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KVIFF 2024: Wrap-up and Awards

I love film festivals. It’s as simple as that. You go, usually to a far-flung location, a place on a map that appears unreal at first, to see movies before anyone else. Some are big titles starring glitzy names made by legendary or up-and-coming auteurs that will sometimes dominate the public moviegoing consciousness. Seeing those works certainly sends a rush through you, filling you with handfuls of dizzying energy intensified by the frenzied crowds. But oftentimes, the draw for me isn’t necessarily catching the big film. It’s finding what may never be found again. It’s seeing the passion project from a director who may never direct again, it’s the project from a tiny country that may never make the long trek across the pond, it’s the pure giddiness of people presenting their deeply personal work wholly for the love of the thing. The presence of that magic is why I adore Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. 

What other place can you see the biggest films from Cannes intermingled with ruminative Eastern European stories that eloquently tell the history of the people and the region? Here, the theaters—a mixture of splendid venues like Grand and Small Hall and intimate, seemingly makeshift cinemas like Husovka—are always packed. Audiences want to see the movies, no matter the size of their profile, so badly, they’ll sit on the floor and on the steps of the stairs to take in those flickering journeys. Usually the weather is fantastic (this year’s abnormally rainy festival didn’t quash anyone’s spirit) and the verdant mountainous vistas are postcards brought to life.      

This was my third year visiting KVIFF, a festival I appreciate because of the modest works it champions that few across the pond will care to know but have significant importance for the health of the entire cinematic ecosystem. There, cinemas are not dying and audiences seem to grow every year—a dream experienced in a warm cocoon. 

This year, the festival’s 58th—its 30th helmed by Festival President Jiří Bartoška—was as much a look back as it was a step forward. The opening ceremony, which always features a show stopping centerpiece performance (last year there were figure skaters gliding across the stage) paid homage to the fest's previous thirty years by combining bits of all the past productions, filling the stage with an alien, a synchronized swimmer, a dancer dressed in a vintage peach 1970s suit, and a scream queen chased by a slasher. The films themselves were just as varied. 

Among the dozen films in the main Crystal Globe competition were anti-fascism stories (“Panopticon,” “Celebration,” and “The Hungarian Dressmaker”), films about crumbling marriages (“Loveable,” “Rude to Love,” and “Tiny Lights”), estranged families (“Three Days of Fish,” “Pierce,” and “Our Lovely Pig Slaughter”), refugees (“Xoftex”), enslavement (“Banzo”), and a woman artist you should know (“A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things”) hailing from countries like Georgia, the USA, the Netherlands, Japan, the Czech Republic, and more. 

The big winner from the festival was “Loveable,” a prickly Norwegian romance drama from director Lilja Ingolfsdottir about the disintegration of a marriage. It won a festival record five awards (the Special Jury Prize, Best Actress for Helga Guren, the FIPRESCI Jury Award, Ecumenical Jury Award, and Europa Cinemas Label Jury Award), nearly sweeping away the competition. Only one film managed to thwart the lovefest: “A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things,” Mark Cousins’ engrossing cine-essay about Scottish mid century painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. It’s a soft, caring portrait, told with Cousins’ usual charm and wit that holds its subject and every person who viewed it in a warm embrace. The two lead actors in “Three Days of Fish” (Ton Kas and Guido Pollemans) won Best Actor and the Directing award went home with the filmmaker behind “Pierce,” Nelicia Low.

In the Promixa section was another dozen films: Queer works (“Cabo Negro,” “Trans Memoria,” “Chlorophyll”), movies about female agency (“The Alienated,” “Second Chance,” and “Tropicana”), political dissonance (“Nothing in its Place” and “Night Has Comes”) transience (“Stranger,” “Lapilli,” and “Windless”), and families on the verge of crumbling (“March to May”) originating from countries like Morocco, India, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and so forth. The major winner of the competition was “Stranger,” which took home the Grand Prix. “Night Has Come” won the Special Jury Prize and “March to May” was given a Special Mention. 

The festival also looked back on the career of Steven Soderberg, who as part of KVIFF’s Kafka retrospective presented his companion films "Kafka" and "Mr. Kneff" (a reworked version of the former). Director Nicole Holofcener also arrived to show the varied yet unifying films from her career. KVIFF presented its president’s award to Academy Award nominated actors Clive Owen (commemorating the 20th anniversary of his Oscar turn, the festival played "Closer") and Viggo Mortensen (whose second directorial effort "The Dead Don't Hurt" opened the festival), Golden Globe nominated actor Daniel Brühl ("Next Door," his directorial debut screened), venerable casting director Francine Maisler ("Bikeriders" played), and Czech screen legend Ivan Torjan ("Karamzovs" screened).   

By the time the rainy closing night arrived, where Greek filmmaker Christos Nikou’s dystopian sci-fi romance “Fingernails” played, the final celebration, which continued long into the dawn at the Grandhotel Pupp—felt like the kind of ecstatic blowout worthy of such an invigorating festival. The dance floor simmered to the beats of 1980s throwback hits, wedding playlist bangers, Latin music, and traditional Czech folk songs. One could even see Clive Owen joining in on the reverie. And as I sauntered back to my hotel in the wee hours of the morning, the sky’s sapphire complexion glistening off the rippling channels of the Teplá river, the tall pines reinvigorated by the previous night's showers rising up toward the sun, I couldn’t help but blissfully dream of when I’d return to Eastern Europe’s premiere film festival, to a place that so often feels like home. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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