Once again, in July, the lovely, sleepy spa town of Karlovy Vary wakes up, Brigadoon-like, from its slumber to welcome crowds of visitors to its film festival. This year, as usual, it was a bacchanalia, with enough exceptional films to keep the most discerning cinéphile occupied and happy. Besides the vast range of new films on offer, there were fascinating retrospectives of Elia Petri (1929-1982), the polemical Italian director, who died tragically young, and Ben Rivers, the British experimental filmmaker, as well as a few red carpet events for the men in suits such as the controversial lifetime award, The Crystal Bowl, awarded to “Mad” Mel Gibson.
My purview, for better or worse, was a focus on world and international premieres, thereby allowing myself little time to catch up on the best of the other fests, but which had already been written up. Of the many films I saw, I have not bothered to mention those that I found conventional, of little merit or which provided me with no imperative to stay to the end.
Among the twelve films in the main competition, four stood out. The Mexican film La Tirisia (Perpetual Sorrow) dwells on the hard life of peasants working the salt flats in a remote part of Mexico. Jorge Perez Solano’s splendidly shot second feature works as an ecological, anthropological and sociological study, but most of all, it is a personal drama, mainly concerned with women in a macho society. Difficult to capsulize, La Tirisia is full of unpredictable scenes, including a woman giving birth by a river, a lightning visit of a local politician, a touring clown show, a gay character and an ambivalent view of Catholicism.
Also working on an allegorical and human level is Corn Island, by the Georgian director George Ovashvili, an almost wordless drama of an elderly man and his granddaughter who create a small island in the river dividing Georgia from Abkhazia, where they grow a cornfield. Their isolation is broken spasmodically by patrolling soldiers—Russian and Georgian—and a man who has deserted. The remarkable film, which took almost as long to shoot as it took the old man to grow the corn, is reminiscent of the struggle against nature in the films of Flaherty, Kaneto Shindo’s The Naked Island and Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala.
Set in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, Adventure, directed by Nariman Turebayev, is the tenth screen adaptation of White Nights, Dostoyevsky’s short story of unrequited love. Seen through the eyes of a young security guard (Azamat Nigmanov), the mainly nocturnal tale, doesn’t suffer from comparisons with its predecessors. Gently paced and charmingly played, its minimalist style reminded me of the films of Hong Sang-soo.
Already shown at Sundance, Low Down (USA), directed by Jeff Preiss, is a sensitive, downbeat biopic of jazz pianist Joe Albany, based on his daughter’s memoirs. When I say downbeat, I mean that her mother is an alcoholic, her father an unredeemable dope addict, and her boyfriend an epileptic. Yet, with a convincing screenplay by Amy-Jo Albany, and sympathetic performances from John Hawkes, Elle Fanning and Glenn Close, it is never depressing.
In the East of the West competition, the standouts were Corrections Class (Russia) and two Hungarian comedies: Afterlife and For Some Inexplicable Reason. The first, directed by Ivan I. Tverdovsky, is almost on a level with Laurent Cantet’s Entre Les Murs (The Class) in its fresh, free-wheeling documentary approach to likable young students. Yet, this time, unlike the French film, the adults are authoritarian with echoes of Soviet days.
Afterlife is an amusing satire about a sensitive young man who has never connected with his pastor father, but finds some rapport with him after the father dies and reappears only to him, King Hamlet like, as a ghost. The director (Virag Zomboracz) has a lot of fun with this, and with a disastrous school nativity play. For Some Inexplicable Reason, directed by Gabor Reisz, makes a few sly digs at Hungarian society as it follows a twenty-nine-year-old man, still dependent on his parents (hilarious characters), as he tries to make a living.
Another young loser is central to a similarly styled bright Czech comedy, Totally Talking, directed by Tomas Pavilicek, a twenty-six-year-old student at FAMU, the celebrated Prague film school. Skillfully striking a fine balance between fantasy and reality, it uses the habitual use of cell phones as a narrative device.
FAMU helped develop The Monk (Burma), which is intrinsically fascinating because it is one of the few features shot in the past decades in Burma by a Burmese director (The Maw Naing), cast and crew, offering a fascinating insight into a long-closed society. However it goes beyond the initial exoticism of the setting towards being a compassionate, contemplative, almost humanistic, view of the life of a young novice monk caught between the demands of religious and secular life. This is subtly expressed without recourse to much dialogue—the novice’s dream of escape, his farewell to a fellow novice who is leaving for the big city, his relationship with the girl he loves, though they never touch, and the death of the old abbot, expressed only with a jump cut. There are beautifully nuanced performances by the non-professional actors, especially the hero (Kyaw Nyi Thu) who manages a whole range of emotions while hardly seeming to be emoting at all.
In recent years, Mark Cousins has been making a name for himself with his no-budget, very personal, poetic film essays, putting him in the illustrious class that includes Chris Marker, Jean Rouch and Jonas Mekas. His new film, Life May Be, lives up to his documentaries on his travels (What Is This Film Called Love?), Kurdish-Iraqui children (The First Film), Albania (Here Be Dragons) and A Story of Children and Film. Life May Be, is co-directed, with the Iranian poet, filmmaker and artist Mania Akbari, living in exile in London. In fact, it is a film that could only have been co-directed as it is structured as the video correspondence, by email, between Cousins and Akbari. This epistolary approach engenders profound, charming, wayward ideas, each prompted by the other’s thoughts covering painting, literature, film, travel, sexuality and feminism.