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Karlovy Vary Film Festival Opens With Pop and Politics

The day after a fiery opening ceremony, Liev Schreiber makes a plea for Ukraine

After sitting out 2020 and hosting last year’s showing at a later-than-usual date and with a slightly smaller scale, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic city kicked off this year’s full-throttle 56th edition with a fiery cocktail of pop and politics that carried through to the next day.

Friday night’s opening ceremony neatly set the scene, marrying ebullience and elegy as dancers from the Cabani troupe writhed around literal fireballs onstage before festival president Jiří Bartoška struck more somber tones as he reflected on the recent loss of longtime festival matriarch Eva Zaoralova and on the ever-continuing conflict in Ukraine.

Swinging back toward the poppier side of the spectrum, opening film “Superheroes” launched this year’s edition with a dose of operatic Italian emotion. 

Directed by Paolo Genovese and led by stars Jasmine Trinca (“The Best of Youth”) and Alessandro Borghi (“Suburra”), the marital melodrama follows a Milanese couple in sickness and in health, weaving two decades of milestones into a kind of non-linear tapestry. Jumping backwards and forwards in time, the film uses a heavy hand to paint a soapy collage of fights and reconciliations, lacquering idyllic locales with a pop music score to help push emotions along. It is, in every sense, bombastico.

But then, this was, in every sense, a big night. Once the film let out, the thousand-strong crowd gathered outside Karlovy Vary’s main site for a free show that featured Czech band MIG 21, a 60-piece orchestra, 20 choir singers and two rather saucy dancers, and that concluded – as only such a statement could – with a fireworks display. The message was clear: This festival was back. 

The next day, however, saw pomp give way to circumstance, particularly once actor Liev Schreiber took the stage. Though the “Ray Donovan” star will sit for an hour-long career retrospective in the days to come, on Saturday he wanted to redirect the festival’s spotlight towards more wrenching and immediate concerns. “We value celebrity in our culture,” the actor said at a press conference devoted to the recently launched initiative BlueCheck Ukraine.  “And if that celebrity could be channeled to something useful, that’s a good thing.” 

Liev Schreiber KVIFF
Liev Schreiber at his Karlovy Vary press conference / KVIFF

Indeed, at his 45-minute press conference, Schreiber struck an introspective tone as he reflected on his own Ukrainian heritage and on the role his star stature could play to offer humanitarian support without sensationalizing the conflict or hogging the limelight.

“I’m very tired of seeing in the media anchors and talking heads perpetuating this news cycle of us feeding (the Ukrainian people’s) fear and suffering,” Schreiber said. “While there is probably a great story (to tell), we’re in it and the time for telling it is not right now.”

“It feels too acute to tell stories,” he continued. “And besides, I’m too tall to play Zelensky.” 

Named for that social media seal of authenticity, Schreiber’s BlueCheck initiative instead looks to act as an intermediary, connecting international donors with thoroughly vetted humanitarian aid projects already operating in Ukraine. The idea is to offer targeted support to local organizations that are – intrinsically and by definition — more nimble and reactive than other sprawling global bureaucracies.

“What we need is a moving target,” Schreiber explained. “One minute that might be food, another day that might be shelter, another day that might be medical aid, or trauma care, or mental health. To do this effectively you can’t just find one NGO; right now we have a dozen, and you want to keep that portfolio as diverse as possible in order to invest in what comes up.” 

“The most motivated and most effective people on the ground are Ukrainians,” Schreiber said. “So rather than giving your money to international charities, we want to find a way to get inside, to help the people who are helping themselves.” 

And with that, the American star stepped out of the spotlight. 

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