The 38th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

By: Massoud Mehrabi

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is a high-quality and well-equipped festival. With eleven main sections and nine sidebars it caters for all tastes. During the nine days of this year’s Festival more than 270 films were screened, entailing 30 films per day. Each section of the festival, such as the Official Competition Section, the Documentary Section, the Special Events Section or the Students Films, has its own special atmosphere and its own elite viewers. But the most attractive section is the Horizons Award-Winning Films.
This section is indeed a dream-like section: You can ponder on the extracts of hundreds of films and enjoy some 40 award-winning films previously shown at prestigious festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto, Locarno, etc… Each year, thousands of films are made in the world. Some two to three hundred of those films are selected to participate at the competition sections of various film festivals. Amongst them, thirty to forty films are chosen to be prized and praised, but only five to six truly artistic films in the entire collection are films which will endure the test of time to remain part of the history of the cinema and open new horizons. The most noteworthy film of the Horizons Section was Lars von Trier’s Dogville; better than Breaking the Waves and better than Dancer in the Dark although both films had a remarkable impact on the Seventh Art.

With its very first - exceptional and clever – shot, Dogville seizes the interest of the viewer. The first shot of the film looks like the plan of some construction. On the map and in between the lines, there are moving dots like those of computer games such as Game Pacman. The vertical camera descends slowly and without any cuts from up the heavens to take the position of the line of the horizon. The dots we have witnessed are people going about their daily business. From this angle, the lines and the milestones which we have previously seen from above are a big map of a small town called Dogville. In this map, houses and other constructions are traced with lines on the ground. Inside each of these constructions, something is placed: a table, a chair or a bed and nothing more. The entrances of the houses are separated from the only street of the town – Elm Street – by a doorway (a satirical and clever reference to the series of horror films called A Nightmare on Elm Street.). In this stylized mis-en-scene everything has a new and minimalist effect; for example the dog drawn on the pavement whom we hear the barking. The first few minutes of the film makes the viewer utterly surprised and mystified; he must see the houses, the abandoned mine, the park, the store, the church and the gardens in his mind’s eye. But with the gradual discovery of the signs and their meanings, he experiences a delightful enjoyment. The make-belief town of Dogville is situated at the end of a blind road of the Rocky Mountains; somewhere unheard of at the end of the world. The twenty inhabitants of this town, like a big family, are the symbol of a society and each embodies a character:Tom, the young intellectual writer; his father, a respectable and retired physician; a religious woman; a farmer; a young amorous girl, a traditional housewife; a black maid with her handicapped daughter; a modern housewife with two children, a truck driver, a blind old man and … lead a normal and unexciting life during the Great Depression of the 1930’s in the United States.
Lars von Trier’s eighth film is thus far his best film as well as one of the best films of our times. He has opened new and unsurpassed vistas for today’s modern cinema of the world. His film, like a one thousand-page novel, holds dialogues and contains literary narrations. Apart from the dialogues, John Hurt’s impressive and decisive voice narrates passages related to the subject matter in the nine episodes of the film. His Brecht-like distanciations make it impossible for the viewer to escape reality. With such a text and mis-en-scene, one might say, well, this is a film version of a piece of theatre, especially since von Trier has acknowledged that he has borrowed his mis-en-scene from Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera But no, not only Dogville is no theatre, it is an innovation in the cinema. Lars von Trier personally filmed his work in 45 days.His composition and unique frames do not allow the spectators to remain passive and force them to edit in their mind the bits and pieces of images shown them with stinginess. The most important result of the elimination of walls, doors and other irrelevant objects in the scenery of the town invented by von Trier, apart from saving the viewer’s energy, help establish a direct relationship with the characters in the film. From our view, no privacy exists, and we are therefore witness to all which is going on. This direct relationship with the characters on various levels has a tremendous and occasionally frightening impact on the viewer.
Another strong point of the film is the clever selection of the cast. With an eye on their type and personality, von Trier has put together a remarkable cast with Nicole Kidman, Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Ben Gazzara, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Raymond, etc… each of whom have a typical image in the cinema as well as in the mind of the viewer. Nicole Kidman is cast as a “femme fatale”; Harriet Andersson (discovered by Ingmar Bergman for his film Cries and Whispers) as a religious woman; Lauren Bacall with her present looks as an intolerant and harsh woman; and most attractive of all James Caan (who starred in both parts of The Godfather) in the role of the gangsters’ godfather. Von Trier places his actors next to one another rather like pieces of a puzzle and does not waste any time for traditional elementary introductions but goes straight to their inner selves and exposes them to us. Today, Dogville has said the last word in the cinema. It scratches your heart and the imprint remains there forever.

Elephant Winner of Palme d’Or at Cannes International Film Festival in 2003.

We are never sure with Mr. Gus Van Sant, each of his films being radically different from the previous one. He is one of the most famous and successful independent filmmakers in the United States. He has directed such well-known movies as Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). With To Die For he made a film in the true sense of a “Hollywood film”, a new path in his career. But in 2002 his new film Gerry was screened in the International Competition Section of the Locarno Film Festival and disappointed his fans of To Die For. Gerry is anti-cinema, anti-Hollywood, and anti-spectators film. In an obvious and unsuccessful imitation of Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema, Van Sant attempted to do away with and negate cinematic elements and signs in order to convey a Becket-like feeling of absurdity to his audience (rather like in Waiting for Godot). However, nothing of the kind happens and no such feeling is transmitted to the spectators. Unlike Gerry, Elephant is a good and thoughtful film, yet, in comparison with the outstanding work of von Trier Dogville, it did not deserve to win Cannes’ Palme d’Or. Based on a true event, Elephant refers to the Columbine High School murder of students by two of their schoolmates. Although Elephant, like Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002) points to the use of weapons and increasing violence in the United States, each has its own view of the world. Bowling for Columbine is a journalistic report-like film with its particular tricks belonging to the documentary tradition, whereas Elephant is a symbolic and somewhat poetical film. Bowling for Columbine puts on trial, condemns and punishes whereas Elephant asks us to ponder and to judge. Bowling for Columbine belongs to popular American journalism while Van Sant’s film shows the influence of contemporary American short-story writers such as Raymond Carver. Elephant has the style and tone of Carver’s Chekhov. In both works the values are hidden rather than developed. In his brilliant short-story Chekhov, Carver concentrates on the last hours of Anton Chekhov’s life and gives such precise details that it is as if he had been present at the bedside of his favorite writer. Gus Van Sant also describes the last hours of the students of Columbine High School. His roving camera, as an eye-witness to all of the behaviors, does not analyze, it dissects. The name of the film is borrowed from the symbol of the American Republican Party.

In This WorldWinner of the 2003 Golden Bear at Berlinale International Film Festival.

Some while ago a re-current piece of news was given us by the mass media: a small boat containing the corpses of eleven Africans seeking refuge in Italy had been found; they had died of thirst. Before that, corpses of sixty Chinese hidden in a container were found near the shores of England. Such tragic happenings continue to happen like a serial in our sad world. Michael Winterbottom, like many other filmmakers who have studied immigration and the problems of refugees in their films in the last decades, has a similar story to tell. In This World is a documentary about two Afghans named Jamal and Enayatullah who attempt to seek refuge in England. The film, as well as showing us the troubles and tribulations which the two of them have to endure, equally displays before us a sad and somber vista of the world of refugees.
With the meticulous care and discipline of a social scientist scholar, Michael Winterbottom has made a revealing film about the cruelty and indifference of our world. Without ever sinking into pity or giving way to romanticism, he puts on display the realities of the closed world of refugees. He shows that in no other complicated human situation are people as helpless, unhappy and roofless. When Jamal finally gets to London after much difficulties and calls his uncle to announce the death of Enayatullah, we see in the old man’s eyes the distress of an absurd world devoid of any meaning. The film, using the repetitive motif of youngsters playing football in Peshawar, Tehran, Azarbaijan, Istanbul, a port in Italy and …to a camp in London, makes fun of geographical borders and chauvinism to convey the message that everyone has an equal right on the planet he or she is born on regardless of country and nationality.

Good Bye, Lenin!Winner of the Blue Angel for Best European Film 2003 and Germany’s film in Oscar 2004.

More than a decade has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the disintegration of communism in the countries of the Eastern Bloc, but its aftermath continues to provide leading materials for the making of films which enjoy a huge audience in the world – especially in those very ex-communist countries. Good Bye, Lenin! directed by Wolfgang Becker is the last film in that vein. It is a tragi-comedy with an attractive and satirical story. Wolfgang Becker, without any malice or taking sides or defending a particular view, policy or principle, points to the selfish and base tendencies of humankind. He shows that the political manifesto of governments does not matter as much as the behavior of its officials with the populace. Those very officials who once they have reached power, forget all about their idealistic election promises for a better and happier life for the people. Good Bye, Lenin! reminds one of the words of Romain Gary in his book Life Before Us when he says: “There is nothing uglier than forcing happiness down people’s throat, especially people who cannot defend themselves.”

Mondays in the Sun Winner of five Goya Prizes (the Spanish equivalent of Oscars) and Spain’s film in Oscar 2003.

It seemed that the time for making guerrilla/revolutionary films were over and done with. Yet, Mondays in the Sun made by Fernando Leon de Aranoa is a film in that tradition but with no signs of guns, bombs or dynamite. Well, that is quite normal, times have changed. That kind of rebellion is no longer in fashion and social injustice has changed face. What remains unchanged is of course the ensuing miseries and unhappiness. Mondays in the Sun, as a film of today, expresses the same thing. The film begins with a riot of expulsed workers of the waterfront. As usual, in the confrontation with the police, the workers are not on the winning side. Two hundred workers with an obscure future in front of them are made jobless. Three years after this incident, the camera quietly enters the lives of a few of them. They go to the coffee-shop of a former mate of theirs who has started his business with debts and much difficulties. The men try to forget their trampled self-esteem and social humiliation by drinking. Sacha is the energetic and optimistic character of the film. He is the one who bears the heaviest burden of the black humor of the film and Javier Barden, cast in this role, does a terrific job of enacting the character. The brilliant idea at the end of the film belongs to Sacha who proposes to his mates to hijack the ship which carries the workers to the only factory of their town. On a Monday morning, they do so and anchor in the middle of the lake. The whistle of the factory is heard on the shore while on the other side the workers are enjoying to no end this unexpected act of Sacha and his friends. Then we see Sacha, lying in the sun on the deck, smiling victoriously, rubbing his hands together and saying: “It’s a great day, isn’t it?”

American Splendor
Winner of the Main Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival 2003, and FIPRESCHI’s choice at Cannes Film Festival 2003.

Caricaturists, cartoonists and designers of illustrated stories will greatly enjoy American Splendor. This film can also be an important lesson for the students of cinema in order to see how all the parts and elements of a film can – or should – be in the service of the main theme. The film tells the story of Harvey Peker, the American comic strip artist and the creator of the successful collection of books that go by the name of “American Splendor”.
The cinema owes a great deal to the art of comic strip. Many cinematic techniques – from the mis-en-scene to montage and to off-the-frame conversations – have been previously experienced in comic strips. The beauty and importance of American Splendor resides in the fact that it opens up new vistas to both mediums. The film’s clever credit titles put on display some of these innovations. The characters in the film choose for themselves the colors, forms and size of the frames as well as the movement of the camera’s direction. They take the liberty of changing the words in the credit titles into quotations from great writers or into common jokes. The same vein runs through the entire work. The flashbacks and the flashforwards depend on the mood of the characters and not on the film directors who, like Harvey, seem to have lost control of events. The height of the directors’ might is when they show us the backstage of the scenes of the film and when the camera moves from Jamati, the actor who plays Harvey Peker, to a frame showing the real Harvey Peker talking about the film, the acting and what is amiss.
The film’s directors, Shari Springer Bermanova and Robert Pulcini (both born in New York in 1964) started their collaboration in Columbia Film School. Their first film was a documentary and was awarded several international prizes. They made other films too but American Splendor is their first collaboration in a feature film. A very bright future awaits them.

Paradise Is Somewhere Else - International Competition – Winner for best direction, Isfahan Film Festival, 2003.

The Iranians have been present at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival for many years. In the past, dozens of Iranian films have been screened at the Festival and awarded prizes. This year, there were four Iranian films in the various sections of the Festival: Noora and The Women’s Prison in Another View section and Milkan in the Documentary Film in Competition.
Paradise Is Somewhere Else was screened on a Saturday afternoon at six o’clock. Considering that it was the week-end, ordinary people in addition to the professionals of the cinema attended the screening. Paradise Is Somewhere Else was both well-attended and well-received in the main auditorium of the Festival. The not-so-original story flows with such ease that it keeps the interest of the spectators until the very end – an important advantage for a film in an international competition shown in the presence of the jury and where the spectators’ reactions or walking-out of the cinema may influence the judgement of the jury members. Although Paradise Is Somewhere Else was not awarded any prize, its presence showed another facet of the Iranian cinema to its lovers.
Paradise Is Somewhere Else is the story of a young shepherd named Eidok who decides to go to Dubai in search of a better life. When he manages to put together with much hardship the necessary money for his trip and is about to leave filled with joy, he learns of his father’s murder. He is expected to take revenge.

Student Films
The Karlovy Vary Film Festival has interesting sections such as “East of the West” that is exclusive to this Festival and enjoys its own audience. Yet another interesting section is the “Student Films”: A small festival in the heart of a big festival, rather like a swimming pool filled with crystal clear water on the deck of a huge ship. Seventy films, three to forty-minute-long, made by the students of cinema from 22 countries were screened in this section. Twice a day, at three and five in the afternoon, a crowd of mostly young people in their twenties formed in front of Cinema B. The young people were reading the Festival’s catalogue or daily news, holding debates in groups of three and four and generally creating an atmosphere of freshness and eagerness proper to students of their age; those students are going to be the professionals of tomorrow.
Amongst the films in this section The End of the Game, Nuts, John Lee and Me, and a bright jewel called Circus were noteworthy.
John Lee and Me (Max Erlenwein) from DFFB is a remarkable film. What is remarkable in this 35mm fifteen minute-long film – apart from its philosophical context – is its calculated rhythm and montage. The director does away with using the traditional slow or fast movement of the camera, but by adding or taking off frames from each sequence of the film – and even by changing their places – manages to give an incredible pace to his film. This is nothing like the usual clips, but is much more effective and innovative than those.
Nuts (Berge Kasparian) from Canada has an uncanny resemblance to John Lee and Me. This five-minute-long film shows us a dignified old lady in her second floor apartment trying to open a coconut. Despite the short time, the film is made up of over a hundred shots. The professionals know full well what a hundred shots mean for a five-minute-long film. It means precise to the millimetre decoupage and days and days of hard work in a very limited location.
The End of the Game is a film by the Croatian Peter Oreskovic. It is an absurd and most unusual film. This 16 mm ten-minute-long film shows us a group of young people in a small town in Croatia who have formed a basketball team.
Although they are an amateur team, in their correspondence with other teams in the capital, they introduce themselves in jest as a professional team. They receive a letter of invitation from a well-known professional group to go to Zagreb for a friendly match. The entire film takes place on a road, and with the incessant travelling of the camera, we see that both sides of the road are filled with confusing road signs pointing left, right, up, down… The film is an artistic satire of Croatia’s position after its independence from former Yugoslavia.
But that bright jewel, Circus, is a film made by the Norwegian Erik Richter Strand, and the best of that section. The film is about a circus called Rondini at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This circus used to be a big, highly splendid and famous one. But now, it has become a small and poor circus whose lion, monkey and players have become old and can no longer entertain an audience properly. They travel from town to town while their audience thins and their economic situation deteriorates. The clown's position is even more pathetic than the others. Not only anybody laughs at his jokes but they throw rubbish at him and boo him. A short stocky dwarf who throws knives at a moving board has bad eyesight and there is the danger of his hitting the person tied to the board who is his sole caring friend in the world – his mistress. From the very beginning of its beautiful titling, Circus puts on display an extraordinary symbolism. We see a thrown dagger circling in a black space while the credits appear and disappear in order at the bottom of that black space. Gradually the circling of the dagger slows down and remains static for a while suspended in space. The title Circus is then written above the dagger.
This is as if all of those names which had appeared below it beforehand had the shadow of death hanging over them. In a circus-like world, when the word “circus” fades out, the dagger moves and is forcefully thrown to take place beside the beautiful face of a woman tied to the board and is symbolic of the presence of the ever-present death everywhere. The clown’s whistle all along the film mocks death. This symbolism- like all the others in the film – (the circus being the symbol of humanity’s difficult position in a hellish world), is neither pretentious nor mechanical.
The film is so rich that after viewing it, one does not wish to go and see another one straight away. One wishes to leave the cinema, find a quiet and green corner to be alone in order to taste mentally the joy and pleasure of having seen a good film.

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