be at least one from the audience. Now, many more hands go up. They’re more involved, more understanding of the programming.”
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is Karlovy Vary’s geographical focus: Och is particularly pleased with the dominant presence of films from Eastern and Central Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia in this year’s Official Competition and East of the West sections.
“That will always be what distinguishes us from the rest,” he says. “I’d also like film professionals to associate Karlovy Vary with young filmmakers. I realized a few years ago that almost a third of the films in our programme were debut features, and that wasn’t even calculated. We have people premiering their movies here with really amazing careers ahead of them; it’s important for us to launch their work, because we might lose them to Cannes, Venice or Berlin in two or three years.”
In some cases, however, Karlovy Vary can lure a hot filmmaker from the brighter lights of the European majors. The first world premiere secured for this year’s Competition was multi-cultural comedy “Welkome Home” — the sophomore feature from Russia’s Angelina Nikonova, whose considerably more severe debut “Twilight Portrait” was a 2011 Venice sensation. “I was convinced Karlovy Vary would be the right place for that film, given its poetics,” Och recalls. “There’s a wit and melancholy to it that works very well in these parts. I’m so glad I convinced her.”
Though he’s obviously loath to play favorites, Och can’t contain his excitement for Russian director Ivan Tverdovsky’s East of the West title “Corrections Class,” a tough-minded drama set within a special-needs school. Describing it as “a very forceful, full-contact movie,” Och admits Karlovy Vary was initially promised the world premiere, before Shanghai made a later offer. “We could see how good Shanghai would be for that film,” he says. “There’s so much competition between festivals for good movies, but it’s important to be sensitive to the filmmakers’ needs first.”
Meanwhile, as the festival’s 49th edition comes to a close, plans are already in progress for next year’s golden anniversary festivities. Och is giving nothing away, of course, but he’s got more than a one-off party in mind. “There are some activities involved which won’t simply celebrate the festival’s past, but introduce new innovations that will enlarge the festival’s presence through the rest of the year. More festivals are going this way, and I’m excited: It’s impossible to put so much planning and effort into just one week, and then have the catalogue be the only tangible thing that remains.”