Beautiful locales, a rich mix of themes, charged discussions and a surprise in the end. The Karlovy Vary film festival hit all the right notes, says Meenakshi Shedde.

Last week, a friend asked me which film festival I had enjoyed the most as a jury member. I had just returned from being on the Grand Jury of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, near Prague in the Czech Republic, but was stumped for an answer. I have been on the juries of 20 film festivals worldwide, from Cannes, Berlin and Venice, to Taipei and Mar del Plata in Argentina, but my experiences have been diverse. When I was on the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Jury in Cannes, a Russian critic voted in favour of an awful Russian film and coolly confessed, “Of course, the film is shit. But I’m Russian, so I’m voting for it.” When on the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) Jury in Berlin, I offered to sit out when the jury was voting on the Indian film Ameer Sulthan’s brilliant Paruthiveeran so as to be scrupulously fair, but they said no, why should the director be penalised because a jury member happens to be Indian? (Paruthiveeran earned a Special Mention for the NETPAC Award for best Asian film in Berlin, and the Thai jury member Aditya Assarat lauded Ameer as the “Indian Kusturica”, referring to Emir Kusturica, the celebrated Serbian director and Golden Palm winner, renowned for his boisterous satires marked by violence). In Taipei, we ploughed through four or five films, clocking in 10 to 12 hours every day; the jury discussions were in Mandarin, with a line or two being translated into English for my benefit; lunches and dinners were hurriedly gobbled out of plastic boxes in the jury room and we hardly got to see the town.

By contrast, Karlovy Vary was an elegant picnic, with only two or three films in the main Competition a day. So we had plenty of time to see other films and dawdle in that romantic town, whose mineral water springs and spas have long drawn royalty and artists, including Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. The Karlovy Vary film festival in Bohemia, among the oldest festivals, is among the top 10 or 15 festivals worldwide. The 48th edition of the festival ran from June 28 to July 6. Apart from screening some of the best films worldwide, its USP is showcasing the best films of eastern and central Europe.

Karlovy Vary’s spanking line-up included Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (that was in Cannes), Amat Escalante’s Heli (Best Director, Cannes), Danis Tanovic’s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (Jury Grand Prix, Berlin), Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (that was in Cannes), Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes), David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche (Silver Bear for Best Director, Berlin), Yusup Razykov’s Shame (Russia) and Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze’s Papusza (Poland).

On the Grand Jury, my fellow jurors included Polish director-writer Agnieszka Holland, who earned three Oscar nominations for Angry Harvest, In Darkness and Europa, Europa; Frederic Boyer, artistic director of the Tribeca Film Festival, New York, and former director of the Cannes festival’s Directors’s Fortnight; and Peruvian director Claudia Llosa, whose film The Milk of Sorrow won the Berlin film festival’s Golden Bear.

It is fascinating how history is still big for European cinema; the continent is constantly looking back, to seek answers to the future. The films dealing with historical themes at Karlovy Vary included Janos Szasz’s superb Le grand cahier (The Notebook, Hungary, which won the Grand Prix-Crystal Globe), Oskar Roehler’s Sources of Life (Germany), and Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (U.K.) in competition. Agnieszka Holland’s brilliant Burning Bush, on the consequences of Czech student Jan Palach setting himself on fire to protest the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1969, was a three-part HBO TV series shown as a special event at the film festival. Similarly, the East of the West section included Ivan Ostrochovský’s Velvet Terrorists (Slovak Republic).

Most amazing was that a restored classic film of 1969, All My Good Countrymen by Czech director Vojtech Jasny that won Best Director at Cannes and examines decades of Czech history, was No. 1 on the daily audience award polls for most of the festival. And this for a festival whose audience substantially includes young people. It made me reflect on how poor the Indian sense of history is in general, and how little we value historic things and age — including history as a subject, archives, old buildings, old people, old films, old theatres. There are relatively few films reflecting on Indian history per se — apart from films on Independence and/or Partition by an older generation of directors. And it is unimaginable that an Indian audience at a film festival votes for an archival film on Indian history as the most popular film. The contrast reveals an actively engaged, hopeful, young public in Europe.

The jury discussions were a tremendous education, with widely different viewpoints on the same film from very experienced film people. The Crystal Globe winner The Notebook by Janos Szasz was an easy winner for the jury by far. A powerfully directed film that traces Czech history since World War II and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia through the eyes of teenage twins, who keep a notebook recording everything they see and do. But it is more exciting when someone persuades you to radically change your opinion, simply by the force of his/her convictions. Most of us had mixed feelings about Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (U.K.) — a low-budget indie with just a handful of characters in a field, apparently deserters looking for buried treasure during an English civil war — when the jury decided it must “not be entirely predictable, but also support talented directors who are original and take risks.” That was when Wheatley galloped away with the Special Jury Prize — over Czech director and local favourite Jan Hrebejk, who got Best Director for Honeymoon about a marriage going awry — even though the jury admitted they did not fully understand Wheatley’s film! We appreciated that it was also accomplished in its mise en scene, cinematography and music composition. This made up for the fact that I could not follow much of what the actors were mumbling in English. It had Czech sub-titles for the audience, but it seemed rather foolish to ask my Czech neighbour what the Englishmen were saying, and I desisted.

Meanwhile, Oskar Roehler’s Sources of Life, which explores decades of German history through three generations of a German family, evidently had craftsmanship, but was dropped after one of the jury members thundered that there was “no question of awarding a film in which a Nazi is shown to be the good guy, holding the family together.”

In fact, Vojtech Jasny had earlier said, “All My Good Countrymen had been nominated for a Golden Palm at Cannes in 1969, but jury member Michelangelo Antonioni refused to vote for an ‘anti-Communist film’ for the Golden Palm. So it got Best Director instead.” Contentious discussions of jury members have a long history indeed.

The Indian films at Karlovy Vary included Ritesh Batra’s Dabba (Lunchbox) an exquisite ode to love and longing featuring Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, that won the Rail d’Or Critics’ Week Audience Award at Cannes. Karlovy Vary described the film as a love affair “that might have come from the well-greased typewriters of Hollywood’s classic era.” It is remarkable for being an Indian film that’s a co-production between France, Germany, the U.S. and India, with a multi-national crew. It has sold widely in territories across the globe, including the U.S., U.K. and France, and we hope Indian audiences can see it soon. There was also Dredd, a futuristic dystopia by Pete Travis in a midnight screening, co-produced by Reliance Entertainment. In fact, India has had a long relationship with the Karlovy Vary film festival, from Raj Kapoor’s Jagte Raho and Mehboob Khan’s Mother India in the 1950s to the late Rituparno Ghosh’s Raincoat, Umesh Kulkarni’s Valu, Bharat Bala’s Hari Om, Suman Ghosh’s Podokkhep, Subrata Acharya’s Spring in the Air and Supriyo Sen’s Wagah.

Above all, no other festival is so encouraging of young audiences — they help students camp in tents in city maidans, provide bicycles for hire and even luggage storage. All day and night the youth are at the festival or by the river, chugging beer and discussing movies. And the city has mineral springs everywhere, so when you dip into the swimming pool in the Hotel Thermal, the main festival venue, you’re actually swimming in mineral water — warm and slightly salty. You can only come away feeling unreasonably buoyant; so you toast that with the heady Karlovy Vary liqueur, Becherovka.