Every year, in the beginning of school holidays (the first week of July) almost all the young people in the Czech Republic pack their backpacks and leave for Karlovy Vary for the film festival, much to the astonishment of all the foreign film festival guests. This phenomenon is a Czech speciality that you wouldn’t see at any other film festival in the world. Backpackers would without a problem wake-up at 6AM, stand in line for a few hours just to get the tickets for movies they would otherwise not be able to see. Our country is unfortunately too small a market to import movies from Iceland, New Zealand or even neighbouring Poland, however wonderful they might be. So we have to fulfil our independent film demand ourselves.
A local mania around achievements and failures of Czech cinema arises in local media approximately four times a year. It is usually connected with the world’s largest film festivals (Cannes, Berlin and Venice). The American Academy Awards are another story. There is always a big discussion over why the great Czech films were once again not chosen for the prestigious festival selections. But, to be honest, there is no such blockade. Czech cinema still has, thanks mainly to excellent renown from the sixties, a lot of admirers and supporters abroad. And it is not by chance that the contemporary Czech films are almost regularly selected for the Academy Awards or bought for US distribution (Kolya, Zelary).
Life in a Museum
Strangely enough, Czech film distribution is more similar to the US model than in any other European country. And what is even stranger is the fact that this is mainly due to financial problems. We get all the big blockbusters, but “risky” films are not to be seen. Except for the abovementioned keen festivalgoers, art house cinema viewers almost don’t exist in the Czech Republic, not to mention a good network of art house cinemas (there are only two of those in Prague). Therefore it is not a surprise that film distribution companies have become more cautious about the films they are buying. Overall, this is one of the reasons why Czech filmmakers, not to mention journalists and viewers, are losing touch with the world of contemporary film. The little that can be seen at the Karlovy Vary film festival is simply not enough, even if there are wonderful films made in this country like last year‘s Champions, highly praised by critics but neglected by the local viewers who are not used to seeing the irony in our cinema (a bittersweet comedy about themselves, ice hockey fans).
Hopes and Fears
A new generation of directors like Petr Zelenka or David Ondricek have been successful at film festivals, nevertheless the Czech cinema is still only waiting for broader success abroad. Interest in our contemporary cinema, as there was in the times of New Wave is just not there. Inability to work within European film co-productions is also one of the problems here. This kind of cooperation, which can sustain small countries like Portugal with relative success, has been emulated by Hungarian or Polish cinema, but not ours. The benefit of such cooperation can be seen in the success of Return of the Idiot, which was nominated for the European Film Award for the best screenplay. Powerful German co-producers managed to introduce and sell this Czech film on the European market. But that was years ago, and its director, Sasa Gedeon, has been trying to find money for his next project since then and he has not started shooting yet.
We have some hope these days, as Petr Zelenka has adapted his own successful stage play to create an intelligent comedy about people whose behaviour is determined by attempts to rid themselves of any kind of normal form of loneliness. The film is called Wrong Side Up and only a few weeks ago won an International Film Critics Prize at the Moscow Film Festival. Another hope is the latest picture by Bohdan Slama, Happiness. The simple story of the wonders of ordinary love, this film was screened in Karlovy Vary Film Festival a few weeks ago and immediately bought by Wild Bunch for European film distribution—though it has not even been shown in the Czech cinemas yet. So yes, you might get to see it soon, possibly before we do.
Getting to the Czech Republic
Iceland Express flies twice daily to London Standsted. Book in advance, prices drop to 10,000 ISK roundtrip. EasyJet flies twice daily from London to Prague. Prices for roundtrip are 100 euros, and lower.
To get to Karlovy Vary, locals recommend car rental from Prague.