Karlovy Vary Marks 20 Years of Freedom

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Where were you when the Berlin Wall cracked? Two decades after Communism fell on its sickle in Eastern Europe, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is remembering in grand style. For its 44th edition (July 3-11), this Czech shindig looks back on “20 Years of Freedom” in a salute to the Velvet Revolution and other Warsaw Pact overthrows. Viewers of the world unite! 

It’s only fitting that Karlovy Vary would throw a Bloc party. One of the festival’s hallmarks is its “East of the West” section featuring the films of Eastern Europe.


From István Szabó’s Dear Emma, Sweet Böbe to The Lives of Others by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the selections in 20 Years of Freedom spotlight transformation in the region. Sifting through two decades of work, the programmers sought films that “capture, with all their positive and negative aspects, the past and present of the citizens of these countries,” said Festival artistic director Eva Zaoralová.

The Czech Republic is represented by Helena Třeštíková’s documentary, Zuzana and Stanislav. This episode of Třeštíková’s time-spanning series, “Marriage Stories” and “Marriage Stories 20 Years Later,” tracks a couple’s fortunes under totalitarian rule and how their discordant experiences after ‘89 bore upon their children. “Whereas the man in the film was actively able to take advantage of the possibilities that were offered him, the woman satisfied herself with a passive approach to life,” explained Zaoralová.

Třeštíková recalls shooting under the former regime, when veiled dialogue allowed her the occasional wink with her audience. Despite the thrill of subversion—and the then transcendent value of ordinary words–she hardly waxes nostalgic about punitive censorship, and is “very happy  to have freedom.”

How relatively good or bad the old days were is a query that nags most of the films in the section. In Babusya, which earned Russian director Lidia Bobrova a Special Jury Prize when it played five years ago at KVIFF, newfangled materialism crosses old fashioned sacrifice, and it’s a toss which generation is more bereft. Whereas the social fallout of the Chechnyan War hovers at the periphery of Babusya, the Bosnian War and its ravages take center stage in Pretty Village Pretty Flame. There Serbian filmmaker Srdjan Dragojević chronicles the shared fears of two wartime friends who grow up to be at armed and politically dangerous loggerheads with one another. Also in the sidebar is How Much Does the Trojan Horse Weigh?, by Polish director Juliusz Machulski. This back-to-the-future yarn sends its 40-year-old heroine back to 1987 Popular Republic of Poland in a wish to relive her youth. Post-Communist Hungary is the setting of Szabó’s forementioned classic, where the Emma and Böbe of the title struggle in vain to retrain as English teachers and recpature their former cushy lot.

“In the films from the former Socialist countries you can see a certain pessimism,” commented Zaoralová. “The films level a critique of societies that neglect the moral side of democracy–artists are disappointed in domestic developments.”

Festival president Jiří Bartoška conceived the sidebar partly as a corrective to young moviegoers who think of the Velvet Revolution “as ancient history seen in films for old-timers.” Bartoška hopes the youth who enliven each year’s festival will now link their freedom of expression to changes wrought by 1989. 

“We have a lot of people in our audience who will not be familiar with this history,” said Festival program director Julietta Sichel. “Even people who are 20, 15, 16, have absolutely no connection to these times.”

Czech director Václav Marhoul agrees. During the past eight months he has shown his prize-winning World War II drama, Tobruk, in 43 schools around the country on a tear to clue young Czechs about their past. (The film, which screened at the Festival, will represent the Czech Republic for the prestigious European Film Award.) Ignorance reached a new peak when one student conflated the Velvet Revolution with Prague Spring and WWII Nazi Occupation.

Why the collective amnesia? “New world, new computers, new games” are obvious suspects, according to Marhoul. But the plot thickens. “The parents are not talking much, the school either,” he noted. “Partly because a new generation of teachers still doesn’t exist; partly because some—most?—of the older teachers were members of the Communist party; partly because the Ministry of Education did not prepare new instructions on how to educate the students and explain the history of 20th century.”

Oblivion is prohibitive, per Marhoul. “You’ll never understand the present political, economic and cultural situation if you don’t understand your history and its consequences. Because everything that’s happening…is just a domino effect.”    

For him—and the Festival—the mission is on to smash the silence. And not purely for the benefit of the youth. “For the older people it is important to show (the sidebar) as a momentum, a remembrance,” said Sichel. “The Communists are gaining a lot of power in the former Soviet Bloc countries.” She continued, “They are not the strongest party in the Czech Republic, but they have quite a lot of attention, especially in the small towns where people still feel very strongly about their program. And there are deputies in the European Parliament.”

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