Karlovy Vary 2018: Notes on the Documentary Films Program

Authored by Irina Demyanova - the documentary films program director of MIFF “Listapad”

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Czech Republic) is one of the largest and by right one of the most prestigious film festivals in Europe. This year it was held for the 53rd time. The Festival has endured various periods of history as it had been founded directly after the Second World War in 1946. In the 1950s, it took place every two years alternately to the Moscow International Film Festival. It has survived during 1968 in the midst of one of the most considerable political events of the XX century known as the Prague Spring while even the Cannes Festival had been canceled. Due to the fact of slogan absence that year, the Festival received a number of complaints from the communist administration, however, it  managed to keep to its own principles and save its image till our days.

Every film presentation at the Karlovy Vary IFF starts with an inimitable and self-ironic mini-film (how can it be different in a country of the brave soldier Svejk?), dedicated to the one of the laureates of the Festival and to its highest award – the Crystal Globe. 

The official trailer of the 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival - Casey Affleck, directed by Ivan Zachariáš

There is always a chance to see trailers featuring the directors themselves  considering the example of well-known actor and director Jiří Bartoška and famous film journalist and critic Eva Zaoralová. In 1994, while heading a festival team, they gathered fascinating professionals together and managed to bring the Festival to a new level. 

Nowadays, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival involves 17 various programs in both competitive and non-competitive sections, 13 screening venues constantly filled with spectators in all sessions from the early morning to the late evening. It is also more than 200 films and over 150 000 tickets. However, these figures would have remained only figures if in every film of the competition program a deep artistic sense wasn't read, if new works presented in the competitive sections which are usually among  the World and European premieres  hadn't questioned the problems of current interest, if there was no “noise of time” in them, behind which serious questions of tomorrow are guessed, and if the biggest part of  public at this seemingly frozen in time respectable resort town weren't young people and film institute students from all over Europe so reminiscent of the rebels of the distant sixty-eighth year.

Documentary films competition program of 2018 included among others two Czech documentaries – a new film by Tomáš Bojar “Breaking news” (“Mimořádná zpráva”) and a debut work by Jana Andert called “Inside Mosul” (“V Mosulu”). Director Jana Andert graduated pedagogical school at home, studied photography and psychology in the Netherlands and has been published around the World. For a long time, she is serious about modern history. Her experience of working in Syria has become a turning-point. In 2016, the director set off to Iraq where she was filming combats for Mosul in the line of fire for 8 months. The war in her film is so real that even sitting in a comfort cinema in the center of prosperous Europe you begin to feel yourself there in that deadly mess of adults, children, wounded and prisoners, winners and losers.

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“A part of my soul has stayed in Iraq, and I will go there again. Certainly, filming the children dying before my eyes was the hardest thing for me, but more important was to show those people whom we would possibly meet further in the European streets. We must understand what they run from, what makes them leave their homeland” said Jana Andert at the presentation of her film.

Tomáš Bojar should be remembered by “Listapad” spectators for his film “FC Roma” about the gypsy football team, presented in the competition program in 2016. This time, the occasion for a film was given by the historical event in Czechoslovakian politics in 2017 when the incumbent President of the country should declare a will to run for another presidential term. Journalists weren't invited to the event and that obviously became a professional challenge for them. Following the authors we watch the working process of two editorial teams in their pursuit of sensational material, trying the roles of spectators, then participants of the run and then detectives. This event and the film would remain just another significant fragment of history if not that same Czech self-irony. Without interfering in the course of events, the authors notice those nuances of journalist work that make “objective” information even more “objective”. And again we face a question repeatedly asked in “Wag the Dog” film: does the tail wag the dog or the dog wags its tail?

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Sometimes the films in documentary competition program entered into a dialogue with each other arguing, thinking on the same questions and complementing one another.

Vitaly Mansky, one of the leading European documentary film directors, is well-known in Karlovy Vary not by chance. In 2013, he gained here the award for the film “Pipeline”, three years later it was right here where the World premiere of his film “Close relations” took place, and the film “Under the sun” was shown at the Karlovy Vary IFF as well. This year, Vitaly Mansky presented his new cinema reel called “Putin's Witnesses” which won absolutely deserved award - the Best Documentary prize. The film possesses all needed qualities of a documentary for  lightning the history. Firstly, it addresses relevant topic, that is the most important events in Russian history of December 1999 when the President Boris Yeltsin resigns, proposing Putin's candidature instead of himself. Affairs develop by Russian scenario, Putin wins, among the first steps he returns Soviet anthem out of good intentions and... Mansky builds his film almost exclusively on the chronicle, but understands it in a new way and applies unique archive material. 

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Thus, “Putin's Witnesses” isn't just the author's expression, but personal complicity to the events. In his time, the director made a few films about the Russian Presidents when there was only camera separating him from the first person of a huge powerful country. Those people who waits to find in “Putin's Witnesses” a sharp criticism of the President will be disillusioned. The film speaks about other things, about the nature of power and the demands of a modern society to it. Deep, sometimes agonizing reflections about the course of history and author's avowal of real price which the artist have to pay for illusions and at times overestimated expectations make us think again about relations between the artist and power, about the nature of the documentary film and above all about the fact that the time captured on tape reveals the essence of things.

The film “Bridges of Time” (Laika tilti) by Lithuanian director Audrius Stonys and Latvian screenwriter Kristīne Briede is a poetical essay, declaration of love, anthem for the Documentary Film, precisely the oldest documentalists of the Baltic States and their films of 1960-1980 years. In this film, legendary Hercs Franks and Ivars Seleckis (Latvia), Andres Sööt and Mark Soosaar (Estonia) and other talented professionals left us the images of their contemporaries, charming landscapes of the modest Northern nature, music of characters' voices and their ideas about the meaning of everything that exists and its incomprehensibility. Martin Horyna, one of the program directors of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, who brilliantly presented all the films in the Documentary Film – Competition section, called that film “a poem about the poets”.

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The premiere of “Bridges of Time” gathered in Karlovy Vary our old friends – the director Stonys himself (each of his latest films was shown to the Minsk audience), one of the producers of Arunas Matelis, the laureate of the last “Listapad”, Latvian producer Uldis Cekulis, who also visited Minsk with his wonderful works, as well as the producer from the Estonian side – Riho Västrik, whose students took part in the National Film School Competition at “Listapad” two years ago. The world can be so friendly and comfortable and then it can show its severe side. That's why the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for more than 60 years does everything in its efforts towards good prevail over the forces of evil.