Russell Crowe is standing on a stage playing an electric guitar. He’s singing Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” accompanied by a trumpeter, a drummer, someone on the keyboard, another guitarist, and even four backing vocalists. He starts swinging in the instrumental section. The crowd, full of Czech film industry insiders, international critics and fans, is undoubtedly amused.
This isn’t yet another “A Star Is Born” remake, but simply the kind of event you can expect to witness at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, which takes place every summer in the Czech city and welcomes talent from all over the world.
First founded in 1946, KVIFF underwent a transformation in the early 1990s following the fall of communism. Karel Och, who has worked at the festival since 2001 and has been its artistic director since 2011, thinks this change explains how the spectators themselves have changed.
“They didn’t really react to the Q&A,” she told IndieWire. “They had a tendency to keep their feelings inside. But now you can see a forest of hands right after the projection. They like to ask very sophisticated questions, which is a really interesting mirror of what’s going on in (our) society.”
Indeed, most screenings are sold out, both for films screened at Cannes, such as Karim Aïnouz’s “Firebrand”, which opened the Czech festival (with star Alicia Vikander in attendance), and for smaller films that have their world premiere, most intriguing among them this year are Luka Beradze’s “Smiling Georgia,” a 62-minute documentary about an infamous political campaign during which a candidate convinced poor Georgians to have their rotten teeth pulled out and promised new ones , only to leave them toothless after his defeat .
Stars like Crowe have always been part of the festival experience, with even Rita Hayworth attending the inaugural edition. Being a private company, the festival has to please the sponsors: “In a way they are like us, you know? We like to spend time up close to the stars because if you love cinema, you’re bound to fall in love with its allure as well,” Och said.
The opening night concert was a way of drawing Crowe into his era as a musician, as were the lifetime achievement awards that the festival awards each year: Robin Wright and Ewan McGregor were also welcome to this 57th edition, each selecting a films from their respective careers to sift through.
This reliance on star power has, however, sometimes created controversy. Mel Gibson received the 2014 Crystal Globe for outstanding contribution to world cinema, and although Johnny Depp has never received this award, he was invited to screen his films “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan” and ” Minamata” in 2021 as the scandal of his divorce from Amber Heard was in full swing and his reputation damaged by domestic violence allegations.
In addition to receiving the statuettes, Crystal Globe recipients are also invited to participate in the filming of a trailer for the festival, typically directed by a Czech director who works in black and white and pokes fun at the very concept of awards. In a questionable move, the festival also decided to shoot one of these trailers with Depp, this time in color, in which the star shows off a crystal globe that she stole and on which she has pasted her name.
KVIFF isn’t the only film festival unsure of what to do with filmmakers under scrutiny (TIFF, a much bigger festival, canceled the premiere of Ulrich Seidl’s ‘Sparta’ at the last minute last year, and the This year’s Cannes Film Festival opened with a film starring Depp and whose director is being sued for assaulting a journalist) but this indecision is a real shame for a festival that has more to offer than glitter.
This year’s winner of the Crystal Globe Competition, featuring world or international premieres of fictional and documentary works, was the darkly funny and heartbreaking “Blaga’s Lessons” by Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev, which follows a 70-year-old woman trying to rebuild her savings after falling victim to a phone scam. Such audacious Eastern European cinema is Karlovy Vary’s true specialty and the festival has become pivotal to the Czech film industry, with filmmakers adjusting their post-production schedules to the festival deadline.
The Proxima section features debuts and bold films from established filmmakers. This year’s highlight for this writer was the British production “In Camera”, directed by Naqqash Khalid, an almost experimental exploration of identity and survival in our modern world through the experience of a struggling actor. The main cast and crew of this small debut were invited to participate – as Och explained, the filmmakers love the festival for “doing things partly the old-fashioned way, honoring the fact that festivals are here to facilitate of the director with the audience”.
Even filmmakers whose works have premiered in Venice or Cannes now want to support their work at the KVIFF “because they no longer have so many opportunities to meet those for whom they make films”.
The eclectic selection of films comes from pure intuition. “What one of my professors on the faculty told us was to really sit in the cinema and not think about anything, to let the film Work you,” Och said, “and rely only on my years of doing this job. Because the more movies you watch, the better you know your instincts, and in the end, your instincts decide.”
This same genuine curiosity drives each year’s retrospective section, with the mad works of post-war Japanese director Yasuzô Masumura chosen this year by curator Joseph Fahim and screened to a packed audience. And if the team’s cinephilia remained in doubt, it’s worth noting that Och also allows himself to use his creative director privileges to screen one John Cassavetes film a year (“Minnie and Moskowitz” this time), simply to the pleasure of doing it.
Perhaps most strikingly, KVIFF benefits from its alluring location in a spa town where romantic tapestry and pink, yellow or blue buildings along the river and up the mountain create a sense of being out of time and space. “It might go without saying, but people probably don’t realize enough how important it is to organize a festival in a city where most guests neither work nor live,” said Och, who lives in Prague. “It’s such a challenge to prepare a lineup of often challenging films, because we’re talking about arthouse cinema, (that will enter) into the lives of people who spend their day at the office.”
On the contrary, Karlovy Vary offers a break from everyday life in atmospheric surroundings, aesthetically bordering on Wes Anderson’s idea of 20th century Europe, but full of diverse and exciting cinema, old and new, and with the additional soundtrack by Russell Crowe.