The Festival officially starts tonight, but the Forum of Independents section kicks off at 1 PM with the presentation of Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes at the tiny Cas (pronounced ''Chass'') theatre. The venue is beyond packed, people are squatting down in the aisles. The guy sitting right in front of me in the row before me is obviously saving a seat, and so is the guy next to him.
''Of course, we invited Jim Jarmusch,'' the Forum of Independents programmer said, ''Of course, he said he'd try to come but as usual, at the last minute he couldn't. Right now, he is shooting a film with Bill Murray in New York, but when we last spoke to him, he said, 'Keep asking me, I promise you I will show up one day.'''
''... In the meantime, however,'' the programmer continued, ''there is another notable guest in the audience today; please welcome... former president Vaclav Havel.''
The theatre exploded in spontaneous, thunderous applause - and I gasped as the man in front of me stood up, acknowledged the applause and softly waved the crowd to sit down. Which it did, after a good five-minute standing ovation. Isn't it nice, though, to see a former head of state just skip lunch to go and see a movie like a normal person, in a normal theatre?
As it turns out, Vaclav Havel was the star of the opening night ceremony.
Actor Harvey Keitel was being honored by the Festival for his entire career, and his acceptance speech was a high wire act. He recalled a time, in the early days of New York's Public Theater when the Public's founder, Joe Papp, circulated a petition to protest the imprisonment of a dissident playwright in Czechoslovakia. Accompanied by a group of actors that included Keitel, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, and many others, Papp went to the Czech consulate in New York. ''The door was closed," Keitel reminisced. "We knocked. The door opened, just a crack, a hand thrust forward, grabbed the petition, then slammed the door shut to our faces. It occurred to me then that we actors are door pushers. That's what we do. We push doors that open on to different worlds, different voices. I never dreamed that years later, I would finally meet and sit next to that dissident writer, a man who changed an entire country's way of thinking." That man, of course, was none other than "poet president" Vaclav Havel.
Once again, the entire theatre gave former president Havel the warmest standing ovation ever.
And now for the high wire bit.
''There is, however, another door pusher I would like to honor tonight,'' Keitel continued. ''A man who died today, but completely and irrevocably changed the way we actors perform and approach our craft. So please join me in a moment of silence in memory and tribute to Marlon Brando.''
The density and quality of that silence was deafening.
After a while, Keitel just whispered ''Thank you''... and the Festival went on about its business, with the screening of John Irvin's Boys from County Clare.
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