Film Scouts Diaries

1999 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries
Diary #1: Back in Czech

by Henri Béhar

KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic - Saturday, July 3, 1999

Short on stars but strong on films, the 34th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival opened with kisses galore and fireworks of, ahem, a specific nature. Every year, the event comes up with a special teaser which is always film-related and may (or may not) be indicative of the tone or tenor of the films to be shown. A few years ago, Kolya's Jan Sverak came up with the theme of the black cat. This year, we had a man nibbling the neck of a vaguely amused Barbara Steele look-alike counting "Five, four, three..." - with a mittle-European accent - "two, one, zayro" Kaboom! Fade to white. What followed was lip-munching of all sorts, from pecking to smooching through slurping and chomping, culled from Czech films and edited to a tune that strongly evoked Comedian Harmonists ditties. Fade to black.

Three beds are lined up on the stage before the screen. Three couples walk in, studiedly casual, very Fifties, with the girls looking like Sandra Dee clones. They position themselves in front of the beds. And thrice repeated (choreography might be too heavy a word to use), it's Boy touches Girl, Girl pushes Boy, Boy tries again, Girl meekly rejects Boy, Boy insists, Girl steps back. "Wanna... Wanna sleep with me?," blares a female voice on the PA system. Couples move on to beds, beds rise while Boy takes off tie and Girl (back to audience) takes off bra. Then out of Boy's crotch comes... fireworks! The Czechs roared with laughter, the foreigners sat wide-eyed, baffled.

The end? Not! While the emcee went on with his opening night speech, welcoming everybody, introducing the juries and the illustrious guests - Amanda Plummer, Rutger Hauer - a woman walked on stage, totally naked save for a sash that read "Penthouse", pecked the speaker's cheek and left. It took a couple of seconds for the veteran emcee / tv talk-show host to recover...

And no, that did not exactly set the tone for Gavin Hood's A Reasonable Man, the opening night film (world-premiere, in competition). Hailing from South Africa, written, directed, co-produced and acted by Gavin Hood, Reasonable Man is a well-made, traditional courtroom drama that poses an unsolvable problem and, wisely, does not attempt to solve it. Sean (Hood), a lawyer, and his photographer wife Jennifer (Janine Eser) become chance witnesses to a tragic event at a small village deep in Zululand: Sipho, a young boy, has hacked open a baby's head with a hatchet. Having met and somewhat befriended the boy, the lawyer refuses to believe this was a ritual killing and takes on the case. His first in a criminal court. All through the preparation for the trial, the boy insists he didn't kill a child but an evil goblin, the tikoloshe. During the trial presided over by Judge Wendon (Nigel Hawthorne), the truth will come out, with no mean help from a local (good) witch. What also comes out is how difficult and complex relationships are in today's multiracial, multinational South Africa, and the lack of tolerance, in each community, for the traditions and beliefs of all others (your religion may be heresy to me). Not to mention the foul deeds perpetrated by the colonizers on the natives in order to keep them inferior, if not enslaved.

One dreads what an Oliver-Stone-on-a-bad-day could have done with this. Mercifully, Gavin Hood, a former lawyer himself, goes for a straightforward narrative. Physically close to a Tim Curry in repose or a Terrence Mann, he spares us the breast-beating earnestness and opts for straight honesty. With undertones: his mouth tells a story, his eyes quite another. An intriguing actor. We know very little about South-African cinema, A Reasonable Man might be a good opportunity to discover perhaps a new generation of filmmakers and, who knows?, the rebirth of a film industry.

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