In the valleys of Western Bohemia lies Karlovy Vary, a small spa town rich with forests and history. Karlovy Vary is known for its large population of Russians, Mineral water, and the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival that has now been going on for 52 years. Though this small gem of a city is worthy of a visit at any time of the year, during the festival the town is especially populated. Many dedicated festival-goers from different parts of the world, like myself, come every year, and proudly display their festival pins from previous years.
It is a ritual. I arrive a day before the festival and for a mere 900Kč I buy a full festival pass (eight days in total) with a student discount, equivalent to about £28. That’s £28 for eight days of watching about 3 films a day. You probably shouldn’t expect all the celebrities you might see at Cannes, but people are willing to come for the films, and you may spot a low-key budding actor strolling the streets like I did a few years back (I still brag about hugging Ezra Miller in his aspiring days at any opportunity I can get).
The affordability is one of the main reasons this festival draws in so many people. It shows that it is a people’s festival, meant to be enjoyed rather than be an ostentatious event. The inexpensiveness also means you cannot expect luxury. It is a festival so expect to sit on the floor sometimes or to wait in lines for two hours. Regardless of the range of numbness my butt felt sitting on uncomfortable surfaces, it was all worth it because of the opportunity to watch this many foreign, independent films, alongside the intense festival atmosphere that comes from the highs and lows of standing in queues for hours. Of course you don’t have experience it this intensely, you might have a more laid back approach; have lunch at Pizzaria Venezia across from the Thermal Hotel while you wait for the 5pm screening of Captain Fantastic in the Grand Hall. While you’re at it, grab an Aperol spritz from the Finlandia stand.
The range of films presented at the festival is impressive. Of the 150 feature films, 70 of the films are shown as international or European premieres. Even with the many premieres, old classics are revisited for people like myself who, for example, never had the opportunity to see Blue Velvet on a big screen. Many of these films have Q&A’s with the director, producers or actors at the end which is not only a good time to have your questions answered, but also to network with and seek advice from filmmakers you admire. There are separate events available to the public to discuss current issues in the industry – this year there was an open panel on current and future Film Education approaches in Europe.
Of course there are downsides to film festivals as open as the KVIFF, especially if you are interested in the more alternative films. The audience may not always appreciate films and will be very, let’s say, audible about it. Most of the time it is because their expectations of the films were not met, which is understandable, but still very annoying when you’re trying to enjoy the films yourself. That is to be expected in film festivals, as they are more of a social experience compared to going to the cinema to watch a singular film. Then again you might not find these festival films in your everyday cinema.
After watching a range of films from various countries I’ve compiled a list of recommendations that I strongly advise anyone and everyone to see: Aloys, Original Bliss, The House of Others, Complete Unknown, I am a Hero, Zoology, and Barash. I’ve only named a few, but out of the 20 or so films I watched in the span of 7 days, I can say I have not seen a single ‘bad’ film. I came out of the cinema each time having felt something.
By the end of the festival, if you choose to stay for all eight days, you might feel drained and sick of eating from Baguette Boulevard, a pop-up Czech sandwich shop closest to the main festival grounds, and so was I. Nonetheless, every summer I get excited to go back. I even start to feel enthusiastic about eating sandwiches everyday. Come to Karlovy Vary International Film Festival if you want that unique festival atmosphere alongside affordability and a beautiful location. For this reason and many more I will keep coming back to the festival every year.