In a region of the world — central and eastern Europe — that hasn’t had much to celebrate recently, the news that the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is returning in full force this year (the 56th KVIFF runs July 1-9) is truly a reason to party.

“We had a physical event last year but it was still a bit under the cloud of COVID,” says KVIFF artistic director Karel Och. “This time around, everyone is really in the mood, you can feel the carnival atmosphere that makes Karlovy Vary so special. It’s going to be as close to [the last pre-pandemic festival] 2019 as possible.”

Karlovy Vary holds a unique position in the festival calendar. Coming after craziness of Cannes and before the awards-season ramp-up that begins with Venice and Toronto, the Czech fest offers an oasis of calm. Located in the postcard-perfect spa town in western Bohemia that has been a chill-out spot since at least the 19th century — last year UNESCO granted Karlovy Vary status as a world heritage site, naming it one of the “great spa towns of Europe” — the festival is as popular with the locals, who flock south from the capital, Prague, to spend their first week of summer vacation there, binge-watching movies, as with industry A-listers, who use KVIFF’s red carpet to roll out their new releases for the region and as a spot to combine a bit of work with a lot of pleasure.

This year’s A-listers include Oscar winners Benicio Del Toro and Geoffrey Rush, both of whom will be honored at the 2022 event. Traffic and The Usual Suspects star Del Toro will receive the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival President’s Award given to filmmakers who have “made a fundamental contribution to the development of film and cinema.” Rush, whose career highlights include The King Speech (2010), Quills (2000) and Shine (1996), will receive KVIFF’s Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema, the festival’s lifetime achievement honor.

Karlovy Vary 2021 VIPs Benicio del Toro and Geoffrey Rush
Courtesy of Maurice Haas; Jeff Vespa/Contour by Getty Images

Over the years, Karlovy Vary has had little trouble attracting bold name celebrity guests, with Patrica Clarkson, Johnny Depp, Thomasin McKenzie, Ethan Hawke and Robert Pattinson among the recent luminaries to stroll the KVIFF red carpet in front of the Hotel Thermal, the luxury hotel and spa built specifically back in 1977 to host the country’s premiere film festival.

“The festival is really loved by celebrities, in part because we honor them not just as actors but as filmmakers,” says festival executive director Kryštof Mucha. “So when we honored John Malkovich or Antonio Banderas, we also celebrated their work as directors. Last year, we not only presented Johnny Depp the actor, but also Johnny Depp the producer [of Julien Temple’s Shane MacGowan music doc Crock of Gold].”

For A-listers used to the hectic press schedules of Berlin, Cannes or Venice, Karlovy Vary comes as a relief.

“There’s no huge pressure on people to do a whole day fo press junkets or Q&As or other events,” says Muncha. “Celebrities can feel free to be as involved, or not, in the festival as they want. It’s always a combination of work and vacation.”

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Patricia Clarkson at the 2019 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

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Robert Pattinson received a Crystal Globe in Karlovy Vary in 2018.

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Thomasin Mckenzie at the premiere of ‘Leave No Trace’ in Karlovy Vary in 2018.

The official lineup for the 2022 Karlovy Vary festival is a similar combination of the fun and the serious. This year’s program includes more than 160 feature-length and short films, 34 world premieres among them.

Alongside Cannes favorites, including Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning Triangle of Sadness and jury prize winners The Eight Mountains from Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, and Eo, Jerzy Skolimowski’s donkey road movie, KVIFF programmers have hand-picked the best in new cinema from Eastern Europe, including competition titles Borders of Love, from Polish director Tomasz Wiński, Czech director Beata Parkanová’s new feature Slovo, and Lithuanian sci-fi feature Vesper from directors Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper, all of which will have their world premieres in Karlovy Vary.

The festival’s Imagina section will feature more challenging and experimental works, including Yuri Ancarani’s docu-fiction Atlantide, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s human body-focused odyssey De humani corporis fabrica. While KVIFF’s popular Midnight screenings will feature the latest from cult directors Quentin Dupieux (Smoking Causes Coughing), Alex Garland (Men) and David Cronenberg (Crimes of the Future).

“We’re one of the world’s oldest film festivals [the festival’s first edition, in 1946, was just one month after Cannes’ debut], but I like to think we’re still young at heart,” says Och. “The core programming team is in their 20s and 30s and the majority of the festival audience are students.”

Indeed, despite Karlovy Vary’s luxurious location, KVIFF cultivates an atmosphere that is closer to a nine-day music festival than a stuffy industry tux-and-gown event.

“It’s a pubic festival and it’s the first week in July, which is the first week of summer holidays,” notes Mucha. “So the students come down in force and spend their first week off at Karlovy Vary, watching movies.”

Those hardy film fans bunk out in dormitories and tents — Karlovy Vary’s legendary “tent city” on the festival outskirts has a “Woodstock-y feel to it,” notes Och — and KVIFF accommodates their tight budgets by, in the words of Muncha, “keeping prices as low as possible…you can see three films a day for less than $2 [a ticket].”

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Hundreds of film fans camp out in Karlovy Vary’s “tent village” during the festival.

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Die-hard KVIFF fans outside the ticket office at the 2021 festival.

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Karlovy Vary cultivates a musical festival atmosphere, with nightly concerts, like this 2021 performance by local act PSH.

Muncha says this egalitarian approach also sets Karlovy Vary apart from more industry-focused events like Cannes or Sundance.

“When you screen your films at those festivals, you know that the majority of people in the cinemas are professionals,” he notes. “In Karlovy Vary, the majority, maybe 80 percent, are regular fans. For many filmmakers, it’s the first screening of their film in front of a regular audience, an audience who aren’t judging their movie from the critics’ perspective or the sales perspective or the cinema owners’ perspective but are there for the film itself, for the story.”

KVIFF established its laid-back, audience-first approach in the mid-’90s. After 40 years of operating under political pressures in socialist Czechoslovakia — pressures that included having to alternate every year with the Moscow International Film Festival — KVIFF was rebooted in 1994 following independence when well-known Czech acting legend Jiří Bartoška (Sekal Has to Die, All My Loved Ones, Tiger Theory) and leading film journalist Eva Zaoralová took over running the event. They got some much-needed help from Oscar-winning Czech director Milos Foreman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, The People vs. Larry Flynt), who made it his mission to promote the KVIFF in Hollywood.

“He’d pick up the phone and call his friends, like Michael Douglas, who he knew because Douglas produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” notes Och, “He knew Douglas spent his summer vacations in Europe, so he asked if he’d visit the festival. He did the same for [The People Vs. Larry Flint actors] Woody Harrelson and Edward Norton. Everyone had such respect for him, and trusted him, that they’d come.”

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The late Czech director Milos Foreman was an avid supporter of the Karlovy Vary film festival.

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Foreman helped attract Hollywood stars to Karlovy Vary, including, in 2000, both Edward Norton …

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… and Woody Harrelson.

Foreman, who died in 2018,  wasn’t above a publicity stunt if it would help the festival. In the mid-90s the director cycled the nearly 80 miles from Prague to Karlovy Vary, arriving in bike gear and sweatband, the perfect image of KVIFF’s egalitarian ethos.

“Milos Foreman was very important for Karlovy Vary, also as a symbol of a Czech filmmaker and Czech artist, who became internationally famous but still kept his Czech sensitivities and his Czech sense of humor,” says Och. “His spirit will never disappear from Karlovy Vary.”

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In a publicity stunt to promote the festival, Milos Foreman cycled nearly 80 miles from Prague to Karlovy Vary.

While KVIFF continues to celebrate, as Och puts it, the “anything goes freedom” that Foreman embodied, the 2022 festival has also become more business-like. The event’s industry section, KVIFF Eastern Promises Industry Days, which runs July 3-6 alongside the festival proper, has become a prime networking and discussion hub with a focus on film production and distribution in the region.

The festival is getting directly involved in the latter, after its distribution arm, KVIFF Distribution, acquired a majority stake in Aerofilms, a leading arthouse distributor in the Czech Republic. Aerofilms’ film catalog, which includes more than 500 titles, will feed into KVIFF TV, the festival’s VOD streaming platform which, fueled by investment from Jakub Havrlant’s Rockaway Capital, is looking to become an online player for the entire region.

“The ambition is, three years from now, more or less, we want to be able to acquire films ourselves, at the European Film Market in Berlin or in Cannes, say, that we can launch at Karlovy Vary and then take into physical and online distribution, not just in the Czech Republic but across the wider CEE [central and eastern European] region,” says Och.

Right now, Karlovy Vary is providing more direct support for those hardest hit in the CEE: Ukrainian filmmakers disrupted or displaced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of this year.

In a show of support, KVIFF on July 5 will host the works-in-progress program of the Odesa International Film Festival, highlighting eight full-length feature projects from up-and-coming Ukrainian filmmakers whose production was halted because of the war. All are looking for potential production, financing and distribution partners to get their films over the line.

While the Odesa WIP program is only a small part of KVIFF 2022, Och sees it as essential to the festival’s primary goal to support and sustain the region’s film industry, both now and in the future.

“If I think back 30 years ago when the film industry in what was then Czechoslovakia emerged after the fall of the communist regime, it was a major challenge but we still had the infrastructure, the building, the studios, in place,” Och says. “What we are talking about in Ukraine is whole cities disappearing, about filmmakers not just having no space to be creative but no place to sleep, to live their lives…Even though many of the filmmakers in Ukraine have now put down the cameras and have gone to the front line to fight, they are still filmmakers, and, hopefully, will be able to return to normal lives, and creative lives, as soon as possible.”

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