The last good thing

Keepin' it real in Karlovy Vary

The 38th annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is underway following the opening ceremonies last night. As the festival has grown in size and prestige over the years, there has been a creeping fear expressed by festival goers that the "people's" festival will soon be co-opted by commercial interests and the screenings no longer accessible to the students and otherwise ordinary (read non-industry) people who have helped to fashion the reputation of the KV festival as being a true film geek's holiday.

Thankfully, your correspondent can see that the commercial interests have not taken too much of a hold. While the production value and marketing face of the festival has gotten ever slicker and more professional, the film prices still afford the motivated student, who is willing to wait in line, the opportunity to see 3 films in a day for the price of 1 showing at one of Prague's ubiquitous multi-kinos.

The festival catalogue is a tome the size of a small city's phone book. The line up is an impressive collection of international films, both big and low budget and offers the film geek a weeks respite in this charming spa town, hopping from film to film, and party to party.

Along the grassy edges of the park downtown, young people sleep curled in sleeping bags underneath a concrete overhang beneath the Hotel Thermal. Students wake up early and wait in line to see the films. There is a welcome lack of pretension, no sense of put-on airs. The cafes and pubs are filled as much with students as with international festival goers, and all seem to be here for one reason: to see films.

While the Prague Post whines about expensive meal prices and tourist trap price-gauging the PTV team sets up camp near the bus station, at the jidelna, Pupik (the diminutive of the Pupp, the grand hotel at the other end of the city) the festivals best kept secret. Here, the prices are normal, and the beer, a 10 degree Gambrinus, is a superb accompaniment to a hearty plate of gulaš, or some Moravsky Vrabec (if you have to ask, never mind). Here you will not find any glitterati, but are sure to encounter the matron of the place, a small, kindly, woman who, if she takes a shine to you, will look after you very well.

When asked about whether local people go to see the films, she responded with "Sure. If they have time." We asked if she would go to any films this year and she said she would love to, but cannot get the time off. We offered to work for her one day while she went to see the films, but she said her boss would probably not approve.

The fact that the films are accessible to locals and visitors alike is one of the main attractions of the Karlovy Vary festival. The atmosphere on the streets is festive, the bars around the hotel Thermal stay open all night, and everywhere is the sweet smell of ganja. There is an anything goes type atmosphere while the festival is on, but an underlying seriousness too. You can see people discussing what they have just seen heatedly over coffees in the cafes, and pouring over the festival catalogue like hard-core gamblers with the racing form at the track.

Some of the veteran festival goers lament the passing of a time when anyone, accredited or not, could wait on line and get into a film. Perhaps a price to pay for success, but the KV organizers have done a fantastic job of keeping the festival accessible to people who would never have a chance at any of the other international festivals of this size and caliber. And for this film geek, the chance to see films in a variety of settings is one of the added surprises. From the plush opulence of the Mětské Divadlo, a 402 seat opera house, to the intimate film school feel and rickety straight-back chairs of the Husovka Theater, each venue affords the viewer a different experience.

If the organizers can keep the heart of the festival unsullied, then this film geek will be an avid annual attendee. The lavish parties, the stars, the pomp of celebrity seem something far removed from your correspondent's experience, but perhaps that's because we weren't invited, and could care less about that sort of thing. It's a people's festival for sure, and we are here to see films that, with the exception of those in official competition, and a few others, will never make it to your local dodeca-plex. And unlike those vapid American films in mainstream distribution, they might actually make you think.


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