Recap of My Experience at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in Czechia
by Alex Billington
July 12, 2017
There are film festivals that take place in big cities, with screenings at huge performance venues, and lines that go down the block. Then there's festivals that take place in tiny towns, where dedicated cinephiles go to discover amazing films big and small. The Karlovy Vary Film Festival is one of these outstanding little festivals that takes place in a small spa town in
the Czech Republic Czechia. This was my first year attending Karlovy Vary, which I had heard great things about from many colleagues for years, and it lives up to the hype. It's an excellent festival in a beautiful town nestled in the hills, and they show tons of stellar films. Coincidentally, I'd already seen many of their big centerpieces (A Ghost Story, Wind River, The Big Sick, Columbus) at other festivals but was still happy to stop by for a week of catching up with other great films.
Back in 2010, I wrote an editorial about how the best film festivals in the world are in small towns that you can't easily get to without driving in (Sundance is in Park City, Cannes in Cannes, Telluride in Telluride, Locarno in Locarno, etc). Karlovy Vary can definitely be added to this list as one of the best festivals in the world that isn't exactly easy to get to. It's almost a 2 hour drive from Prague, and while there is an airport, the only flights to it are from Russia. Pretty much everyone must be driven in; it's a small town that is easily walkable from top to bottom. There's a river flowing through the middle where everything is situated - lots of quaint spa hotels and resorts, along with plenty of shops, cafes, and charming residential buildings. When it isn't the fest, this quiet town is where many Europeans go for relaxation/revitalization at its many spas.
The festival itself is a bit strange and took some time to get used to at first. The screening rooms are all very small, most of them are tiny performance venues with a screen installed in them, with flimsy chairs thrown about. The town was full of people during the festival, but it seemed most of them were there to be in the middle of the excitement, not see any films. The lines for each screening would only start 30 to 45 minutes before the start time. And they would also let in extra wait list people who would fill up every last seat, often times sitting on the floor, even if there were no more seats left. The festival prides itself on the selection of films they show and their dedication to outstanding cinematography and storytelling, and that's what stands out the most. Every screening started on time and the projection was always perfect, no complaints at all.
There's no question I'll be back to Karlovy Vary next year, and I expect it will become a regular stop on my annual film festival tour. Attending for my first time this year it was all about figuring out the festival, how it works, how to get tickets, where the venues are, how early I need to be there. For someone like me who is already attending Sundance, Berlinale and Cannes every year, Karlovy Vary is a nice place to catch up with some of the films I missed or that have been getting rave reviews at other festivals. You can see their full 2017 line-up here to get an idea of all the films they showed. And for those wondering - every film is shown in the original language with English and Czech subtitles, so you can see anything from any country. There are banners posted all around town highlighting many of the films showing, as a reminder of what to watch.
Below are the 10 films I saw at the 2017 Karlovy Vary Film Festival with some brief thoughts on each one:
God's Own Country (dir. Francis Lee) - A slow burn romantic drama about a stubborn sheep farmer in Northern England who falls for a Romanian immigrant that comes to help on the farm. This film features two outstanding performances from lead actors Josh O'Connor and Alec Secareanu which are vital to the emotion. There are numerous tender moments throughout crafted by a skilled filmmaker, with lovely cinematography by Joshua James Richards. It's superb. I especially love the ending (and the song that it ends on) as well as the credits with stock footage playing in the background. Highly recommend this film.
A Campaign of Their Own (dirs. Lionel Rupp & Michael David Mitchell) - This is an intriguing little documentary about Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in 2016. It focuses on the various people and supporters who were a part of the movement, and sadly follows as they realize he won't be the candidate. Unfortunately it never lives up to its potential in any way, and will be forgotten quickly. If anything, the doc is most powerful as a look back. Knowing how it all eventually plays out, going back and looking at what everyone was saying during the campaign stirs up a whole host of various intense emotions, good and bad.
Freak Show (dir. Trudie Styler) - I very much enjoyed this film (read my full review here). Freak Show is an optimistic, highly entertaining high school comedy about finding yourself and staying true to who you are deep down. The lead performance by Alex Lawther as Billy Bloom is wonderful, bringing so much energy to this story. He's so likable, no matter what you feel about him, and the film rides completely on that stellar performance making the message at its core even more powerful. There's an impressive soundtrack of songs and a colorful cast of fun supporting characters, including Bette Midler. Worth watching at some point.
Montparnasse Bienvenue [Jeune Femme] (dir. Léonor Serraille) - I am not a big fan of this film at all, despite lots of positive buzz from Cannes. Laetitia Dosch stars as Paula, a ditzy French woman who breaks down and goes totally freakin' nuts when her boyfriend breaks up with her. The film spends all of its time trying to make us sympathize with her, and her struggles, which she brings on herself by being so careless. Alas, I never felt any remorse and despite her attempts to get things back on track, most of the film bored me. She has no character arc, she never learns anything, she just runs around Paris all crazy and that's it.
Axolotl Overkill (dir. Helene Hegemann) - This film, on the other hand, is also about a woman being wild but it's much, much better than Montparnasse Bienvenue. This is one of the best films I saw at this festival (read my full review here). Axolotl Overkill stars Jasna Fritzi Bauer as a 16-year-old teenager from Berlin who spends all her time partying, drinking, doing drugs, and living a weird life in this vibrant German city. It's so much fun, with a killer soundtrack, and great cinematography capturing Berlin and all its grungy, gritty glory. This is basically a party film, but it actually has something to important say if you look closely.
The White World According to Daliborek (dir. Vít Klusák) - A very weird but impressive documentary profiling the life of a self-described Czech neo-Nazi who still lives with his mom (read my full review here). The whole point of the film seem to be that we need to take a more calm, thoughtful approach to changing the minds of people like this. First, by letting them show us who they really are, then by subtly making them confront their own beliefs and allowing them to figure it out why they're so wrong. I've never come across anything like this documentary before, it's utterly fascinating and impressively calm. I'm glad I saw it here.
Western (dir. Valeska Grisebach) - Another film that had good buzz coming out of Cannes that just didn't live up to the hype. It's good, but not great, in my opinion. Western is about a group of manly-men who go to Bulgaria to work on a construction crew in a remote region of the country. They attempt to mix with the locals, but things get messy, of course. The story follows one man, played by Meinhard Neumann, who actually seems to not be so terrible. There's some good ideas here but it's way too long and spends too much time getting to the heart of the story, which pulled me away. Great ending, strong cinematography at least.
Stockholm, My Love (dir. Mark Cousins) - More of an experimental film that feels like a 90-minute poem than anything. Cousins attempts to build a narrative, but never finishes building it, instead leaving us with various shots of Stockholm that are interesting but never amount to anything special. The biggest problem is that the cinematography is painfully bad - ugly and grainy and bland throughout, which doesn't make sense considering this was shot by award-winning DP Christopher Doyle. This falls into the category of films that really belong in museums, not taking up screens at your local cinema. Just not the kind of film I enjoy much.
Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves (dirs. Mathieu Denis & Simon Lavoie) - This is a 3-hour long film (featuring an intermission) from Quebec profiling four "far-left" anti-capitalist activists. It takes place before, during, and after the student protests in Quebec in 2012. As much as I wanted to love this, it didn't really hit me, and felt more of a smattering of various ideas and fascinating concepts but lacks a real narrative or any emotional resonance. That said, I still greatly admire the audacity and scope of the film, considering it is 3 hours, includes archival footage, and title cards with bold messages.
Wind River (dir. Taylor Sheridan) - My second time seeing this film after attending the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival (read my original review here). It's still as good as I remember (though I think I prefer the Sundance version slightly more, as this one has been edited and trimmed down a bit). Sheridan is one of the best screenwriters working today, and this films shows that he has so much potential as a director as well. It is definitely one of Jeremy Renner's best performances we'll ever see. And I admire the many layers it has and themes it addresses through complex twists and turns. I also highly recommend this film.
When I return to Karlovy Vary next year, I'm planning to dive even deeper into the film selection and spend much more time in their makeshift cinemas seeing films. I missed out on seeing a few gems and I didn't see a single competition film, but I still had a good time and I'm glad I decided to attend. It's always exciting to go to a film festival for the first time. It has been so long since I've been to one that I haven't been to before, so this was a unique and eye-opening experience. Karlovy Vary was celebrating its 52nd year, and they know how to put on a show. The opening ceremony with fireworks and a live orchestra left me awe-struck, and the rest of the fest was just as exciting to experience. Here's a cool photo of one of the bigger screening rooms:
When attending a film festival, there are qualities that I look for to judge whether it's one of the best in the world. The first is - do they show high quality films, do they have world premieres, and do they have enough clout to bring in the best films from all over the world? The second quality I look for is - do they have good venues, do the screenings run smooth, is the presentation (projection/audio) flawless? Yes. Karlovy Vary does live up to expectations and has all of these qualities and much more. My biggest complaint is that there weren't many good restaurants in the area. The best place I found was a pop-up coffee shop called Mama Coffee located in the lobby of one of the cinemas. Other than that, though, this is indeed one of the best fests in the world and is certainly worth attending if you're looking for a nice summer town to catch some films.
Thank you to Karlovy Vary for helping me attend the festival, and thank you to my colleagues for speaking so highly of it for so many years. It's particularly exciting to discover and experience film festivals all over the world, places where the love for cinema flows all around, and the people who work for the festival truly love watching movies. The best way to enjoy the best that cinema has to offer is to watch films with other cinephiles, who gather in small towns to fall in love with characters and stories that filmmakers want to tell. I live for this experience, and I hope to continue to explore the world in search of other exceptional festivals.