54th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
54. Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (June 28-July 6 2019) lifted the curtain to the tunes of the Eurythmics this year (‘Sweet Dreams are Made of This’). After the usual pleasantries between the president, Jiri Bartoško and the artistic director Karel Och and the classic jokes, most of which were lost in translation, the much-awaited star of the evening, Juliana Moore took the stage to receive the Crystal Globe for lifetime achievement.
After the Wedding (UK/USA), a gender reversed re-make of Susanne Blier’s eponymous 2006 film made by Moore’s husband, Bart Freundlich was the opening film. Drone shots of temples and Ghats; cheerful Indian orphans meditating to the instructions of a sari-clad white Samaritan, a belated hippy (reminiscent of the guru ‘mama’ in Paul Theroux’s A Dead Hand: Crime in Calcutta, 2009, minus the seductive part), or running to grab what they can from the food trucks hit the screen in the opening sequences regurgitating the usual clichés of the impoverished Third World waiting to be rescued from its misery by Western benevolence. The schematic narrative is focused on a good-looking man and his three women- past, present and future. The past appears like a ghost or a creature from outer space just when the future (the daughter) is getting happily married to her object of desire. The problem is the present, the wife he truly loves (Juliana Moore). The first woman (Michelle Williams) sulks most of the time, or runs in a frenzy, always angry; the second, the present wife juggles high-end executive responsibilities with tender motherhood, the display of her abuse of power in relation to her female assistant in the work place juxtaposing with the episode at home when she reads bedtime stories tenderly to her children after a hard day’s work. Both women have the habit of kicking off their shoes when changing space- the executive her high heels and the belated hippy Samaritan her chappals. The actor who plays the third woman, the daughter (Abby Quinn) often tries to look and act a decade younger, wavering between fourteen and twenty-four.
There is a moral to this story as in most Hollywood fare. The wife is keeping a secret and she needs a surrogate mother. Who could be more suitable for the role than the one who abandoned her newly-born daughter for higher causes and went to mother other children in far-away lands who ‘needed her more’ (the guilt-ridden middle-class white American conscience in the act). The condition set for the large sum of donation Moore is ready to dole out for the Indian orphanage is that the errant mother must promise to come back to New York and replace the woman who once replaced her. But morality tales reach nowhere. After much emotional drainage and spectatorial angst from watching characters ill at ease with their assigned roles (except perhaps Moore who does her best under the circumstances), the audience who filed out silently for the following dinner reception was rather aghast with the choice of the opening film except for an excuse to present the Golden Globe to Juliana Moore.
The twelve competition entries vying for the Crystal Globe were selected out of almost 2000 submissions as stated in the catalogue. For the second time this decade, there was no Czech entry and Latin America and Asia were relatively stronger. Three women made it to the official competition, one of who was a co-director. In the East of the West competition, out of twelve films, one was made by a woman. Out of the ten documentaries, four were made by women. The Horizons sidebar of twenty-three films included only four films made by women. I am not for quotas to create an equal gender balance but I do not think that pre-selection committees should be exonerates with the excuse of the lack of quality films made by women among the entries. Perhaps, as John Berger has pointed out to us, it is in the way we look and the look must be scrutinized.
Bulgarian/Greek co-production The Father by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov that won the Crystal Globe opened a dialogue regarding the presence of the wife/mother in a marriage and in a family through father/son communication issues after the passing of the mother using the motif of the quince (it turns sour if not made into jam on time). The invisible mother’s presence was strongly felt in the film although she was only a voice on a telephone machine. Having abandoned her career to become a stay home wife to support her artist husband, she received no recognition throughout her married life. His happiness was her happiness, which reminds me of a remarkable film by Agnés Varda, La Bonheur / Happiness (1964), a strongly feminist work that was ahead of its time.
In an intricate story of mixed emotions Lara (Germany) by Jan-Ole Gerster (Special Jury and Best Female Performer awards) focused on a sixty-year-old woman and the apple of her eye, her elusive son, a pianist.
I agree with the Cineuropa critic Veronika Zakonjšek who finds a thread running through several films in this year’s program regarding the representation of the mother. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s The Lodge (US/UK), shown in the Midnight Screenings section featured two mother figures –one a biological mother and the other, a soon-to-be-stepmother. The ex-wife, who suicides after learning about her ex-husband’s plans to marry his new girlfriend, is a depressed devout Catholic while the girlfriend suffers from trauma regarding her involvement with a suicidal Christian cult. Both women are hurt by men. Women of different age and background, victims of war crimes committed by men are entrapped in a safe house in rural Kosovo in Lendita Zeqiraj’s Aga’s House (Kosova, Crotia, France, Albania), an East of the West competition entry. The only man is a nine-year-old boy, a reminder of the atrocities committed against the women during the war and the accompanying shame and silence. Stefan Malešević’s Mamonga (Serbia/Bosnia and Herzegovina/Montenegro) in the same section opens with a rape scene in a small Bosnian town. I must underline that Zizotek by Vardis Marinakis has shown a woman trapped in single motherhood rejecting the idea and deserting her son and Mosaic Portrait by Zhai Yixiang from China has focused on the rejection of unwanted motherhood despite strict customs and traditions, but the general picture was far from optimistic for the women who were depicted as ‘insecure, depressed and traumatised.’
…In each case, this is the result of their society’s ubiquitous patriarchal structures, often of a religious nature. These are belief-systems created by men, often founded upon the idea of woman’s eternal sinfulness and her infinite need for redemption. 1
The opening film, After the Wedding also challenged the myth of the mother instinct although with a certain bias, the ‘good’ mother appeared in soft subdued hues in homey atmosphere of love when reading bad-time stories to her children while the ‘bad’ mother who abandoned her baby at birth for adoption (which did not happen thanks to the generous heart of the father) was presented as an asexual neurotic.
In the East of the West competition again, Last Visit by Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan from Saudi Arabia about father son relations in a world rapidly changing was a subtle commentary on the thin line between paternal love and patriarchal authority juxtaposing rural life with strict customs with the relatively more liberal urban. Obviously, women were not much around in this strictly male narrative in a male world where being female involves all kinds of veiling, physical or emotional.
Mansoon, a UK production filmed in Vietnam by the Cambodia born Hong Khaou was about the homecoming of a émigré (Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians fame) who hardly remembers his roots. His gender identity might not be an issue where he lives but would certainly create disturbance in the land of his parents, boat people who left after the unification. The omniscient shots that switch to point of view unexpectedly to better inform the spectator and the identity issue that is supposed to drive the narrative precariously developed are some of the weaker points of this otherwise captivating film. The protagonist claims that his Vietnamese identity did not bother him until his parents died. Nobody ever called him ‘yellow’ at the UK schools? He seems to be at ease with his gay identity, seeking lovers as soon as he arrives in a town, to ease his loneliness if not his sexual drive. We get introduced to a black American whose father was discarded from the army after having served for eighteen months in Vietnam. A good-looking gay man selling t-shirts he organizes to be made in Vietnam, he appears to be more than a one night stand, a romantic experience although of short duration.
Based on the director’s personal experiences, the film has its flaws as well as charms. The issues of mourning (he is bringing back his parents ashes) and the dislocation that alienates one from the roots are handled with delicate strokes in subdued colours and the hotel room Skype calls accentuate the hero’s isolation who hardly recognizes the home he had left when he was eight. His Vietnamese is poor enough to need a translator. Medium and wide shots and those through windows distance him further to his environment. The extended silences are measured and reflective. The camera work reveals a country on the move that is also struggling with the scars of the past.
In the Horizons section, Light of My Life (US) by Casey Affleck depicting a father-son/daughter universe in a world emptied of women was another tale with a moral lesson matching the opening film, the father’s sermon to the son about the difference between morals and ethics early on in the film prompting a few to walk out of the press and industry screening.
From Canada, Denis Côté‘s Répertoire des villes disparues/Ghost Town Anthology takes place in a small remote Quebec town of 215 inhabitants bereaving the passing away of a twenty-one-year-old man. The mayor refuses the help of an outside grief counsellor letting the community to deal with their grief alone. Then the dead begin to return.
During the Q&A session, Côté made a comment that Quebec was a place ‘on survival mode’. ‘We produce a lot of culture —films, books— to be recognized. The fear of ‘they are coming to get your jobs away’ is very real. I am not saying that Quebec is more racist than anywhere else, but it is small and is threatened by outsiders.’
The small town is an obvious metaphor for the province itself, the fear for immigration and the resistance to change. Ironically, the counsellor who arrives is an Arab woman, her unwanted situation adding to the unease although she is part of the solution as Côté pointed out and she is accepted by the end of the film.
Each one of the characters appear with their own idiosyncrasies in the film, but Adele, the village idiot if there must be one serves as ‘a channel’ Côté claims. ‘She is between life and death, reacting to all the nervousness and fear and levitating at one point’.
The mayor is far from absolute authority. She also drinks. ‘The film was inspired by an actual event that took place in a small town where 50 people died in a train accident and the mayor, resembling the one in the film was on the television screens everywhere,’ explains Côté although it is also loosely adapted from the debut novel of Montreal-based writer Laurence Olivier. ‘In all my films’ Côté claims, ,‘the natural first part is contaminated by the unnatural second part. If things don’t go together technically, I don’t care. I am not a good storyteller. I am more about ideas. I like my films to drift.’
In Varda par Agnés /Varda by Agnés (France), the pioneer of the French nouvelle vague faces the audience for a candid share of her extraordinary experiences as an extraordinary filmmaker. The film is a generous lesson in cinema and artistic commitment, being her last, an important legacy as well. Varda starts her dialogue with her audience stating the three essentials to become a filmmaker: inspiration, creation and sharing. Then, she takes us on an intimate journey of her work from mid-20th century to the present. Shot almost in real time, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) was a reflection on objective time and subjective time, she states, and about ‘a woman who becomes a woman who “sees” from a woman who was “seen”. Amalgamating the image with the reality of the quotidian through the shopkeepers was a way to acknowledge the presence of the ‘silent majority’, which gives the film a documentary dimension befitting Varda’s keen documentary eye. Testimonies from Sandrine Bonnaire, the main cast of Vagabond (Golden Lion, Venice 1985) highlight the episode on that film. Moving on to her digital period (2000-2018), Varda discusses her working methods. Remembrances of her husband Jacques Demy are tender and pensive. The metaphor of the beach is at the core. As she states with her mischievous signature smile, ‘The opposite of a wall is a beach’.
If you ever thought that the samurai stories were buried with Kurosawa, you have to think again. Zan/Killing (Shinya Tsukamoto, Japan), also in the Horizons section was a film that blended violence with eroticism through a young pacifist samurai. The eroticism was quite effective though not very original. Peeping Tom masturbating is nothing new but the girl opening her arms to nature to relieve her sexual tension has not been so authentic since Iranian exile in the US, Marva Nabili’s only film made in her country of birth, The Sealed Soil (1979), a classic of Iranian cinema by one of the rare pioneer women of the pre-Islamic revolution cinema (although Nabili has denied to me that she had sex in mind).
In the Another View section, I enjoyed Abel Ferrara’s intense look at our dark side, the semi-autobiographical Tomasso, played with conviction by Willem Defoe with accompanying performances by Ferrara’s wife and daughter. The hero, a self-centred but insecure filmmaker feels at home in Rome though struggling with his Italian. The problem is his young wife who has been changing, demanding her freedom.
In the documentary competition, Confucian Dream by Mijie Li from China brought to light an over shrouded aspect of the highly competitive Chinese society, the sentiments of those who do not want their children to run with the wolves.
What fascinated me was Forman vs. Forman, a documentary about the master by Czech filmmakers Helena Treštíková and Jakub Hejna. With its conventional approach and reliance on montage rather than original ideas, the film was no match for Vēra Chytilová‘s take on Forman, who took Forman to the Chelsea Hotel, almost to the same room where he had spent a year and a half after he emigrated to America, forced him to wear pyjamas and enact the first Christmas he had spent there instead of using him as a talking head. But it made a clever collage of such previous documentaries, interviews with Forman and excerpts from his films.
Forman considers himself an outsider in the film, moving around since early childhood when his parents were deported to concentration camps; his escape from communism and his arrival at the US. Whether under the scrutiny of the communist regime, or hanging out with ‘free’ hippies, the sense of boredom has somewhat equal value for Forman who claims that freedom can make you lazy.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of ‘the demise of the odious Bolsheviks’ totalitarian hegemony’ as Och defines the event in the catalogue, a group of seven films produced in the Czechoslovak Republic between 1989-1992 were curated, films that reflect the spirit of the newly found freedom, interrogating its impact on the psyche of the citizens. The section named ‘Liberated’, included seven films among which were Vēra Chytilová‘s prophetic morality tale, The Inheritance (1992) focusing on a nouveau riche corrupted by the unexpected wealth; Time of the Servants by Irena Pavlásková, a psychological thriller that caricaturizes Czechoslovakia just before the Velvet Revolution (Camera d’Or Special Distinction at Cannes 1990); Jan Nēmec’s subversive The Flames of Royal Love (1990), a film about a decadent prince and his impossible love for a commoner that he made several months after returning from fifteen years of exile and It’s Better to be Wealthy and Healthy Than Poor and Ill (1992) by Juraj Jakubisko, a comedy about fortune and freedom through the tribulations of two women. Apart from Vēra Chytilová and Jan Nēmec who passed away, 2014 and 2016 respectively (the non-conformists who Och defined as filmmakers who ‘wanted to take an axe to the frozen sea within us’ paraphrasing Friedrich Habbel), the others were present to reminisce their experiences with the public. Thomáš Vorel, whose Smoke (1990) has now received cult status lamented the post-Velvet Revolution demolishing of the nationalized film industry.
\Another trip down the memory lane, the Out of the Past section, dedicated to restorations included Detour (1945, US) by Czech born Edgar G. Ulmer, screened in the grandiose baroque Municipal Theatre, decorated by Gustav and Ernest Klimt in this historic spa town that also boasts to have centuries old hotels like the neo-baroque Grand Hotel Pupp, which stood in for a Montenegro casino in Casino Royal (2006) and is said to have inspired Wes Anderson to make The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
Early morning massages at the Elizabeth Bath, named after Empress ‘Sissi’ (Romy Schneider for me), screenings until the wee hours of the morning (lucky if you can get the ticket to the film you want if you are not in the queue by 8am) and hurried walks from one end of the town to the other to catch films at theatres few kilometres away from each other, that was Karlovy Vary for me. Tired eyes and tired feet, nonetheless a remarkable ‘cine-feast’ worth to be repeated year after year.
The Father by Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov (Bulgaria/Greece)
Lara by Jan-Ole Gerster Germany)
Tim Mielants for Patrick (Belgium)
Corinna Harfouch for Lara (Germany)
Milan Ondrík for Let There Be Light (Slovak Republic/Czech Republic)
The August Virgin by Jonás Trueba (Spain)
Antonia Giesen for The Man of the Future (Chile/Argentina)
East Of The West – Competition
The Bull by Boris Akopov (Russia)
My Thoughts Are Silent by Antonio Lukich (Ukraine)
Documentary films – Competition
Immortal by Ksenia Okhapkina (Estonia/Latvia)
Confucian Dream by Mijie Li (China)
Jiří Suchý – Tackling Life With Ease by Olga Sommerová (Czech Republic),
The August Virgin Jonás Trueba (Spain)
Lara by Jan-Ole Gerster (Germany)
Let There Be Light by Marko Škop (Slovak Republic/Czech Republic)
Passed by Censor by Serhat Karaaslan (Turkey/Germany/France)
Aga’s House by Lendita Zeqiraj (Kosovo, Croatia, France, Albania)
Scandinavian Silence by Martti Helde (Estonia/France/Belgium)
Some Birds (Hungary) dir. Dániel Hevér
Julianne Moore, USA
Patricia Clarkson, USA
Gönül Dönmez-Colin’s recent monograph, Women in the Cinemas of Iran and Turkey: As Images and As Image-makers is now out from Routledge.
- Zakonjšek, Veronika (2019) ‘Mothers and Fathers of Karlovy Vary’ in Cineuropa, https://cineuropa.org/en/newsdetail/376459/ (accessed 10 October 2019) ↩