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Movies for the masses

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Young people hold plastic cups of beer in one hand and paper plates with sausages in the other while they chat about the films they just saw or last night’s parties. This exterior shot of the Hotel Thermal, built during the peak of communist-era panel construction, represents the first scene for visitors at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF). Walk further into the hotel, past the main hall and up the stairs, and you find those who came with other motives. Up-and-coming filmmakers present new work to their cash-handling counterparts in the industry, who are there to scout new genius. Directors, producers and distributors talk shop, always surrounded by a herd of journalists straining ears to catch the latest on who’s doing what, where and when.

Jarosław Szoda, an award-winning Polish cinematographer, said that what makes Karlovy Vary so special is that it exists for the fans who are here to see the films, unlike Cannes or Berlin, which are festivals that mainly draw visitors interested in the cinema market. KVIFF manages to combine the best of both words: It’s a festival for the people, as well as a meeting point for filmmakers. Backpackers and celebrities rub shoulders as they pass each other in the halls, only to meet later for a chat at one of the afternoon discussions organised as part of the festival.

At a master class on 10 July, visitors had a chance to talk to one of the many big stars to have visited the spa town over the years, John Malkovich, who received the Crystal Globe for Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema. Around town, they were also able to catch glimpses of Antonio Banderas, who gave out smiles and autographs all around and was an indisputable favourite among the many female film fans. He received the Award of the Festival President. Other notable guests included two young talents of American independent cinema. Scott Sanders made the audience laugh so hard with Black Dynamite, his satirical take on 1970s blaxploitation films, that it seemed as though the creaky old Thermal might actually collapse. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre was another highly praised work.

More and more, crowds come here to fill the halls and wait in line each morning for their daily dose of movies. To stand a chance of getting tickets for the most popular films screened at the festival this year, fans had to wake up at the crack of dawn and wait for hours in front of the halls. Soliman Fanzi, a journalist from Cairo who has been coming to the festival for more than 40 years, told me that in the early days, the only hall where films were screened was at the luxurious Grandhotel Pupp, up the water from the Thermal. Today there are 14 halls, ranging from the posh atmosphere of the Municipal Theatre to Espace Dorleans, an inflated tent.

This year, a new multipurpose hall, the KV Arena, saw its premiere screening with the war drama Tobruk shown in 4K, the latest advance in digital film presentation. The hall, which has a capacity of 1,000, will become one of the regular venues next year. As this new screening venue opened, rumours spread about the fate of Hotel Thermal, a state-owned establishment that is reportedly severely cash-strapped and being considered for privatisation. “As long as the hotel is run by the state, the festival’s location will remain the same,” KVIFF president Jiří Bartoška told journalists. “We don’t know whether a private investor wouldn’t want to use it for some other purpose.”

Festival buzz
Usually, the youth from Karlovy Vary welcome the buzz the festival brings as well as the various club scenes that are built especially for the occasion. At the Captain Morgan tent, which stands right next to the Hotel Thermal, visitors dance to the latest radio hits until the early morning hours. Aeroport, a stage in the former Česká spořitelna building, is another popular venue. On the final night of the festival, I struck up a conversation with one of the young people on the dance floor. Jirka said he wasn’t very interested in films, but he enjoys the clubs. He regretted that it would all be packed up and closed down the next day. I asked what would be happening in the building for the rest of the year. “Here?” he asked, looking around sadly. “There’s nothing here.”

Not everyone is pleased with the annual crush of visitors the festival brings. A local pensioner, for example, grumbled that the festival is mainly for Praguers, who bring everything they need, hire companies to build all the stages and then take everything back once the show is over. The locals, he said, don’t benefit from the festival at all.
Still, the thousands of visitors have to sleep and eat somewhere and they also party it up in the numerous clubs around town. “It’s like with the Russians,” said Jaroslav Šafránek, a school inspector who lives near the spa town. “Everybody says how bad it is that they come here, but actually they bring a lot of money to the town.”

The festival has come a long way since its foundation in 1946, surviving a history that includes the turbulent years of pro-regime screenings, normalisation that lasted until 1989. In 1990, the festival introduced a series of Czechoslovak films that were banned during the communist era. Some years it didn’t take place at all. Since Jiří Bartoška and Eva Zaoralová took over management in 1994, the festival has blossomed, attracting more and more people every year until 2008, when it sold a record 140,000 tickets. By comparison, this year saw 131,293 single screenings purchased, but accreditation sales were up, at 10,277 versus 9,054 for last year. The festival has hosted such film stars such as Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sharon Stone, Roman Polanski, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Sean Connery, Michael Douglas, Robert Redford, Miloš Forman and Andy Garcia. Last year it began screening festival trailers featuring stars awarded the Crystal Globe for Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema.

When the jury picked Amélie for the Crystal Globe in 2001, for example, and that film subsequently won over millions of people worldwide, no doubt remained that Karlovy Vary had taken its rightful place among the better-known European events such as Cannes, Berlin and Venice.

For daily reports of this year’s festival visit

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