Down in the Pit with my Friends: Karlovy Vary Film Festival 2021
I didn’t have a ticket for my first screening at Karlovy Vary this year. I hadn’t seen the trailer of the film and knew hardly anything about it. Only that it was called “Reconstruction of Occupation” and that it was a Czech documentary about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Because I didn’t have a ticket but I had a festival accreditation, I stood in the line with a group of film students who were also trying to get in. The usher told us that it was unlikely there’d be space for us, but that he’d try his best to get us in. He was our only hope, our escort into a new world we might discover on entering that dark palace. As the minutes ticked by and happy ticket-holders filed past, we started to give up hope. But on the hour, he told us that there were just enough spaces for all five of us. And so like Charon conveying souls from the land of the living to the land of the dead, he quietly ushered us in.
Thus the festival began felicitously. Being in that room with a few hundred other souls felt like finding my people again after a long absence. The drunken guy who kept yelling out comments I didn’t understand in Czech was gently hushed by the audience. I wondered if he himself had lived through these events; and needed the support not only of alcohol but also an audience to get him through the watching experience. Perhaps the joy of finding ourselves in that hall again made us all more tolerant of this man.
Last year, the Karlovy Vary Film Festival was cancelled due to COVID-19. So this year there was a feeling of urgency to make up for lost time by celebrating the collective experience of watching film. With a program of 144 films and boasting two main competitions with world premieres: the Crystal Globe Competition and the East of the West Competition, the festival also has a great knack for picking up films from other festivals such as Cannes and the Berlinale. Thus we were treated to screenings of Omar El Zohairy’s Feathers (2021), Radu Jude’s Berlinale win, and Alexey German Jr.’s The House Arrest (2021).
As it was my first post-pandemic festival, I wondered about the audience’s shortened attention spans. I pictured people constantly checking their phones and walking out often. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Throughout the festival, I never sat next to someone who took out their phone during a projection, and walk-outs were at a bare minimum. The pandemic has made us more aware of each other, of how our own behaviour affects our neighbour’s experience. The experience seems to have made us aware of the privilege of watching a film together.
Why fly to another country to watch films when it would be easy to do at home, and carbon emissions are soaring? Some may argue that film festivals are still relevant because of the connections you can make. Conversations in real life hold value, impromptu meetings can lead to auspicious discoveries. But beyond this, I would argue that the importance of watching a film with a group of people cannot be underestimated. The importance of this collective experience is clarified by a quote from Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021) – the fantastic English title of which is translated from an even more complicated Romanian title. The second part of the film features a series of clever quotes. Thus we are given a kind of glossary of Radu Jude-esque wisdom, with quotes ranging from the factual: “Blowjob is the most looked-up word in the Online Dictionary”, to the disturbing, “6 in 10 Romanian children are subject to family violence”, to the more philosophical. Jude told me that the following quote is from German film theorist Siegfried Krakower. It appears in white text against a backdrop of cars moving slowly down a long boulevard, billboards dominating a dark landscape:
“We have learned in school the story of the Gorgon Medusa, whose face was so horrible that the sheer sight of it turned man and beast into stone. When Athena instigated Perseus to slay the monster, she warned him never to look at their face but only at its mirror reflection in the polished shield. Following her advice, Perseus cut off the Medusa’s head. The moral is that we do not and cannot see the actual horrors, because they paralyse us with blinding fear; and that we shall know what they look like only by watching images which reproduce their appearance. The cinema screen is Athena’s polished shield”.
This idea that watching “horrors” on screen is a way of purging ourselves from the fear of them, is what the Greeks called Catharsis. To attend a film festival again after COVID is to rediscover catharsis in full force. What I mean is that although you may recognise emotions when watching a film alone or with those close to you – in our ‘bubbles’, if you will – it is only by watching them in a crowd of strangers that we are deeply reminded that humankind is all the same. Interestingly, we often use the same term to talk about the small group of people with whom you choose to be in lockdown, as in “Who is in your bubble?”, and also to talk about the way we are exposed to only a limited part of the news, as in, “You’re in a social media bubble.” Watching film in groups can also provide refuge from fake news. Last year, the French documentary Hold Up, which touted conspiracy theories about COVID-19, claimed that it was just “tiny flu,” and was subsequently downloaded, shared on social media and watched by thousands of French people during lockdown. In cinemas, for better or for worse, there is some curation, and it is unlikely that fake news documentaries would make their way to theatres without public scandal. As well as this, events such as Q and A’s after films allow us to discuss and consider what we think about films as a group, rather than being faced with images and information that we have to wade through all on our own.
We all experience catharsis about certain topics more or less strongly according to our own life experiences. You might watch a film with a friend for example who cries profusely when a dog dies, but not when a child passes away, or vice versa. But perhaps for the first time in my lifetime, a global issue has created the need for collective cathartic surrender. Themes like sickness and death now affect all of us. At KVIFF, numerous films dealing with death, hospitals and psychological problems peppered all sections of the program: notably Adéla Komrzý’s Intensive Life Unit (2021)– a meditation on death and hospitals, Dear Ones (2021), Grzegorz Jaroszuk’s zany comedy about a family trying to find their mother, and Andrius Blaževičius’ Runner (2021), which dealt with a girl trying to save her boyfriend after he has a psychotic episode.
Another thing the pandemic brought us was the desire for deeper human connection. The search for love comes to the fore too, with Omar Omerzu’s Bird Atlas (2021) packing a steady punch, as well as two other films about finding love: Šimon Holý’s Mirrors in the Dark (2021), and Dietrich Brüggemann’s Nö (2021). The downfall of those who are too addicted to social media was another motif: the Polish gem Sweat (2020) deals with a fitness guru, and how her desire for connection isn’t met by her hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers.
The audience prize winner was the opening night extravaganza, Zátopek (2021), by veteran Czech director David Ondříček, about the famous Czechoslovak runner Emil Zátopek, and his wife, the javelin thrower Dana Zátopek. Against a backdrop of harsh coercion, their small and large victories are outlined. It’s always nice to be reminded that older generations before these have been through a lot, and worse, and are still around to tell the tale.
Another point made by the Radu Jude quote: The cinema screen is Athena’s polished shield, is that it protects us from the worst of those horrors. Personally, I don’t always feel so protected by the cinema screen. Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary Babi Yar. Context (2021) deals with the massacre of 30,000 Jewish people by Nazi soldiers in Kiev over a period of three days in 1941. The beginning of the film is so harrowing that after half an hour I had to leave. It contains original footage of Jewish people being led to their death which is impossible to watch. Whether or not it’s good to force yourself to watch such horrors is the subject for another article, but I do wonder if I would have watched Babi Yar differently at home. There is something about watching such images in a group that commands respect. And that collective pressure can be a good thing – you shouldn’t be able to heat up a taco in the microwave while watching thousands of people being massacred. There are some films which need to be honoured with the ritual of a screening. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag considers how we can look at war photography:
“Certain photographs—emblems of suffering, such as the snapshot of the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, his hands raised, being herded to the transport to a death camp—can be used like memento mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one’s sense of reality; as secular icons, if you will. But that would seem to demand the equivalent of a sacred or meditative space in which to look at them. Space reserved for being serious is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of a public space is the mega- store.”
Nowadays it could be argued that the chief model of public space is the internet, and its highest altar Amazon. What happens when the owner of this megastore dreams of building a colony in space for the elite of the world, leaving the rest of us to crash and burn on earth in a nightmarish dystopia similar to the one depicted in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer? The “space reserved for being serious” becomes literally that – space. But where do the rest of us go to be serious? A community space in which we can all experience catharsis as a way of trying to redeem our humanity seems like a good start. Of course, there is a certain amount of privilege that goes with being able to go to the cinema – let alone a film festival – but these are still spaces that have been traditionally reserved for people of all classes, from the Theatre of Ancient Rome, to the Elizabethan Globe Theatre, to the dome theatres of the Imax corporation.
When we can afford to go to the cinema, it is both a privilege and a necessity to do so. Like the drunk guy shouting at my first screening, like me crying at Loznitsa, the audience ultimately tests our humanity in the face of suffering. By watching films at home in our spaceship bubbles, we may have a more comfortable watching experience, but sometimes being a groundling is so much more worthwhile.