Film Scouts Diaries

2001 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries

by Henri Béhar

Thursday, July 5 - A mere two-hour ride from Prague, in the Czech Republic, Karlovy Vary, formerly known as Carlsbad, is a dream town. The décor - almost a movie set - is gorgeous: health spas and springs everywhere, Austro-Hungarian Empire mansions and manors dotting the hills, visions of Romy Schneider as the young and future empress Elizabeth ("Sissy") rushing up the slopes to throw herself into the arms of dashing Karl-Heinz Böhm, with Johan Strauss in the orchestra pit unleashing one of his rippling Vienna waltzes.

The sounds that greet you, however, when you arrive are more akin to Eastern European hard-rock meets Céline Dion meets "When the Saints Go Marching In", for the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, a yearly event about to kick off its 36th edition, has become a rallying point for the Czech youths, a rite of passage, their Woodstock so to speak. The Hotel Thermal cloakroom is overflowing with backpacks, and weather permitting (or not), the kids crash in sleeping bags around the plaza, along the canals and in the woods surrounding the swimming pool. Every morning, they clean up very thoroughly and keep the numerous cafés open and lively 24/7 while the cops look the other way.

This combination of youthful energy and stately architecture make this ten-day event - despite the 250-some films shown, in competition and in various sections (not to mention students' films from around the world) - a surprisingly low pressure.

The Festival poster shows a strangely drab worker wistfully looking at you, his back against the wall. "He is not an unhappy Ukrainian, but a happy Brit," quipped opening-night emcee Marek Eben, much to the Western guests' puzzlement. (Explanation: like most citizens from the former Communist block, Ukrainians now need a visa to enter the Czech Republic, which pisses them off). Be that as it may, the Drab-looking Man is the main character of the little movie snippet that precedes the presentation of the selected features. He is the Projectionist and one can follow, throughout the Festival, his trials and tribulations as everything that can go wrong in the Projection booth WILL go wrong. The snippet is greeted with laughter and applause.

Eva Gardos, the Hungarian-born director of the opening-night film, makes no bone about it: "An American Rhapsody" is her life story. When her parents fled the communist regime, they had to leave one of their two daughters behind and entrusted young Eva to a couple of farmers who raised her as their own child. Once established in America, they tried to get their daughter back, it took years, by which time, young Eva called the farmers mom and dad. It took more than a decade - and a trip back to Budapest by Eva in her late teens - for biological mother and daughter to establish a rapport again. Still a dead-ringer for Ingrid Bergman, with shades of Anne Bancroft seeping in, Nastassja Kinski is quite a surprise in the part of the mother, as is Tony Goldwyn as the father. Produced by actress Colleen Camp and casting director extraordinaire Bonnie Timmerman, the film has its heart in the right place, but an overbearing music make it a tad too manipulative.

The opening night party at the Imperial Hotel was the usual luxurious affair, with everyone-who-is-anyone attending and business cards flying right and left.

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