Karlovy Vary Film Festival Wraps With Edgy Films, Digital Dreams to ‘Reflect the Full Cinematic Culture of the Year’

The “ambiguous” film festival’s artistic director Karel Och reflects on one of its best years of programming yet

A Room of My Own
"A Room of My Own" / KVIFF

There’s no one way to experience the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, and no singular type of attendee. Stroll into the Grandhotel Pupp, the 18th century luxury resort that serves as the main social hive, and you may clink glasses with Netflix execs, members of the HFPA and filmmakers of all stripes; venture into the dense forests that surround the Czech spa town and discover the ad hoc sites where hundreds of teens camp out for a week-long party. 

Head into a theater, however, and you’ll see those many worlds meet. 

Boasting 453 screenings spread across nine days, this year’s edition wrapped this past weekend, awarding its top prize to the brooding Canadian-Iranian drama “Summer With Hope” ahead of a closing night presentation of George Miller’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing” – rather perfectly encapsulating the festival’s joint promise. 

On one side, the Czech festival remains the largest in Eastern and Central Europe, with its Crystal Globe and Proxima competitions shining an unparalleled spotlight on films from across the region. To others, Karlovy Vary has become a modest festival of festivals, giving a midsummer boost to breakout titles from Sundance, Berlin and Cannes, helping them build and consolidate buzz ahead of release. Both elements are essential to the Karlovy Vary brand.

“We want to reflect the full cinematic culture of the year,” artistic director Karel Och said. “We’ve always been a very ambiguous festival, or complex, if you want. We were born in 1946 and reborn in the early 1990s, so we’re old and young…. Classical on the surface, but with many idiosyncratic elements within.”

At this year’s edition, titles like Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness,” Matt Sarnecki’s Hot Docs–launched “The Killing of a Journalist” – about the 2018 murder of Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak – and Sara Dosa’s Sundance acclaimed “Fire of Love” pulled in diverse crowds that ran the gamut from seasoned industry pros to curious locals with little prior experience, including one youth with a particular link to the artistic director. 

“’Fire of Love’ was the very first film my older son saw here,” Och said, beaming. “He’s 14 years old, and this was his first time at a screening – and he thought the film was terrific. So you could say it plays for multiple generations.”

Soon, even more first-timers will be able to share in the experience. After a soft launch in 2021, the festival recently rolled out its amped-up KVIFF.tv platform, broadcasting talks, Q&As and red carpet coverage to the world during the nine-day event, while doubling as a cinema-focused VOD service throughout the rest of the year (with content geoblocked to the Czech Republic and Slovakia).  

“We want to control the digital world,” Och explained. “We’ll always be a classic event focused on connecting filmmakers and audiences, but obviously we want to be as progressive as possible – to be more playful when mixing physical and digital distribution.”

The artistic director described his curatorial mandate as “gently edgy,” and of the 35 films that world premiered at this year’s festival, director Ioseb ‘Soso’ Bliadze’s “A Room of My Own” quite ably fits that description.

Written in collaboration with lead actress Taki Mumladze and produced on the fly during the strictest of Georgian lockdowns, the two-hander won a shared best actress prize for leads Mumladze and Mariam Khundadze, who play uneasy roommates-turned-confidantes-turned-lovers. Only the acute character study is not quite a queer romance; more focused on coming of age than coming out, the film is instead the story of blossoming and renewal, of the potential a young woman unlocks when simply given the chance to grow. 

Bliadze builds the film around a series of long and unflashy takes that call little attention to themselves while pulling viewers into a spacious Tbilisi flat – which, for budgetary and thematic reasons, the camera very rarely leaves. 

Weary and withdrawn, Tina (Mumladze) barrels into this two-bedroom rental a tightly wound cast-off of the patriarchy, a refugee from a rigid social order that left her with nothing but physical and emotional scars. Uninhibited in all the ways her roommate is reserved, party girl Megi (Mariam Khundadze) ushers the young divorcée out of her shell and into a more hedonistic freedom, with the requisite hangovers and regrets. 

Less a foil than a simpatico young woman experiencing a similar liberation from an earlier point in the timeline, Megi herself feels just as hemmed in and suffocated by her native country – and benefiting from a more secular background and a greater command of English, she probably stands a better chance of escape. As a pandemic-era snapshot of a repressive culture, “A Room of My Own” holds up human connection as a balm for a very modern ennui; you can expect this lockdown project to travel far and wide.