There was a jaunty confidence about the 47th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. If Karlovy Vary is rarely the place to uncover new masterpieces, owing to the festival’s insistence on running a competition of international premieres in between Cannes in the summer and Venice and Toronto in the autumn, it is a place where discovery and surprise are almost guaranteed, and this year was no exception.
Take, for instance, Ektoras Lygizos’s competition entry Boy Eating the Birds Food (To agori troei to fagito tou pouliou), a strangely affecting, intimate portrayal of a destitute young Greek man (Yiannis Papadopoulos) faced with the reality of having to make a living and maintain dignity in a time of economic and personal crisis. Lygizos’s promising debut is most notable for an intriguing insistence on close-ups and an impressive lead performance from Papadopoulos, who has no choice but to act his soul out as Lygizos isolates him from the world that surrounds him, with no social connections and no action to drive the arbitrary events of the sparse narrative. It was a mature and experimental film from a second-time director whose interest in audacious formal invention proved both surprising and rewarding.
Another bold feature debut was Czech director Iveta Grófová’s Made in Ash (Až do mesta Aš), which premiered in the festival’s East of the West competition, a programme dedicated to films from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The story follows a young Romany woman, Dorotka (Dorotka Billa), who has just graduated from high school in Eastern Slovakia and is now searching for a new and more exciting life in the Czech-German border town of Až, While the film bears some resemblance to the laboratory coldness (but without the cynicism) of Ulrich Seidl’s most uncompromising work, it is distinguished by the strength of its fierce, often intense and compelling, often troubling documentary feel and fierce realism. Authentic and challenging rather than moving, it’s 84 tight minutes of raw cinema, crafted with passion and delivered with conviction.
Outside the two main competition sections, two films stood out for very different reasons. Julian Roman Pölsler’s The Wall (Die Wand) is essentially a one-person drama set in a remote mountain cottage. It revolves around a woman awaking to the fact that she is held captive by an unknown force, surrounded by an invisible wall that completely isolates her and eventually compels her to delve deeply into her own mind in order to survive. In a mesmerising adaptation of Marlen Haushofer’s early 1960s bestseller of the same name, Pölsler teases out the unsettling elements of horror and fear with remarkable aplomb, helped by a magnificent performance by Martina Gedeck in the lead role. The result is an intriguing and demanding film and while it is not for everyone, it stayed with me for long after the screening.
Perhaps the most outrageously funny film of the festival was The Woman in the Septic Tank (Ang babae sa septic tank), by Philippine director Marlon Rivera. This riotous satire follows the cynical attempt of two young directors to make a film that will appeal to the Western predilection for Third-World miserabilist realism. Real-life Philippine star Eugene Domingo gleefully plays the over the top prima donna who, in order to advance her own career, accepts the role of a destitute slum mother of seven forced to sell one of her children. As the filmmakers wonder about how best to present their wildly politically incorrect story, they veer from austere realistic indie drama to corny melodrama and even musical. The cinema was packed to the rafters for this uproarious send-up of ‘poverty porn’ that proved to be an absolute crowd-pleaser.
The standout in the International Documentary section was Ilian Metev’s Sofia’s Last Ambulance (Poslednata lineika na Sofia), about the three-strong medical crew of one of the 13 ambulances that serve the 1.2 million people in the Bulgarian capital each day. Although Metev’s strictly observational approach says as much about the crumbling Bulgarian healthcare system as it does about a troubled society in the process of transition, the film is most gripping in the moments in between the action, offering a glimpse into the vulnerability and physical and psychological exhaustion of the staff and the frustration beneath their cool, professional façade. Sofia’s Last Ambulance was an apt reminder on how little it takes to create a compelling cinematic experience, and the Karlovy Vary festival once more confirmed that there is a wealth of promising talent out there ready to take the conventions of any given genre into different and unusual places.