Film Scouts Diaries

2001 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries

by Henri Béhar

Monday, July 9 - The first astonishing thing about Japan's Firefly Dreams (World premiere, in competition) is that it was directed by a Brit. Born in St Albans in England and raised in Wales, John Williams, 39 (but looking 24), moved to Japan thirteen years ago, he still lives there. He claims his desire to make films was triggered by his first viewing of Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Williams must have remarkably - and intelligently - absorbed Japanese culture, for the buzz, at the end of the press screening, was that ''only a Japanese could have made this film.''

Firefly Dreams is about Alzheimer's disease (is this becoming this year's recurrent theme?) and a bridge thrown between conflicting generations. Seventeen-year-old Naomi is as troubled and as impudent a teenager as they come today, in Japan and pretty much elsewhere. Deeply affected by her parents' divorce, she agrees to go spend the summer with her aunt in the mountains. Refusing to work in the aunt's hotel - too boring - .she reluctantly accepts to take care of Mrs Koide, a distant relative living in isolation, whose memory comes and goes like a flickering lamp bulb about to fritz out - how mortifying! And it is at first, until Naomi realizes that despite the generation and the sociological gap (traditional culture v. commercially booming but spiritually empty society) she has more in common with the old lady than she thought. Past the fast and furious opening scenes, the film is slow paced - as it should be - and cinema itself plays an important part in the rapport between the two women.

Thomas Vinterberg's Celebration which, when presented at the Cannes Film Festival, helped establish Lars von Trier's (and Vinterberg's) Dogme, portrayed the gathering of an entire family for some major anniversary, but the reunion brought to light all sorts of secrets and hatreds among the participants. It was shot (in digital?) almost documentary-like, it was nervous, it was raw, it poured salt on every wound. Mona J. Hoel's Cabin Fever (Norway, international premiere, in competition) takes the same premise, just changing the setting: a whole family gathers in a mountain lodge to spend Christmas together. As the title tells you, they're soon at each other's throats. It is shot (in digital?) almost documentary-like, it is noisy, and utterly grating.

At Variety's dinner party, drinks with director Krzysztof Zanussi (Life as a fatal sexually transmitted disease), president of the jury and object of a tribute by the Festival. Zanussi just came from a small and intimate dinner with Festival president Jiri Bartoska, chief programmer Eva Zaoralova… and Czech Republic's president Vaclav Havel.

A former novelist and a playwright, president Havel seems to be quite unique. He walks the streets apparently unprotected (you have to look fast to detect the bodyguards at a distance), he talks to whoever talks to him, no fuss. Friendly. Maybe not ''Yo-Wencil-baby-whassup''-friendly but still. He comes to the Festival every year, goes to the movies like you and me (well, almost), walks from his hotel to the screening venue with friends and/or former colleagues (okay, we're talking Milos Forman and Nikita Mikhalkov, but still).

As Zanussi tells it, during dinner, Bartoska's cell phone rings. Mini-crisis: a Serbian actress - a guest of the festival - is detained at the border, she doesn't have the proper visa to enter the country. Havel picks up his cell phone.

To call the head of Immigration? The Minister of Interior ? ''No,'' the president says, ''that would take a good three hours, we can't have her wait that long. I'll call the border myself.''

Which he does. ''Hello,'' he says to whoever answers, ''do you know who I am, do you recognize my voice?'' The guy at the other end of the line obviously does but ''I can let her suitcases in, '' he stammers, ''but not her, Mr. President, I'm only the Customs Officer. This is a Minister of Interior thing.''

''That would take too long,'' the President patiently replies, ''why don't you ask your colleague from Immigration to come to the phone?''

Which the guy does, and the President waits, and the Immigration guy arrives, at which point the President's phone goes ''Beep Beep Low Battery''.

''Go stand by the window so you can hear me better,'' the President continues with zen-like patience, ''my phone is almost dead. Do you recognize my voice?'' Which the Immigration Officer obviously does, and ten minutes later, the actress is on her way to Karlovy Vary.

Zanussi pipes in: ''What if your phone had actually died? Would you have tried to contact the Minister of Interior?'' ''No,'' Havel replied, ''that would have taken too long. We're half-an-hour away from the border, I would have gone to pick her up myself.'' How can you not like this man?

The way Zanussi tells the story, it is unclear whether it actually happened tonight or whether Havel recalled the event from a Festival past. But does it really matter?

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