Zlín 2024: A Delightful Experience for Young Audiences

Festival report by Stanislav Zeman, President of the Ecumenical Jury

The city of Zlín itself looks like a gesamtkunstwerk, the architecture often respects the original distance of 6 metres and 15 centimetres between the supporting elements, the colour scheme and the urban concept are also harmonised. In this respect, I particularly appreciate the undeveloped green areas in the city centre, where Bata's employees used to have lunch and where children had a great time during the festival and were educated in a creative way. After all, the spirit of Tomáš Bat'a, the world's largest shoe manufacturer of his time and the founder of the city's current image, is probably still blowing here - ZlínFest is the largest festival of its kind in the world, and some bold projects with global ambitions are being developed at Tomáš Bat'a University, for example in the connection between technology and ecology.

The president of the festival, Mr Čestmír Vančura, himself an internationally successful entrepreneur, is also - pardon the expression - a dude. He donates the money he can earn to support the festival, among other things, and he is certainly not aloof in contact, he even has a certain unpretentious showmanship about him, see, for example, taking off a tie by the artist Petr Nikl and throwing it among the children in the hall during the morning opening of the festival.

The high artistic level of the films screened testifies to the refined taste and probably also to the good negotiating skills of the programme director, Ms Markéta Pášmová and her team. The children's audience reacted very spontaneously, of course - children and young people laughed, clapped, occasionally wiped a tear, even cheered loudly for the main character during the thrilling football final. I know from other screenings that young audiences can show their dislike without embarrassment, but I did not notice anything like that during the festival. Not even ironic or sarcastic laughter was heard, which sometimes points to an unbelievable emotion, sometimes to a cliché, or to an otherwise not quite hilarious scene.

Together with the very erudite and friendly colleagues from the ecumenical jury - Iva Folajtarová, an artist of several disciplines, whom I know from the Prague Academic Parish, and Lars Obel, senior pastor of the Danish People's Church in Copenhagen, we saw all 12 films in the youth and teenage (junior) section, one film from the children's category and one feature-length documentary. In the youth films, of course, the flares and pains of first love were frequent plots. In the case of Young Hearts (directed by Anthony Schatteman, Belgium, The Netherlands, 2023), which won one of the main prizes - the Golden Slipper and the Audience Award - it was a sensitive depiction of the emerging love between two teenage boys. Other leitmotifs included misunderstandings and conflicts with parents, teachers and classmates, and the subject of bullying came up several times. Sport played an important role in four films - twice girls' football, once boys' rugby and in one case the young protagonist wanted to become a boxer. In several films, active participation in the school theatre was a parallel to the main plot. However, the dilemma of whether to educate adolescents rather strictly or with kind generosity also played an important role. Also essential was the young heroes' and heroines' ability to find the courage to speak out against injustice, to claim their ostracized ethnicity, or to persevere in pursuit of their dreams regardless of obstacles and partial defeats.

On an explicitly spiritual level, Christianity was thematized in the film On Earth as in Heaven (directed by Nathalie Saint-Pierre, Canada, 2023) as a sect resisting everything new, including technology, and brainwashing its members. After two teenage sisters gradually leave the sect and explore the big city (Toronto), they don't encounter a healthy Christian community, only the younger of the two finds the churches empty - though she only visits one of the churches outside of service time. The film took home the Youth Jury Prize and the Special Prize of one of the main juries.

A slightly more nuanced view of Islam is presented in Yurt (dir. Nehir Tuna, Turkey, Germany, France, 2023), which was awarded the Golden Slipper. The teenage protagonist lives in a boarding school where strict rules are followed, including a rather conservative form of Islam. In contrast, a more liberal spirit wafts through his school, with celebrated figures such as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Turkish Republic. The young man in the lead role initially endures his stay at the boarding school at his father's request, rebels against his father during the course of the story, but returns to the boarding school at the end by his own choice.

A similar dynamic is the development of the protagonist of City of Wind (dir: Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir, France, Germany, Mongolia, Netherlands, Portugal, Qatar, 2023), who develops shamanic powers at a young age, or at least is very good at faking them, as his girlfriend suspects. In an intense and tumultuous phase of their relationship, the protagonist claims that he can no longer reach the expanded state of consciousness necessary for shamanic practices. After breaking up with the girl, however, he returns to shamanism again. The boy's family supports him in this unusual "craft", and his mother herself regularly sacrifices to the spirits of all worlds, as is the centuries-old custom in Mongolia.

After thorough debates, we finally gave the Ecumenical Jury Prize to Sisterhood (France, 2023). The debut of French-Moroccan director Nora el Hourch is a powerful statement about friendship, the struggle for justice, dignity and equality in matters of gender, and social, racial and ethnic origin. The language of adolescence and everyday life in contemporary France is portrayed here in a truly authentic way. Beneath the harsh surface, however, the beauty of friendship and dreams of a better future shine through. The film handles the controversial themes of abuse and violence in a way that is not schematic, black and white. Instead, it perceives the much subtler nuances between the acts (sins) and their perpetrators - human beings in whom the divine spark of love slumbers.


With the Commendation of the ecumenical jury we also wanted to highlight the film Lars is LOL (Norway, 2023). Director Eirik Sæter Stordahl was present at the opening screening and admitted that the film's theme is based on his personal experience. Initially, 11-year-old Amanda is assigned against her will to take care of Lars, a classmate with Down syndrome. Over time, the two become friends. But when she disappoints not only Lars, her school, but also herself and her moral setup in the wake of the bullying, she must find the courage to ask for forgiveness. The film beautifully captures the many layers of forgiveness and its salutary effects.

I am truly delighted that such a great festival exists and thrives in our country, seeking out the best in children's and youth productions around the world. In doing so, it contributes to cultivating their tastes and a deeper awareness of some important values. I believe that many a viewer will, for example, call his or her parent after the film and say something nice to him or her, or perhaps stop posting degrading videos of a disabled classmate on social networks. I am looking forward to taking my two - so far young - sons to one of the next ZlinFests.