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As its 56th edition – running July 1-9 – kicks off, Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival is ready to party like it’s 2019.

“We can’t predict how many people will come, as some still don’t want to travel, but it’s supposed to be as close to [pre-pandemic] 2019 as possible,” says artistic director Karel Och, noting the audience is still one of the festival’s biggest assets.

It’s their enthusiasm for cinema that has “enchanted even big Hollywood stars,” echoes president Jiří Bartoška, hoping for a great atmosphere in Karlovy Vary.

But there have been significant changes at the festival, starting with the death of the longtime artistic advisor and former artistic director Eva Zaoralová in March.

“When it happened, it was just like when Bowie died — certain people you just consider immortal,” says Och. The festival will celebrate Zaoralová with an exhibition of photographs and a screening of her favorite film, Federico Fellini’s “La Strada.” “It was a long, beautiful, rich life connected to cinema and we will try to reflect that. She sent a letter to Fellini once. He replied and invited her to Rome, to visit him on set. She never did, which was her regret.” The festival will also replace its East of the West sidebar with the Proxima competition. No longer bound by geographical restrictions, it will showcase the work of “filmmakers waiting to be discovered as well as renowned directors seeking to redefine their work,” it was announced.

“People have always appreciated our efforts to help the filmmakers from our region. We put a lot of effort into promoting them and at some point, we realized that our mission might be considered accomplished,” says Och.

Bartoška chimes in: “You can’t just do a festival by repeating established patterns, no matter how successful. You have to respond to the latest changes and adapt to unexpected situations, such as the pandemic or the senseless and cruel war in Ukraine. The same goes for the program.” Among Proxima’s 12 titles, Berlinale Silver Bear-winner Tomasz Wasilewski will present his new feature “Fools,” Andreas Horvath will return with “Zoo Lock Down,” while Brazilian helmer Gregorio Graziosi will combine sports drama and body thriller in “Tinnitus.” “These are filmmakers who are willing to make a move towards different aesthetics or narration. We want to support their courage,” says Och.

On the industry side, the First Cut+ Works-in-Progress showcase will also “open up for the rest of the world,” says industry head Hugo Rosák. This year, the organizers were able to include projects from outside Europe that participated in the First Cut Lab.

“We can reach people that we couldn’t before. There are more options now,” he says.

This year’s industry program — including a tribute to Jérôme Paillard, who has just stepped down as the Cannes Market boss — will be dedicated to multiple post-pandemic issues, with panels tackling the challenges of producing for streamers, changing audience behavior or green filming. The festival will also address the ongoing war in Ukraine, hosting the Works-in-Progress program of the Odessa Intl. Film Festival, which couldn’t take place because of the Russian invasion.

“Let’s call it a case of one festival supporting another,” says Rosák.

“[Ukrainian] producer Natalia Libet, who is also helping us with First Cut+, put us in touch with the management. We left it entirely in their hands.” No Russian projects have been selected for the festival’s own WIP projects.

“For pragmatic reasons, Russia was excluded from our call initially. It was not among the list of eligible countries to submit. We knew those projects would not be able to come in person, we felt little desire to help promote them and I personally saw no point in inviting them to submit. My head turned towards helping the Ukrainian projects instead,” says Rosák.

Libet, calling herself “merely a cupid or a matchmaker” when it comes to the new partnership, underlines that hosting Ukrainian festivals is “a big help and a big deal” these days. “I think that we have to explain the origin of Russian films, their influence, their financial basis and the failure of Russian culture to preserve humanity and its values in its own country. [As Ukrainians] we have to be loud, sincere and straightforward, and open for discussion.” The festival won’t be boycotting Russian films, however, even though none were selected for the Crystal Globe competition or Proxima.

“It’s not because we wanted to boycott them — we simply did not receive almost any this year. There is one we invited for our sidebar section months ago, ‘Captain Volkonogov Escaped.’ At the core of that film, there is a strong protest against one person — Stalin — manipulating others into torturing and killing innocent people,” says Och.

“We are in touch with our friends and colleagues in Ukraine, and we understand the reasons behind the boycott they were suggesting,” Och continues. “At the same time, we cannot be insensitive towards the filmmakers who are Russian and actively protesting against what’s going on. We will not be boycotting Russian films in Karlovy Vary.” Apart from acknowledging the often-difficult present, the fest will continue thinking about the future, launching KVIFF Talents — a program designed to support filmmakers and their “daring projects,” Rosák says — and introducing Innovative Distribution Hub, showcasing new technological tools and solutions.

“We will be looking at the metaverse, NFTs, at where films are going to be seen next. As a festival, we are also looking for ways allowing us to stay relevant when distributing new content,” Rosák adds.

The KVIFF Group, created following an investment by Rockaway Capital, has acquired a majority stake in distribution company Aerofilms, furthering its ambitions to extend festival’s visibility through distribution and VOD. Aerofilms’ CEO, Ivo Andrle, will also lead KVIFF.TV.

“This platform is a product of our marriage,” Andrle jokes.

“You don’t marry someone you just met on the street. First, you need to learn who this person is and that was our case. There is a history of collaboration.” Combining the library of Aerofilms’ streaming service, Aerovod, and festival offerings, the new platform should be “the No. 1 stop for people interested in the arthouse scene,” he says. Starting with Czech Republic and Slovakia, the ambition is to expand into the Central and Eastern Europe region. “We believe that the KVIFF label has already gained a lot of trust among the audience — they know what to expect. It’s not going to be a platform offering everything to everybody. It’s going to be very selective.” KVIFF.TV will mirror Aerovod’s business model, combining SVOD and TVOD. It will also feature audiovisual content related to the festival, as well as a live section — a key offering during the event, says Andrle, which will also be used for other year-round activities.

“Basically, the message is: ‘The festival is over, but it’s not. Now, it will go on forever, because you can always visit us online’.” Notes executive director Kryštof Mucha, “We can find a film for the festival, buy it for the whole CEE region, distribute it theatrically, and then show it on our VOD platform. That would be the ideal situation.

“The situation in cinemas isn’t easy, so we want to offer local producers another option. We want to be there for the audience, but also for the community,” he adds. “The funny thing is that we are actually very conservative as a festival. We never wanted to, say, screen films online. But we have always talked about distribution, because we want to continue showcasing talent from this part of the world.” The festival’s move into distribution started with KVIFF Distribution, launched in 2015 in collaboration with Czech Television and Aerofilms.

“The idea is to create a strong brand, visible throughout the year, also outside the Czech Republic,” sums up Och.

“My wish has remained the same for the past 29 years: For us to be able to say, on the last day of the festival, that this year was a success,” adds Bartoška. “[But] for several years now, we have been meaning to expand the festival’s activities. We are gradually managing to implement this plan.”