Tough Competition in Spa Town Festival

When the curtain rises June 28 on the 54th edition of the Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival, there will be a conspicuous absence among the 12 titles selected for the main competition: Czech directors.

It’s just the second time this decade that the host country has failed to field a single entry in competition, a choice that festival artistic director Karel Och says he didn’t take lightly.

“It is not an easy decision,” he says. “But we believe we are helping the local film industry more by fostering a discussion about what is [currently] the missing ingredient of Czech cinema, than by bringing in a film that would have a tough time to compete.”

For a country with deserved pride in a cinematic tradition that includes such titans of the silver screen as Academy Award winners Milos Forman and Jiri Menzel and Czech New Wave co-founder Jan Nemec, the shutout stings. Throughout its long history, and especially since its post-Soviet rebirth, the Karlovy Vary film festival has been an ardent supporter of the local industry.

Yet despite a down year, Och believes Czech cinema is as vibrant as ever. “A new generation is becoming more and more visible, but of course that takes time,” he says.

Both Czech directors from last year’s Karlovy Vary competition are young auteurs on the cusp of promising careers, he notes; several anticipated Czech films are also in development. “It seems next year will be quite strong,” he says.

Slovak director Marko Skop’s gripping nationalist drama “Let There Be Light,” a Czech-Slovak co-production, will screen in this year’s competition.

Now in his ninth year as artistic director of a festival that has long championed cinema from an often-overlooked part of Europe, Och finds himself at the creative helm as filmmakers from the region have become fixtures at the most prestigious festivals in the world.

Many of those careers were launched at the annual confab in this scenic spa town. The fest, along with its competition sections, features an industry program, Eastern Promises, which offers an essential introduction to works-in-progress from the region.

“In the past four years, we have partnered with others to help us put our market presentations on the map of [international] industry events,” says Hugo Rosak, Karlovy Vary’s head of the film industry office. The top project from the Works in Progress section receives a post-production package valued at €100,000 ($113,000) from major Czech post studios.

The festival also collaborates with the Midpoint script development program and the Trieste film fest’s When East Meets West co-production market “to help empower scriptwriting and access to markets for projects that are in development phase,” says Rosak.

Efforts to bolster the industry program are paying off: Och notes that five projects presented in Eastern Promises in 2018 were selected to premiere in Berlin and Cannes this year, while the number of competition titles at the festival with established sales agents has “grown significantly” in recent years.

“There is no doubt Karlovy Vary has moved to a level which is very interesting not only for the world sales companies, but also for the producers who have been scouting … co-productions for the future,” he says.

The interest is particularly strong among debut filmmakers.

The trend is in keeping with Karlovy Vary’s mission, which in the 1990s shifted with the collapse of communism, as organizers recognized the festival’s unique selling point as a gateway between the West and the post-Soviet countries of the East.

One of the most compelling sidebars in this year’s program will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the former Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.

A selection of seven films shot between 1989 and 1992 — the frenetic period that saw the end of four decades of one-party rule, when filmmakers embraced their newly found artistic freedom to probe at the possibilities of a society rebuilding from the ground up.

Those seven features, which include Tomas Vorel’s cult classic “Smoke” and Nemec’s subversive “The Flames of Royal Love,” explore what he described as “the strange spirit of an era involving the most fundamental changes, not only from bad to good, but from bad to everything.”

Thirty years later, filmmakers from both the Czech Republic and the wider region continue to grapple with the legacy of the communist era, asking whether the transition to democracy, which in many cases remains a work-in-progress, has lived up to its initial, heady promise.

“Even though three decades have passed since the fall of communism, these societies are still in transformation, which is a situation that offers a lot of interesting stories on an intimate or political level, ideally in combination,” Och says. “KVIFF is the most important hub for the films from this part of the world, which is a responsibility we realize, and never stop trying to figure out new ways to support.”

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