The 2012 edition of the Czech Republic's premiere annual film jamboree offered a bumper crop of films.
As always, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic showed that it was the A-list film festival with a human dimension. There were plenty of world premieres, big stars (including Dame Helen Mirren and Susan Sarandon, who were both in town to pick up Crystal Globes for Contribution to World Cinema) and industry bods a-plenty.
There were also tonnes of young and enthusiastic audiences eager to see lots of new films (and stay out all night drinking what seemingly was the Czech Republic’s entire supply of beer – which is a lot). There was some oppressive heat and plenty of rainstorms that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cecil B DeMille biblical epic. Perfect film watching weather then.
The festival kicked off with the crowd pleasing yet politically charged Good Vibrations, the true story of the record shop and label that brought punk to Belfast during the 1970s. Reminiscent of 24 Hour Party People (unsurprising when you consider it’s exec produced by Michael Winterbottom), it blends historical fact with plenty of fourth wall breaking surrealism alongside a background of The Troubles.
There’s lots to like here, with Richard Dormer engaging in the lead as Terri Hooley (the man behind Good Vibrations) and music fans are sure to enjoy the social history of the Belfast punk scene, including the origins of The Buzzcocks and the importance of John Peel, alongside an illuminating examination of the political turmoil of the time. The tone is sometimes uneven but this is great fun and – with a UK distributor on board – it’s worth checking out on release.
Screening out of competition – a scant few days after it received its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival – was Mark Cousins’ superb What Is This Film Called Love? Something of a riposte to his 15 hour The Story Of Film (which also screened at the festival), the film is a cinematic poem/essay that's (mostly) improvised over a three day period in Mexico City as Cousins shoots on his mobile phone.
In it, Cousins muses on the nature of cinema and love whilst talking to a photo of Sergei Eisenstein, all to a soundtrack that includes PJ Harvey and a brilliant use of Tony Christie’s ‘Avenues and Alleyways’. This is open to accusations of indulgence mainly because, well, it is. But the mixture of the indulgent and personal is what makes the film work so well, with Cousins bringing his love of cinematic discourse to the fore whilst giving it an abstract (and often humorous) spin. It’s a beautiful paean to the power of cinema and the joy of storytelling.
The festival’s official competition was responsible for numerous interesting films including ultimate winner, The Almost Man, a Norwegian comedy-drama about a thirtysomething man who must deal with impending fatherhood, and Polski Film, a genre twisting and often funny movie in which four famous Czech actors play themselves.
One huge discovery was Greek director Ektoras Lygzios whose feature debut Boy Eating The Bird’s Food invited comparison with the work of Robert Bresson in its telling of a story that shines a light on the current economic situation in Greece. An unnamed 20 something living in Athens finds himself without any money but too proud to ask for help. With bills mounting and no means of paying, he resorts to increasingly desperate measures to find food and water.
Lygzios makes much use of handheld camera in this resolutely intimate work marked out by an astonishing performance from lead Yannis Papadopoulos. The fine line between allegory and realism does cause the occasional problem with the narrative, and a full on masturbation scene (and its aftermath) will have both prudish audiences and distributors finding the film tough going. But this is bold and provocative filmmaking.
Also provocative was Polish film To Kill a Beaver, featuring a powerhouse performance from Eryk Lybos as traumatised soldier Eryk, holed up in a remote house ready to undertake a mysterious mission. A damaged young girl enters his life and the two begin a torrid affair. But it’s clear the Eryk is not quite all there and his mission might not be all that it seems. This is like an über-twisted version of Leon with director Jan Jakub Kolski creating a disturbing and fragmented atmosphere of paranoia and bad dreams. It’s intense – and sometimes a little OTT – but it’s an interesting diversion from the usual social realist vein of Polish cinema.
More restrained, though no less affecting, was The Stoning of St Stephen, a claustrophobic tale of an old man named Etienne living in a squalid flat. He spends his days alone with his harridan-of-a-daughter continually trying to get him to leave and his brother trying an altogether more gentle form of persuasion to convince him to join him in a nursing home. But, haunted by the ghosts of his family, Etienne cannot leave his flat – even when his health worsens and he collapses. Swinging from scenes of Etienne tetchily arguing with his family to long stretches of him walking around his flat musing on his lost life, the film is a grim and often stagey affair. But, mainly thanks to the central performance of Lou Castel, there’s still something sadly compelling about the film.
Unsurprisingly Karlovy Vary is a springboard for plenty of cinema from Eastern Europe, especially in its East of the West sidebar. The Exam was an interesting Hungarian genre piece that was polished and often enthralling. Set during the late '50s – in the aftermath of Hungary falling under the control of the Soviet Union – the film follows undercover National Security agent András as he undergoes a secret test to assure the authorities of his loyalty. Not only is the test being done in secret, András’ mentor is the person conducting it. Or is he? With some stylish set design (all '50s chic and communist elegance) and a taut narrative, it’s a very decent piece of work.
Also stylish was Yuma, a Polish film set during the late '80s when Poland was finally relinquishing communism. Set on the Polish-German border, the film is the story of young Zyga who continually jumps across the border to steal goods from the Western country. The act is justified as ‘yuma’, which means reparations for German crimes against Poland in the past. It’s sometimes a little muddled but there’s a strong performance from Jakub Gierszal and its combination of Wild West genre tropes with social realism is unique to say the least. It’s due for release in the UK in August, and those who enjoy Polish cinema would be advised to seek it out.
More traditional social realism was found in People Out There, a Latvian film about a young tearaway who strives to better himself. While this story has been done many times before – a good boy is led astray by others – the film, from first time director Aiks Karapetjans, has been made with energy and verve. It’s certainly got something to say about the difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in society and there are numerous wonderful sequences. It’s a raw and powerful debut replete with pointed social commentary.
As is Mushrooming, an Estonian feature about a politician lost in the woods whilst mushroom picking. English audiences should find a particular resonance with this drama as much of it deals with the public persona of politicians and their machinations behind the scenes. It sometimes gets a little confused, not knowing whether it wants to be a satire or a horror movie. But it’s a well written piece with plenty of clever ideas.
Completing the Baltic connection is Lithuanian sci-fi Vanishing Waves (AKA Aurora) which blends genre antics with erotica. A scientist is taking part in an experiment to enter the minds of comatose patients. But in the mind of one, whose identity remains a mystery, he begins a passionate affair that soon takes its toll on his real life. Sometimes a little overwrought and melodramatic, the film also has a nice line in ideas and cold and clinical sci-fi seemingly influenced by Kubrick. Genre films from the Baltic are rare, so this was another interesting curio thrown up by the festival.
Documentaries also featured with El Bella Vista being a fun examination of a former Venezuelan village football club that had been turned into a transvestite brothel and may become a Catholic church on the future. The villagers make for some engaging subjects and it’s a clever and personal piece of filmmaking. More irreverent is Noseland a documentary that sees musician Aleksey Igudesman follow his friend Julian Rachlin as he stages a music festival in Dubrovnik.
The joke here is that Igudesman plays himself as a klutz of an interviewer insulting – amongst others – John Malkovitch and Sir Roger Moore with his questions. The style and tone of the documentary cuts through the usual po-facedness that is associated with classical music. It’s tremendous fun and worked as something of a palate refresher from many of the more serious films in competition.