Strikes, Stars, Female Filmmakers, Asian Films 5

It’s that time of year again in Europe! With the start of the official summer holiday season looming, movie fans, film industry folks, party seekers, and global stars are ready to congregate at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) in the Czech Republic.

The Czech spa town has earned the reputation as one of the biggest summer celebrations of film in Central Europe, putting the spotlight on new releases from the region and far beyond, along with highlights of the film festival circuit from the past year.

This year’s 58th edition runs June 28-July 6. Karel Och, who has been serving as the artistic director of the festival since 2010, and his team have touted 15 directorial or feature-directorial debuts in the official selection, along with a slew of world premieres.

Star power is also guaranteed again this year. After all, Viggo Mortenson, Daniel Brühl, and Clive Owen will receive KVIFF honors, Steven Soderbergh will present two films and British electronic music band Kosheen will get the town grooving with a free outdoor concert on opening night.

On Thursday, the festival team set the final pieces of the KVIFF puzzle, including unveiling Fingernails, starring Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed, as the closing film.

In an interview with THR’s global business editor Georg Szalai, Och discussed an increase in Asian titles, female voices and perspectives, and the challenges of bringing top names to the fest after the dual Hollywood strikes.

You and your team have been broadening the geographic range of the KVIFF program in recent years, and it looks like you have lined up a lot of films from various different places again this year. How do you feel about the festival’s geographic and other diversity at this stage?

I feel great about it. I think it’s every festival’s ambition to be as complex and as diverse as possible when it comes to the countries, themes, topics, styles etc. So, for instance, this year we have an unprecedented number of Asian films across the official selection. We haven’t had time yet to put together the exact statistics. But without any doubt, that is a consequence of the hard and focused work of my colleague, Martin Horyna, who was a programmer for the festival until last year. Then he decided to quit his position because he wanted to follow other independent projects, but we asked him to stay on as the Asian cinema consultant. So he could focus only on Asia, and on going there and meeting more people, and of course, the fact that he has been working on the territory for a longer time has resulted in many more films from different parts of Asia coming to Karlovy Vary. That’s something we appreciate a lot.

Does the Karlovy Vary lineup include films from any Asian or other countries that you have never or only rarely featured in the program?

There are certain countries in Asia, which haven’t been represented that often. For example, we have a film from Singapore in the main competition [with Nelicia Low’s Pierce]. It shows signs of the place where it was made, but at the same time, it is universal in terms of the story. That is something that we always love to find in films.

We also have a Peruvian film in the Proxima competition [in the form of Night Has Come by Paolo Tizón]. It is Peruvian in the sense that this is how you imagine the nature of the country and the filmmaker comes from that country but it also offers a story, a tale, and a style, which can be completely transferred to any part of the world.

That’s why we changed or transformed the East of the West competition into Proxima. [The Proxima competition, now in its third year, wants to provide a space for bold works by young filmmakers and renowned auteurs alike. It replaced the East of the West competition, which was established in the 1990s with the goal of helping filmmakers from the former Eastern Bloc.] There was this hunger for being more diverse in terms of geography to be able to offer more space for films from Latin America and Asia.

Are there any other areas of growth or of note in terms of the lineup for KVIFF 58?

We have seen female filmmakers [account for] 50 percent of the Proxima competition. That was not at all intended to be reached with quotas, but it is a sign of something.

What could that “something” be?

I think it’s just a very natural process of changes that are going on at different levels, different moments over the life of a filmmaker and different institutions. Festivals are the most visible moments in the life of a filmmaker. But there are film schools, there are funding bodies and others and other levels. If the people in charge underwent a certain type of reflection, trying to see the type of work they’ve been doing with a different gaze, not just necessarily a male or female gaze, but just with different eyes, I think it’s very healthy and creates a different perspective.

Obviously, when you do such reflection, the changes come anywhere, anytime in the world, and this is very healthy. These are now the times of nuances. You don’t get criticized that often anymore for not having certain quotas, which was kind of absurd, but understandable. That is part of a process, and we can now discuss these things with nuances, with some philosophy behind it. And with more QA Oh, and obviously not just in case of color or about other festivals. The result is a larger presence of female filmmakers and, very interesting in the program this year, many more films with a female protagonist at any point of her life. Whether it’s an elderly woman or a six-year-old child. And often, these are made by a male director. It just puts life in a richer perspective and shows life from all kinds of angles that we have not been used to seeing before.

Once again, KVIFF has unveiled a lineup of global stars coming to the festival, with Viggo Mortensen, Daniel Brühl and Clive Owen set to receive awards. How difficult was it to get such big names this year following the dual Hollywood strikes?

That is exactly what was on our minds throughout autumn because I usually go to Los Angeles for this purpose with my colleague Kryštof Mucha, who is the executive director of the festival. We go in October, in January and in April.

So, during the autumn and early in the year, it became clear that it might be very challenging to bring stars to Karlovy Vary because people would catch up with work after [the actors and writers strikes]. When we were in L.A. in April, for instance, one week, a certain actor did not know what he or she would do in the summer, and the following week, he or she had three films to shoot in the summer. So it was a little more difficult to predict certain things compared to previous years.

But what always helps is the ideal situation that we always strive for. That is when you have a filmmaker, an actor or a director who wants to come and support his or her latest films. In past years, John Malkovich or Antonio Banderas we introduced as directors despite the fact that they are much more known as actors.

And that’s the case with Viggo Mortensen this year. Viggo Mortensen is a very talented filmmaker as well, which he confirms with his second film, The Dead Don’t Hurt. And he continues to promote it. So, we are just very happy and lucky that the film will open the festival and that he is keen on coming and supporting the film. It is not about the award statuette. Obviously, the award is a nice component. But it’s really about the film.

What other common themes have you noticed across the KVIFF 2024 lineup of films?

I mentioned the theme of female characters at any point in their life. Also, there is something that I think is more present than it used to be when watching a film. You are following the main character, and certain political elements are going on, which have a strong influence on the life of the characters. The most obvious example this year is Noaz Deshe’s competition film Xoftex, which is a very particular look into a refugee camp somewhere in Greece, which is very realistic and at the same time very surrealistic, and fascinating to watch. It’s one of those films that we always prefer that grab you by the shoulders and shake you.

I guess we have more of these urgent films because the times require a certain type of urgency. We have a film called Real by Oleh Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker, activist and former prisoner of the Kremlin, who basically brings us into in the middle of the war because that’s where he shot his film.

People go on with life, we go on with life, facing a zillion little problems. But all those problems make us sometimes too tired or too blind to see that there are certain things around us, which we are supposed to and need to see and need to feel empathy for.

Festivals are a place where people come and leave their everyday, practical worries behind and open up to arthouse cinema, meet people and discuss things. That’s why these stories are very important, and we are lucky to be able to share them with others.

Anything else you would like to highlight?

Representation of Czech cinema this year is, I’d say, extremely satisfying and very promising when it comes to the further career of these films abroad. An element of local cinema, which is getting better and better, is that the films are more and more appreciated by foreign festivals and audiences. They can compete on a European or world level.

There are films made by young filmmakers where you feel this urgency. They feel they need to share these stories with this type of urgency, and they are like hunting dogs, they just run until they finish their films. When I’m watching a film, I want to feel that it was a question of life or death for a filmmaker to make this film. Of course, I’m exaggerating, or being a little poetic. But I want to see this passion. And I think that’s a trend that can be found across the program of Karlovy Vary, and not just this year, but a lot this year. It’s this sense that it was extremely important for the filmmakers to share these stories with with the audience.

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