There can be few film festivals as eclectic as Slovakia’s Art Film Fest, where, this year, works by established and emerging local directors — such as Tereza Nvotova, with her mental health drama “Filthy” — vie for attention alongside white-hot Cannes titles such as Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Good Time” and Sergei Loznitsa’s “A Gentle Creature,” or Hollywood totems such as the 1942 Humphrey Bogart drama “Casablanca,” and Charlie Chaplin’s near-silent 1936 classic “Modern Times.” Festival runs June 16-24.
Now celebrating its 25th edition, the festival was founded in 1993 in Trencianske Teplice, a small spa town in West Slovakia. Back then, the festival was simply titled Art Film, screening short films on the subject of art. Tellingly, the guest of honor that year was the experimental British director, and digital film advocate, Peter Greenaway.
Two years after that, the festival inaugurated its annual Actor’s Mission award, with Franco Nero being the first in a long line of international honorees that have included Ben Kingsley, Sophia Loren, Omar Sharif and Jean-Paul Belmondo, as well as many Czech and Slovak actors — this year’s winners are Czech actor Ondrej Vetchy and Slovak actress Magda Vasaryova. A competition was introduced in 1997, followed in 2001 by the Golden Camera, awarded for technical excellence to the likes of Roman Polanski, Ettore Scola, Andrei Konchalovsky and Emir Kusturica.
In 2009, with the appointment of current program director Peter Nagel, the festival became Art Film Fest, featuring two international competitive sections, one for features and one for shorts under 30 minutes, and, with more than 13 sections, a wide focus of international and domestic cinema.
Today, the program has grown to include panels, tributes, workshops and masterclasses.
Needless to say, the festival quickly outgrew its roots — in 1993, the festival drew just 300 people to a single venue. Over time, that figure grew to over 20,000, and two years ago the festival said goodbye to Trencianske Teplice and moved on to Kosice, the capital of East Slovakia, with its superior cinemas and infrastructure.
Says Nagel, “Kosice is the second-biggest town in Slovakia, with about 250,000 people. There are eight universities and more than 60 high schools, which means our target is the educated young people, aged 18-27. The festival program is oriented, of course, to a wider spectrum of viewers, but a key part of it is about [drawing] young people. Those people are educated. They know a lot [about] world cinema, and AFF’s program is wide enough — European film, Asian cinema, independent movies, U.S. indies, late-night shows, profiles, Slovak cinema, the attractive titles from prestigious festivals — to satisfy that demand.”
Nagel credits his team as the reason for the festival’s exponential success. “My advantage, as the artistic director, is having an excellent program crew, which hasn’t changed since I was hired,” he says. “My colleagues are respected specialists in various film genres and themes. Every person is strictly responsible for his selection. Simply, we know each other very well — and have confidence in each other as well.”
Which is why, under Nagel, the festival has grown from a small local event to the best-attended film festival in Slovakia. “Although I have come to the realization that Slovakia is still a small area,” he notes modestly.
And for the future? “We must keep our feet on the ground,” he says, pointing to the success of near-neighbor Karlovy Vary, another festival with an emphasis on young audiences, as the kind of model that impresses him. Indeed, that festival’s president, Jiri Bartoska, winner of the Actor’s Mission award in 2001, will be attending to collect AFF’s first-ever Festival President’s Award this year.
That said, AFF will continue to pursue its own identity. “We have to go our own way,” Nagel says.