Karlovy Vary IFF Mid-Week Update

The first weekend of the Karlovy Vary International film festival saw nearly 10,000 visitors

It’s Tuesday in Karlovy Vary and the crowds are starting to thin. The first weekend of the 50 Anniversary edition of the Karlovy Vary International film festival has at times been overwhelming. Nearly 10,000 visitors means that most screenings have sold out soon after release. Standby tickets have been scarce, over 1000 people saw Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil at 10am on Saturday. I know, I was one who didn’t get in. The heat has drawn the crowds to cooler venues and shady spots. The mix of film fans, locals and film industry folk has been a pleasure to be part of. It’s easy to forget that this is a busy spa town. Each group has been able to get on with why they are here, thanks to the energetic and committed festival staff. Famous Czech directors have been spotted relaxing; Juraj Herz in the Hotel Thermal reception, Jan Nemec in the beer tent for example. There are queues for films, toilets, beer and the shop. They do seem to have sold out of odd things: pens, pencils and earrings!

The first night saw an open air screening of Filmovy Lazen (Film Spa) in the Mlynska Kolonada. It’s a new film documenting the history of the festival. Starting in 1946 the festival has changed dramatically over the years. It claims to be the first European “A” list Film festival after the end of the second World War In the communist era it was forced to alternate with the Moscow Film Festival. In the 1970s the Hotel Thermal was built especially for the festival. Its imposing presence in the centre of KV somehow seems right, it’s the focus for festival activities and appears to function brilliantly. In the 1990s the festival had to cope with attempts to establish the short lived Golum festival in Prague as the major Czech festival. It probably isn’t the last time that a Prague film festival tries to take over the A list status.

As you’d expect the festival is a well-organised and professional event, but it manages to keep a sense of anarchy and improvisation that gives it an added energy. Some of the more remote venues like the lovably shabby Husovka Theatre come as a welcome contrast to the wedding cake elegance of the Narodni Dum and City Theatre. The big after-party venue Aeroport, in an unreconstructed abandoned Mattoni water bottling plant, reminds one of the improvised post-communist venues of the 1990s.

It’s easy to meet new people, I just had someone ask to take a photo of my festival pass; I’d met the man who is featured on some of the passes, including mine.

Someone told me over the weekend that Vratislav Brabanus had died. So I was a bit surprised when my neighbour at the screening of the film Sunrise Supervising said he was at the screening. He was; he plays the lead role in the film. Vratislav is the improvising saxophonist of legendary Czech underground band Plastic People of the Universe. They later surprised us with a last minute gig under the Cheb Bridge. 

It’s been my first time here and I’ve had to learn quickly how to get the best out of the festival. It pays to sort out must see films and events as far in advance as you can. A Plan B for sold out screenings is also a must. Remembering to eat is a good idea, there’s lots of fairly cheap and filling options in the square outside Thermal. People seem to find places to stay, although prices go up in the town, and many locals rent out rooms. There’s a thriving campsite, which is connected to the festival by one of the festival buses. You can also hire a bike, but most people walk everywhere. The event give the town the feel of a promenade at the seaside. I’d rather be here than on the beach at Cannes.

Mark Cook is a UK based Czech and Slovak film enthusiast. His website www.czechfilm.co.uk is an English language guide to Czech film and film culture. He’s also active on Facebook, Czech and Slovak Film, and Twitter @czechfilm. He has a soft spot for old Škodas.

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