The Ambivalent Direction of Images

Festival Report Karlovy Vary 2018. By Milja Radovic

The 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) was special in many ways: it revealed yet again its significance and importance for film culture, and its relevance in the world today. The festival celebrated film as art, and honoured many international figures from the world of film, including the beloved Czech, late Milos Forman. The festival offered a rich opus of films of different genres, from different periods of time, including the digitally restored masterpiece of Jan Němecen Diamonds of the Night (Czechoslovakia, 1964), enriching thus the cinematic space without precedence and fostering debates around cinema, film art and its powerful voice. At the 53rd KVIFF the Ecumenical Jury also celebrated 25 years of its presence at one of the oldest and most prestigious film festivals of Europe. To mark the 25th anniversary of the Ecumenical Jury, there was a special screening of the film Lucky by John Carroll Lynch (USA, 2017) which received the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2017. Lukas Jirsa (SIGNIS) with Jesuit Petr Vacik introduced the film, and after the screening the film was discussed. The screening was followed by the church reception offered by the Bishop of Pilsen and INTERFILM.

The Ecumenical Jury saw twelve films in the main competition having a challenging task to award the best one, with an opportunity of giving commendations to films that it valued besides the main winner.

At the 53rd International Film Festival Karlovy Vary the Ecumenical Jury of INTERFILM and SIGNIS awarded its Prize to the film Geula directed by Joseph Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov (Israel, 2018). The actor Moshe Folkenflik in the leading role in Geula received also the Best Actor Award of the international festival jury.

Geula is a film about a father who lives with his ill daughter who undergoes an invasive chemotherapy. The father, who used to be a rock star before becoming religious and changing his life upside down, lost his wife and is now fighting for the life of his 8-year-old daughter Geula, whose name also means ‘redemption’.  This struggle for life of his daughter opens old wounds and questions, reflecting another struggle we learn about – the inner struggle of a faithful man, who is now “wrestling” with both God and the world. Madmony and Yacov lead the audience gently through this complex story, powerfully revealing the struggle that takes place ‘inside’ in tragic circumstances. The camera works gently, with cinematography, shots, acting and music bringing out all the inner sadness, on an existential level, but also hope, or rather rejoice to which the film brings us towards its end. Redemption and reconciliation, sadness and joy are intertwined skilfully giving the experience of a real, human struggle, which is so difficult to portray cinematically avoiding the traps of artificiality or pathetic manipulation (usually based on a good story). This film avoids all these traps and succeeds on all levels.

What is very interesting is that this film comes from the bosoms of the Jewish orthodox community, where it was shot, however the sense of real(ism) is achieved not through its location but actually through a skilful and artistic portrayal from ‘inside’ the community: we get a sense not only on how actually this religious man lives his life of faith, but how he struggles with his decisions, beliefs and acting in the right way. By no means he is artificial, if anything, we understand that his (existential) struggle is genuine because his faith is genuine, and as it runs out, not confined to just a set of rules.

The film thus brings out the important issue of difference between faith and ‘religion’ as something that is ‘written in the stone’ where only following the rules can save one from one’s own abyss of existence. At the same time the team Madmony/Yacov keeps the balance between the two sides: the main character does not come to his relationship with God easily, he does not abandon ‘the rules’ but he experiences a crisis to understand at the end that they are not everything that matters. In other words, he is called to a difficult and painful path, where only rules are not enough: he has to overcome his isolation, the boundaries between himself and others, thus to re-think humanity, the relation to the world and to God. In his own words he wants to be a good man, and his prayer turns out to be not just a rule, but a ‘channel’ for achieving this. However, when challenged by his secular friend he admits that he is afraid that he could be so weak to return to his ‘old life style’. This is the beginning of the process of healing for both the father and his daughter.

In the midst of a struggle for Geula’s life, there is a conflict that shows that God and humanity cannot be confined just to a set of rules, that the relation to others, no matter how different others are, is a relation to God and life. The father finally understands that his music and art are a gift which is not to be easily thrown away. Instead, they turn out to be “healing arts”, both practically and existentially. In that respect the film reveals that faith is overcoming all kinds of narrow-mindness, the boundaries between communities and different people (with or without faith), and in this process of overcoming inner and outside divisions – the character discovers the healing beauty of openness and hope. This hope is re-confirmed in his life and re-affirmed at the end of the film – with the first clear signs of his daughter’s healing process and that she might be cured.

The Ecumenical Jury also awarded two Commendations. First, to the film Všechno bude (Winter Flies, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Poland, Slovakia, 2018), directed by Olmo Omerzu who also received the festival’s Award for Best Director. The Ecumenical Jury gave the Commendation to Všechno bude “for its poetic cinematography and the story which portrays the process of changing naïve dreams and finding the new perspective of reality and home.” Second, to a film of an emerging cinema in the Dominican Republic: Miriam miente (Miriam Lies, Dominican Republic, Spain, 2018) directed by Natalia Cabral and Oriol Estrada for “using meaningful style where the directors tell us a simple story that subtly reveals the important issues of race, social status, false dreams and growing-up with integrity”. Miriam Lies touches upon the most pertinent and repeating issues of the connections between race (and racism) and social status accompanied with ‘false dreams’ of success in life. A young school girl who is about to meet her first boyfriend whom she got to know only by online chats, and who turns out to be black as she herself is, has to find her own answers that are authentic and real, and that at the end show her integrity achieved and built through this process. The directors’ use of close-ups emphasises this personal burden of Miriam, who is a silent observer, but who then suddenly takes an action that is in contradiction with her whole environment.

The Ecumenical Jury widely debated all other films screened in the main competition. Some of the films had a special attention of the jury due to their narrative, cinematography, approach and the story line. Jumpman by Ivan I. Tverdovskiy (Russia, Lithuania, Ireland, France 2018) which won a Special Jury Mention, is a ‘surreal’ drama about an abandoned boy, Denis, who grew up in an orphanage, with ‘special powers’ that give him a dimension of a super-hero as he cannot feel any physical pain. Through the striking cinematography and editing the director shows the life of a ‘jumpman’ – a boy who throws himself in front of cars to cause traffic accidents, and to blackmail and to prey upon their owners afterwards. Denis does so to gain his mother’s love who is a part of a corrupt society (from police and lawyers to doctors and courts) but who finally abandons him again for a second time. This is when Denis loses his ‘super-power’ and feels the pain again. The film, inspired by real events, creates a super-hero anti-hero story about a boy that turns into a real hero only once he loses his super-powers and stands up to the corruption of the real world, thus regaining his humanity. 

Domestique (Domestik, Czech Republic, Slovakia, 2018) by Adam Sedlák is a drama about a road cyclist who wants to pursue his own success but the strict regime and training (including doping) he submits himself destroys both his life, and the life of his wife. Shot to create physical oppression, Domestik creates more than a ‘claustrophobic’ space, it oppresses the viewer as much as the characters to show how the culture in which we operate is a culture of ‘false dreams’ where we quantify ourselves, and that it is all ‘part of the game’ (including religion: the character is shot in front of the cross in his home ‘shrine’ surrounded with medals and trophies). Dehumanization is the only result that the process of an “embodied” obsession with success produces. Seemingly organized (too organized) characters, isolated from each other and the world, end up looking as devitalized, diseased beings whose self-inflicted dehumanization has been deliberately imposed.

Finally, “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” by Radu Jude (Romania, Czech Republic, France, Bulgaria, Germany, 2018) that won the Crystal Globe for the Best Film, and the Europa Cinema Prize, was highly considered by the Ecumenical Jury. The jury recognized the significance of the film shot as a docu-drama, of its style, approach, story-line and the topic it covers. The film tells about a young woman director who intends to create a public re-enactment of the Romanian collaboration with the Nazis in the first years of WWII. Radu Jude’s film is not just a story about the denial of the Holocaust, neither it is just about the reconstruction of history and politics of memory (which is swiping not just Romania but the whole Europe) – but it re-opens the question of Hannah Arendt on the ‘banality of evil’, which in this film translates as the ‘ordinariness of evil’. It is a striking film with a striking ending where the main character realizes that the crowd who is watching the show (the reconstruction of the historical event which integrates the pogrom of Jews in WWII) is cheering the Nazis (which are here perceived as heroes). The last shot stays on the gallows as an ominous prophecy on the European future should we not change direction.