Freedom Festival 1999: Karlovy Vary
by Wiktor Sadowski © American Cinema Foundation Essay by Eva Zaoralová, Program Director of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Database of Russian and Ex-Soviet Union directors
The town of Karlovy Vary, only a little more than 60 miles west of Prague on the Czech-German border, became celebrated for its curative springs under its German name of Carlsbad during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. After the Second World War the town began to attract the attention of the international filmgoing public thanks to the international film festival which was founded here in 1946.
The Festival enjoyed a period of glory during the 1960s but suffered a decline during the "normalis-ation" period after the suppression of the Prague Spring, when it faced competition from the Moscow Film Festival (with which it was obliged to alternate, taking place every other year from 1959 to 1994).
While the Festival was organised by the state until 1992, it then gained independence with the newly established Karlovy Vary Film Festival Foundation, headed by popular Czech actor Jírí Bartoska. This independence was accompanied by the necessity for financial support from sponsors. Fortunately the popularity of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival has continued to grow since 1994, both in the Czech Republic and abroad. Every year at the beginning of July Karlovy Vary is visited by viewers from all over the Czech Republic, young people in particular, for whom the festival has practically become a cult venue.
The Festival naturally also lures hundreds of foreign guests, journalists, film critics, international film-club members, and each year brings greater numbers of foreign television crews, attracted by, among other things, the presence of stars such as Michael Douglas, Milos Forman, Mia Farrow, Gregory Peck, Lauren Bacall, Rod Steiger and many others.
The foreign community, especially from Western Europe and the US, welcomes the chance to see new works from the countries of the former Eastern bloc in the special section "East of the West." And the section screening the latest Czech films is always guaranteed to generate lively interest. Visitors to the festival also look forward to the chance to see retrospective screenings and focuses (the screening of Australian films, the retrospectives on Antonin Artaud, Jean Epstein, Joris Ivens, Sergei Eisenstein and on Czech animated film enjoyed huge successes). Equally popular are the portraits of independent filmmakers including Olivier Assayas, Nick Gomez and Alejandro Agresti.
All eyes, however, will be on the international competition of feature-length films which, in accordance with international FIAPF regulations may only include films which have not appeared in official competition at other major film festivals. Thus the selection is naturally considerably reduced, in view of the leading position of the festivals at Cannes, Berlin and Venice. Nevertheless, the Festival is making great headway here, too, as testified to by the fact that each year many of the films shown in competition at Karlovy Vary are subsequently short-listed as Oscar or Golden Globe nominations (Sergei Bodrov's Prisoner of the Mountains; and A Chef In Love by Nanna Djordjadze, awarded in 1996; Ma vie en rose by Alan Berliner, the winning film from 1997). The selectors for the competition programme also endeavour to attract as many works as possible from those countries whose films, with a few exceptions, are too frequently neglected at the festivals in Cannes, Berlin or Venice.
A number of reports on the 33rd Karlovy Vary IFF in 1998 stated that the standard of the films in competition now bears comparison with films awarded at other large international festivals, here included in the informative section Horizons. One of our great successes is the fact that, each year, we are witnessing an increase in the number of films which, after appearing at the Karlovy Vary IFF, have been successfully brought into distribution, whether for the broader distribution network, for film clubs or television viewers.
The 34th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, to be held 2-10 July 1999, will once again be the only FIAPF-accredited competitive festival in Central and Eastern Europe. The aim of the organisers is to maintain this status in future years, which will unquestionably prove to be an exacting task requiring our full commitment.
Freedom Film Festival 1999 (Overview: Berlin + Los Angeles)
102 min., color and b/w, 35mm
Director: Petr Zelenka
Contact: Ceská televize–Telexport,
Knoflíkári / Die Knöpfler
(Czech Republic 1997)
Correctly hailed as a wild return to the Czech Spring style of black comedy that national cinema was known for in the 1960s, Buttoners is a dazzlingly structured mosaic of interlinking stories that ponder a cruel yet droll world as it moves from a certain catastrophic event of World War II up to the chaotic and often absurd eccentricities of life in the 1990s.
About the Film
On August 6, 1945, cursing American pilots divert the Enola Gay to Hiroshima as a group of men sipping tea below them in Kokura curse the bad weather that has just saved their lives. Precisely 50 years later in a taxi hurtling through Prague, the lives of an adulterous couple in the back seat cross those of the cabbie in unforeseen ways. At the same time a young couple is involved in a tragic road accident, their parents' party to plan the upcoming nuptials degenerates into a bizarre parade of perversions. Meanwhile, as a bickering couple watch a television program detailing efforts to shoot frozen sperm into space, schoolchildren summon the ghost of the Enola Gay's pilot, who promptly offers an on-air apology of sorts during a late-night radio program.
What does it all mean? Don't look to the title for enlightenment, for just as the cryptic name defies definition in any language (and logic in the movie's narrative), words alone can't simulate the mood of this long night on a seemingly Czech-ruled Earth siezed by a singular strain of pre-millennial madness.—Eddie Cockrell
By the time Petr Zelenka (b. 1967, Prague, Czech Republic) graduated with a degree in screenwriting from the Prague Film School (FAMU) in 1991 (both his parents wrote scripts as well), he had already worked as dramaturg at the Barrandov Studios, collaborated with the BBC on the program Czech-Mate, written numerous screenplays, directed some documentaries and translated plays from English to Czech (with a successful emphasis on the work of Michael Frayn). His debut feature, the This is Spinal Tap-inspired Mnága-Happy End (1996), won a prize at the Cottbus Film Festival, and to date Buttoners (which he calls "a black comedy about forgiveness") has won numerous awards, including the Tiger Award at the 1998 International Film Festival Rotterdam and Czech Lions for best film, supporting actor (Jirí Kodet) and as the film critics' favorite work.
115 min., color, 35mm
Director: Vladimir Bortko
Contact: NTV-Profit Film Company, 3 Building,
7 Verchniaya Radischevskaya str., 109004 Moscow, Russia
Cirk sgorel, i klouny razbezalis
About the Film
An elaborate and earthy metaphor for the struggle to find inspiration, motivation and support in a world gone mad, Vladimir Bortko's first film in six years follows the efforts of a once-famous filmmaker, Nikolaj Khudokormov (Nikolaj Karacencev), to raise money for a new film on the eve of his 50th birthday. Times have been tough, and as he calls on bankers, politicians and entrepreneurs to secure funding, he feels both humiliated and helpless.
He gets no help from either his senile mother or his two ex-wives, the first of which has let their daughter slip into a life of prostitution. The second is no better, so involved with her foreign lover that she fails to notice that her son no longer speaks Russian. It is only when the director finds a mysterious muse who follows him and speaks of the futility of his efforts that the filmmaker's fate begins to come into focus. As the title suggests, Bortko's melancholia is both whimsical and apocalyptic, painting a colorful picture of the emotional chaos in the heart of the contemporary artist.—Eddie Cockrell
After graduating in 1974 from the Kiev Theatre Institute with a degree in film directing, Vladimir Bortko (b. 1946, Moscow, Russia) apprenticed in Kiev before beginning a directing career at Lenfilm that includes the feature films The Investigation Commission (1978), My Father the Idealist (1980), The Blonde Around the Corner (1983) and Once Lied (1987). During this period he also directed the television films No Family (1984) and The Voice (1986). More recently he has directed Heart of a Dog (1988) from the Bulgakov novel, the Italian co-production Afghan Breakdown (1991) and the comedy Good Luck to You, Sirs! (1992).
93 min., color, 35mm
Director: Karen Shakhnazarov
Contact: Mosfilm International, Inc.,
Cirk sgorel, i klouny razbezalis
Winner of a Special Mention FIPRESCI award from a jury of international film critics at the 1998 Karlovy Vary festival, Day of the Full Moon is a stunningly photographed series of vignettes from Russia past and present that summons the spirit of Max Ophuls' 1950 classic La Ronde, Robert Altman's American landmarks Nashville and Short Cuts as well as the time-shifting strategies of Alain Resnais (Mon Oncle d'Amerique, Same Old Song) to tell provocative and interconnecting stories illustrating the waltz of years and whim of memory.
About the Film
In 1948, three people-a young man, a boy and a waiter-are captivated during the full moon by a mysterious woman in a lilac dress. Like stones in a pond, the effects of this event ripple throughthe years, and grow to wash over more than 80 characters, from a disc jockey to a fairy princess to a gangster to Alexander Pushkin to a nostalgic dog. But which of these are dreams, and which represent reality?
Director Karen Shakhnazarov continues his career-long focus and the intersection of past and present with this mysterious yet exhilirating mosaic of humankind, which in the end offers both seduction and satisfaction to the receptive viewer.—Eddie Cockrell
Karen Shakhnazarov (b. 1952, Krasnodar, Russia) graduated from the Film Directors Faculty of Moscow's All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in 1975. After making short satirical films and writing a number of scripts, he came to international attention with the music-themed features We are from the Jazz Band (1983) and A Winter Evening in Gagry (1985). His filmography includes The Kind Hearted Ones (1979), Courier (1986), Zero Town (1988), Assassin of the Tzar (1991, starring Malcolm McDowell), Dreams (1993, co-directed with Full Moon's co-scenarist Alexander Borodyansky) and American Daughter (1995). He is currently president of the Mosfilm Cinema concern.
96 min., color and b/w, 35mm
Director: Pavel Marek
Contact: Whisconti, Panská 1, 110 00 Praha 1, Czech Republic
(Czech Republic 1998)
About the Film
A spirited, gently surreal saga of disaffected youth set against the clubs and cornfields in and around contemporary Prague, this noteworthy feature film debut charts the rocky road to a kind of love between aspiring actor Martin (Jan Zuska) and the waif-like Marketa (Pavlina Jiraskova), whom he meets during a brief incarceration in a psychiatric hospital after eating the cut flowers (garnished with ketchup) off of his table in a pub during a wild spree.
Yet neither seem to exhibit symptons beyond the ennui and angst typical to young adults, and that seems to be the point of the leisurely narrative: as in the work of Jean Vigo, Lindsay Anderson (look for pointed references to both If... and O Lucky Man!) and fellow Czech Milos Forman, life for the intrepid everyperson is an invigorating quest for individual freedom laced with the benign warmth of poetic fantasy. Perhaps referring to the punning title, one character neatly sums it up:"like cars, people can break down if overused and underserviced." Members of the Bohnice mental hospital theatrical company are featured to memorable effect in the scenes set there, and that's co-producer Pavel Melounek in a wordless cameo as "the big head" who bests Martin for the lead in a television commercial.—Eddie Cockrell
The son of a civil engineer, Pavel Marek (b. 1963, Calcutta, India) took degrees in electro-technics from Prague University in 1988 and film directing from the Prague Film School (FAMU) in 1995. During these years he also made a name for himself as a playwright and filmmaker with surrealist flair, directing numerous shorts (including Tutor of Fear, The Dead Forest, The Harvest, and The Day of the Dog) that received acclaim at international festivals. After acting in Jan Svankmajer's short Food (1992) and 1994 feature Faust, he directed the short Sredni Vashtar (from the story by Saki). His feature film debut, Dead Beetle, was a Tiger Award nominee when it premiered last year in Rotterdam and has subsequently been selected for festivals in Washington, D.C., Karlovy Vary, Molodist and Cottbus.
119 min., color, 35mm
Director: Valeri Todorovsky
Contact: Gorky Filmstudio, ul. S. Eisensteina 8, 129226 Moscow, Russia
Strana Gluchich / Das Land der Stille
Winner of the New Director's Showcase Award at its 1998 Seattle Film Festival American premiere, Valery Todorovsky's fourth feature deftly mixes elements of the classic Hollywood-issue melodrama (think 1930s Warner Bros.) with Moscow's current reputation as a volatile blend of Las Vegas, Dodge City and Prohibition-era Chicago. Just as her boyfriend Alyosha (Nikita Tiunin) seems ready to use her as collateral for a gambling debt, spunky Rita (Chulpan Khamatova) slips out of a Moscow strip club with the aid of jaded dancer Jaja (Dina Korzun), who, in addition to being 80 percent deaf, appears to be a compulsive liar.
As they hide out in a sculptor's studio, Jaja talks the reluctant Rita into a life of prostitution on their way to financial security and a trip to the fanciful island of the title, where "no cruel people live." Yet fate intervenes, with one last test of the women's resolve in the form of sympathetic mobster Svinja (literally, pig) and the ill-timed return of Alyosha.
Writing of his 1993 film noir Katia Ismailova (hailed as perhaps the first Russian stab at that genre), Todorovsky pointed out that "fifteen years ago the language of cinema was that of illusions. Today one deals with everything, openly; I hope I have made a film of extreme and absolute passions, treating them with force and simplicity." Sumptuously photographed and vividly scored, The Land of the Deaf builds on that ambition, confirming Todorovsky as a stylist of languid power.—Eddie Cockrell
Himself the son of a film director, Valeri Todorovsky (b. 1962, Odessa, Ukraine) graduated from the screenwriting faculty at Moscow's All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in 1984. His award-winning films as director include the student-short-turned-feature Catafalque (1990), Love (1991) and Katia Ismailova (aka Evenings Near Moscow, 1993) a modern-day version of "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk." He wrote the scripts for Gambrinus (1990), The Vent (1991) and Over the Dark Water (1993), co-produced The Miss (1991) for TTL Films partner and director Sergei Livnev (who subsequently produced The Land of the Deaf) and edited the television miniseries Queen Margot (1996).
100 min., color, 35mm
Director: Goran Paskaljevic
Contact: Paramount Classics, 5555 Melrose Avenue, Chevalier Building
#210, Hollywood, California 90038
To the exclusive list of visionary, subversive films made from innovative, politically charged urban theater pieces, add the violent, funny, profane and dazzling The Powder Keg. Adapted from a stage play that clocks 24 harrowing hours in the underbelly of urban Belgrade, and injected with a strong but subtle dose of political pertinence, these short cuts comprise a crazy and combustible daisy chain of coincidence, as strangers and friends ricochet off each other in an extended ballet of misunderstanding, pain, frustration and anger that begins with a minor traffic altercation and escalates to murder.
A meek citizen erupts when a careless teenager involves him in a fender bender; a 17-year-old Bosnian Serb refugee rebels against his idealistic parents and becomes enmeshed in a shady drug scheme; two burly boxers square off in their gym's shower, with tragic results; an agitated teen hijacks a bus for a brief midnight joyride; a returning immigrant tries to woo back a former lover.
The huge, all-star cast of iconic types pawns, really seems driven by a particularly cruel fate, a sensation heightened by "Boris, the esoteric cabaret artist" who opens and closes the film. Although patches are rough going (which is as it should be), Paskaljevic's point is that just beneath the confusion and hair-trigger mayhem, these honest, good-hearted people remain defiantly human. Explosive, unpredictable and passionate,this is urgent, relevant cinema of the highest order.—Eddie Cockrell
Paskaljevic's newest film, The Powder Keg, is winner of the European Film Academy's 1998 European Critics Award, Best Film awards from three festivals (including Venice, where it received a 10-minute standing ovation) and is Yugoslavia's official submission to the Academy Awards. A Yugoslav of Serbian descent, Goran Paskaljevic (b. 1947, Belgrade) developed a love of film early at the Belgrade Cinemateque, which was run by his stepfather (Italian neorealism was a reported favorite). He studied at Prague's distinguished FAMU from 1967 to 1971, making the student films Mister Hrstka (1968), A Few Words About Love (1970) and his graduate work, Legend of Lapot (1971). The approximately 30 documentary and short films he directed between 1972 and 1976 include The Emigrants (1971-1974), Children (1973), Servant (1973) and Burden (1974). His award-winning features include Beach Guard in Winter (1976), The Dog Who Loved Trains (1978), ...And the Days are Passing (1979), Special Treatment (1980), Twilight Time (1982), The Elusive Summer of '68 (1984), Guardian Angel (1987), Time of Miracles (1990), Tango Argentino (1992) and Someone Else's America (1995). During the last three years he has been the subject of career retrospective tributes in Spain, France and Italy (a 10-city tour in 1998).
102 min., color, 35mm
Director: Vladimír Balco
Contact: Alef Film Media Group, Ltd.,
As visual metaphors in 1990s Slovakia go, the idea of a hotel boilerman parlaying his power over guests and superiors into a country-wide reign of terror is both original, and, in the case of recent political developments there, devilishly accurate. This is why Peter Pistanek's 1990 novel "Rivers of Babylon" became such a sensation there, where the durable Slovak sense of self and country can always withstand a little sarcastic scrutiny. How popular is Pistanek's dyspeptic view? A sequel has already been published, with a third volume on the way.
Photographed on location in the formerly lavish, now-seedy Kiev Hotel in downtown Bratislava, the film follows the rags-to-riches story of the brutish Racz (Andrej Hryc), who arrives from the country and lands a job as stoker at the ritzy Ambassador in large part to impress his future father-in-law. Racz is at first embarrassed by his lowly position but soon learns that he who controls the heat might conquer the world.
"Today," Hryc points out, tongue perhaps firmly in cheek, "there are politicians in Slovakia whose personality corresponds to that of Racz." Five years in the making (the former government, not quite so amused, withdrew state subsidy), Rivers of Babylon is the country's official Oscar submission as well as a darkly funny confirmation that whatever their delays on the road to stability, Slovaks, unlike a lot of people, much less countries, can enjoy a good laugh on themselves.—Eddie Cockrell
Before graduating in film and television from the Bratislava Academy of Arts (VSMA), Vladimír Balco (b. 1949, Liptovsky Ján, Slovakia) worked as a technician and cameraman at the Koliba Film Studios in the hills above the Slovak capital city. After his student film Three Tons of Happiness won the grand prize at the 1980 Oberhausen Short Film Days, he returned to Koliba as a director. His documentaries include Hummel (1987), Thirty Tons of Happiness (1990), Opera Session (1992) and Lúcnica Dance Ensemble (1993). His fiction feature films include Angle of View (1984), You May (1985), Paso Doble for Three (1986), Attitude (1988) and Flight of the Cement Pigeon (1990).