Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when observing the Crystal Globe, the top prize of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, an elegant brass statue of a female figure with an Art Déco touch, is the resemblance in design to the Oscar. Who knows whether this similarity was genuinely intended by Tono Stano, Aleš Najbrt, Michal Caban, and Šimon Caban who redesigned the award in the year 2000 for the 35th year of one of the oldest film festivals in the world. The truth is that after a long history which was strongly linked to the political situation of Czechoslovakia, with the fall of the Berlin Wall the festival has continuously been searching for a new identity, one which could promote both national and international cinema. There are therefore those who see the new design of the award as a symbol of the attempt to bring the festival closer to the world of American cinema.

On the 28th of June the event will reach its 48th year, and one can say that the identity crisis of the post-communist years now seems light years away. The festival is considered to be undoubtedly the most important and prestigious one in Central and Eastern Europe, not to mention one of the most important in the world. The road however, has been a long one.

The Mezinárodní filmový festival, was born in the summer of 1946 (curiously also in the year which saw the foundation of the Cannes film festival, the most prestigious in the world), following the nationalization of the Czechoslovakian film industry, when in Mariánské Lázně the state authorities gave life to a non-competitive film festival, which screened political or social realist films (in line with the trends of Soviet cinema). The screenings were to take place both in Mariánské Lázně and in Karlovy Vary. At the time, the idea was to create a Czechoslovakian event which intended to symbolically mark the beginning of a new era, oriented towards the ideas and policies of the USSR. In short, the festival became competitive and international, and in 1948 chose Karlovy Vary as its stable host town and the Grandhotel Pupp as the centre of the event.

The film theorist Antonín Martin Brousil, also president of the jury in the early years of the Festival and one of its first organizers, revealed that extreme care was taken with the choice of films, which were selected according to particular artistic and social criteria, not neglecting, or rather, favouring the smaller countries with weaker film industries. This is actually a trait of the festival that has remained until today. Ideologically, Karlovy Vary established itself as Europe’s socialist competitor to Cannes and Venice. According to the site of the festival, after having gained power in Prague, the Communist Party was fully aware of the propagandist potential of film and the importance of this tool in the ideological struggle against the capitalist countries. Despite the restrictions imposed by Moscow, the organizers made an effort, however, to make the event unique and original, a festival that stood out from the others, creating what they defined “an alternative model”.

The first major change in the organization of the Festival took place in 1959, when to the dismay of the Czechoslovakian people, the Kremlin decided that there should be only one major film festival for all of the socialist countries and therefore the spa town was to alternate with Moscow until the nineties, and therefore hosted the event only once every two years. The controversial decision was considered to be a move which downgraded the A-status of the Karlovy Vary festival, which until then boasted much more fame and prestige than its Russian equivalent. In addition to this, visitors from the west could reach Bohemian territory fairly easily, while getting to Moscow was clearly more difficult. However, in this period, the task of the Festival simply remained a geo-political one. From 1948 to 1956, all of the Crystal Globe winners were from the Soviet Union. Domestic success would only arrive in the 1960s with Ján Kadár’s Obžalovaný (“The Accused”, 1964) and Rozmarné léto (“Capricious Summer”, 1968) by Jiří Menzel. These years marked the last great period of freedom before the stifling atmosphere of the Normalization arrived, with guests the calibre of Elia Kazan and Karel Reisz bringing class to the event, and among the winners names such as Tony Richardson and Pierpaolo Pasolini stood out (the latter of which won for his masterpiece “Accattone”). With the suppression from 1968, and a wave of films overflowing with Soviet slogans, there was a notable drop in the quality of movies, which consequently also led to a decline in the public’s interest, despite the participation of guests such as Ken Loach, Franco Nero, Carlos Saura, Monica Vitti, Bernardo Bertolucci and many others in the 1970s and 1980s.

Following this period, which was almost universally considered to be a period of decline, the Festival gradually regains its status with the political changes of 1989, finally being free from political pressure and therefore able to select films in a more open-minded, unbiased way. The organization of the festival was then taken up by an independent foundation, of which the members included the popular Czech actor Jiří Bartoška, the current President of the event, and Eva Zaoralová, who since then has been the Artistic director. With the emancipation from public funds, and financial backing supported by sponsors, the Festival managed to westernize rapidly, but also to make the event more international, by inviting Hollywood legends like Robert De Niro, Gregory Peck, Michael Douglas, and Rod Steiger. Obviously, with the presence of personalities of such status from American culture, there is always a risk that they may overshadow their Czech counterparts and key figures from other central and eastern European countries. The aim of the festival in the last few years has been to maintain the right balance between attention to American cinema and the space dedicated to European and Czech cinema, an objective reached quite successfully up to now. Many people believe that one of the reasons of this success lies in the superb organization of the event, offering many options to the public, who are able to choose from the various sections of the festival such as the one dedicated solely to Czech cinema or another only to the film making of the ex-Soviet Bloc.

This year the situation is no different. As we anticipate the 48th year of the festival, the talk is mainly about the presence of the director and screenwriter Oliver Stone, one of the most discussed and debated personalities in Hollywood, who will certainly be among the centres of attention in Karlovy Vary where he is to receive a Crystal Globe for his artistic contribution to World cinema. One hopes that his presence will not eclipse the other events, of which the highlights include a profile on Kurdish cinema, a homage to the director Jerry Schatzberg and the presentation of the Crystal Globe to the legendary costume designer of Miloš Forman, Theodor Pištěk, already an Oscar winner for Amadeus. Many will complain about the fact that the presence of Hollywood stars, is making the festival too similar to Cannes which has been criticized for being an excuse for the stars to parade on the Red carpet rather than a celebration of cinema. Others will complain for different reasons, but whether you like it or not, the excellent schedule will surely have something in it for everyone.
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by Lawrence Formisano