It is said that with age comes wisdom and that adage feels strikingly true when it comes to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The prominent Central European event is the one of the world’s oldest film festivals, founded in July 1946, a month before Locarno launched its first festival and few months before the Cannes Film Festival unveiled its first edition in September that same year. Originally held in Mariánské Lázne, a neighboring Czech town, before it moved to Karlovy Vary in 1947, the now A-list festival was born out of a yearning to show that World War II had ended and healing could begin with culture.
This year, more than ever does that notion ring true as Karlovy Vary is set to unveil its 55th edition from August 20-28 after last year’s event was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Interestingly, from 1959 to 1993 Karlovy Vary alternated years with the Moscow Film Festival, as Soviet power over the region dictated there could only be one A-list festival for all socialist countries each year, so it had been a while since the niche fest has had to put a halt on the biggest annual event in the beautiful 13th Century spa town. This year’s event, albeit six weeks later than its usual early July slot, is forging ahead and festival organizers are ready to return to what they do best: providing a boutique festival experience for global cinephiles.
In the last few decades, Karlovy Vary has positioned itself as a ‘filmmakers’ festival’ championing choice European fare for industry professionals and the general public while also honoring top-notch talent. Its carefully designed programme has seen the likes of Jude Law and Cary Fukunaga make return appearances throughout the years as they’ve enjoyed the intimate event so much.
“I think we have a good reputation because we really care about the filmmakers,” says executive director Kryštof Mucha, who has been with Karlovy Vary since 1997. “It’s not just about having the premieres or that people are invited by the distributors or producers so they have to go and do marketing for their film. They have to decide for themselves if they want to come or not and once they are here, they understand that we care about them as filmmakers and that’s what makes us so unique.”
Indeed, A-listers such as Robert Redford, John Travolta, Mel Gibson, Robert De Niro, Terry Gilliam, Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore and Oliver Stone have all attended the festival throughout the years, many recipients of its Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema Award.
This year, the festival is honoring Michael Caine with its Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema award and the Brit icon will touch down in the city to receive it. Caine will personally present the comedy drama Best Sellers, in which he portrays a cranky author who sets out on one final book tour.
Additionally, Karlovy Vary is paying tribute to Oscar-winning Czech filmmaker Jan Svěrák with its KVIFF President’s Award. Ethan Hawke will also be the recipient of a President’s Award this year. The fest is also honoring Johnny Depp this year, who will be in attendance with two films screening in the festival: Minimata, in which he stars and Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, for which he has a producer credit. While the timing for Depp’s award could be considered questioning given the actor’s ongoing legal feud with ex-wife Amber Heard, Mucha is nonchalant about any criticism.
“The funny thing is that here in the Czech Republic, no one really had much of an idea that there was something around him and nobody really cares about his private life because with this we have no idea what is real and what is not real,” he says. “We adore him as a filmmaker, and we’ve been trying to invite him for years, so we’re really excited about it.”
Artistic director Karel Och adds: “We showed a lot of love to Julien Temple’s documentary A Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan because we are huge fans of the Pogues but also of Julien Temple. Johnny Depp is a producer on the film and being a long-time friend of Shane, he is one of the protagonists of the film and he is supporting the film. This is not about a celebrity coming into the festival to enjoy the red carpet but it’s a filmmaker who’s coming to support two of his recent films.”
As well as being a festival that can attract big talent, Karlovy Vary prides itself on nurturing its unique local audience. Students and locals from all over the region have historically touched down on the picturesque town nestled in a river valley to discover unique cinema from across the globe. Each year, some 130,000 tickets are sold to screenings and Mucha fondly recalls his first experience at the festival in 1996 when, as a paying audience member, he saw Trainspotting for the first time. It’s a feeling he’s keen for future young audiences to get a chance to experience.
“Thanks to our sponsors we try to keep the prices for the tickets very low so that it’s super available for students to get a pass to screenings,” he says. “That’s really important to us to keep this unique atmosphere. People come with a backpack, they sleep in tents – it’s like the film version of Woodstock for Eastern Europe.”
Och agrees, saying that the ecosystem the festival has created thoughout the years in bringing top tier talent and thought-provoking cinema to this unique public audience is paramount to what they do.
“The filmmakers always really enjoy our audience’s questions,” says Och. “Our audience has always been really amazing in that they react to the films in a very complex way.” This, he believes, derives from the region’s rich history and generationally, audiences now feel more emboldened to ask questions.
This year’s lineup boasts 27 world premieres, two international premieres and two European premieres spread across its two competition sections – the Crystal Globe Competition and the East of the West Competition – and the Special Screenings program. The festival will open with Zátopek, David Ondříček’s feature about runner Emil Zátopek, the four-time Olympic gold medalist who is widely regarded as the most popular athlete in the Czech Republic’s history. Mucha is a producer on the film, a project he’s been working on for the last 12 years. It will premiere at the opening night gala at the festival’s Hotel Thermal, the nucleus for the event’s screenings and industry events.
Also screening this year is Boiling Point, the drama about a restaurant chef starring Stephen Graham while Law starrer The Nest will close the festival on August 28.
For the first time ever this year, documentaries will be incorporated into its two competition strands, which previously were only reserved for features. The festival’s retrospective will be dedicated to the work of The Film Foundation, the movie restoration and preservation organization set up by Martin Scorsese in 1990.
“Our lineup is so diverse this year,” says artistic director Karel Och. “We have all kinds of different dramas in the competition. There are big comedies, there’s a dystopian sci-fi – it’s a really, eclectic lineup. We tried to keep in mind the fact that people have been down and depressed for a year and we hope that at the end of each movie spectators will leave the cinema feeling some kind of catharsis with each film.”
He adds: “Obviously we can’t offer as much market potential as some of the other festivals. But we play to the cinephile because that’s something we know how to do and for some, it’s more important but at the same time projects do get sold after screenings. You never know. There are certain conditions in which we exist. We just try to push the boundaries.”
Covid-19 protocols have been put in place to make this year’s edition run smoothly, including a new wristband system. All admission to cinemas and festival venues will require a valid Covid-safe wristband confirming infection-free status. Cinemas will operate at full capacity during the event and, says Mucha, “there’s no room at the hotels,” indicative of what looks set to be a busy event.
The festival’s popular industry strand, Eastern Promises, was moved to an online version from July 28-August 12 this year after a successful online event last year, again another response to pandemic. More on that here.
This year, the festival has had a boost from a new strategic investor, Rockaway Capital. It’s been a welcome union, especially after Karlovy Vary missed a physical event last year. The two companies launched the KVIFF.TV film platform on June 2, at the start of the Pragueshorts Film Festival. The platform will feature exclusive news, live broadcasts, interviews and info throughout the festival this year and also will feature year-round art film program.
“Nothing has changed in terms of organizing the festival,” says Mucha. “But Rockaway’s involvement has given us a chance to do more things in terms of distribution and collaboration. It’s also very important to the city of Karlovy Vary and Eastern Europe as we hope to do more events in the city throughout the rest of the year, not just during the 10 days of our festival.”