Interview with Karel Och
Artistic Director of KVIFF - Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2017
Name: Cora Frischling
Karel Och is calm personified. Not the kind of calm that would make you question, whether he’s awake or not, or the kind where you have to fight for every word (that would be unfortunate, considering his position as the artistic director of Karlovy Vary IFF). He exudes rather an air of utter relaxedness – probably quite a valuable trait when guiding a team that selects around 200 films every year. Maybe he frequents the thermal springs as preparation for the festival madness. Karlovy Vary is a spa town, after all.
After joining KVIFF’s programming department in 2001, Och became the artistic director in 2010, at the age of 36. Needless to say, it is quite young compared to the other A-list festivals where the highest positions are usually occupied by grey-haired men 15 years his senior. Since then, his hair has gotten more grey as well, but his open and humorous manner would allow to suggest that it is also thanks to Karel Och that the youthful spirit of the festival has prevailed.
We sat down with him during the 52nd edition of KVIFF to talk about the festival, his work and his recent trip to Cannes as part of the Un Certain Regard jury.
I assume that usually, when you go to Cannes, you have quite a different experience than this year. How was it being in the jury?
Karel Och: It was a complete change of pattern for me. I’m used to going to Cannes as a festival representative, meaning I watch as many movies as possible. Usually it is kind of schizophrenic because it happens in the second half of May – time when we are locking our programme. We try to watch as much as possible because we try to take some films from Cannes to Karlovy Vary. At the same time, we are dealing with a lot of emails connected to our official programme. This time, with the jury duty, there was another level of schizophrenia for me, but I don’t want to make it sound negative because it was an utterly and completely positive experience. And quite unforgettable, I mean, the jury in Cannes - I really would have never dreamed about anything like that. I got to know the festival the way I know our festival: as a part of the organization. Of course, we as jury members don’t organize the festival but we spent a lot of time with the organizers and had the chance to see the festival through the backdoor.
And you met Uma Thurman, who was the president of your jury…[and received the Festival President’s Award at KVIFF last week].
KO: I did meet Uma Thurman, which was quite the unusual experience. Not only because she’s a big star, known for the movies that I love, but she is also a very clever and well-organized lady. To have her as the president of the jury was a very pleasant experience.
In the wide and growing festival landscape, where do you see Karlovy Vary?
KO: I would include Karlovy Vary in the second group of festivals when talking about Europe. Of course, Cannes is Cannes. Next to that I would place Berlin and Venice. Then I believe there is a second group of festivals that contains Locarno, San Sebastiàn, Karlovy Vary, maybe Rotterdam. We often aim for the same films but it doesn’t mean that we are enemies. We are actually friends with the bosses of the festivals I just mentioned and we talk about the films. I think what connects us is passion for the films and a strong will to support filmmakers, especially young ones. We can help them to go out there into the jungle of the film industry and distribution and then send them into the orbit of the big festivals.
The vibe of your festival is quite different from what one would expect…
KO: What did you expect?
Being a thermal resort town, definitely not so many young people.
KO: It’s definitely different during the rest of the year, then it is what you and everyone would expect. But during the festival it’s a party town. Not only are there hundreds of young people coming at the beginning of the summer holidays to watch movies, others come only to party or follow the music events. We all mix at some point during the evening. In the 90s it was described by some enthusiastic journalist from the West as Czech Woodstock. It was wilder back then. Everybody slept outside in sleeping bags. It was really savage in the best possible way.
Being responsible for the whole film selection process you get a glimpse into what is going on in people’s heads all over the world every year. Are there things that you feel are being handled more frequently right now?
KO: I don’t know. This is a question we don’t like to get. I took the liberty to ask Thierry Frémaux in Cannes what his response is, when he gets this kind of question at the press conference, because it is the most frequent question: what’s the most common theme or topic of this year’s competition? And he says: I always answer “Love”, because in a way it’s true. He also explained how difficult it is because we select the films throughout the whole year. But it is not an illogical question. I mean it reflects in our programme this year that there are quite a few films related to some political issues we’re dealing with nowadays. Specifically, the refugee crisis. Of course, the offer was much wider but for us the politics of the film is not the reason why we select it. It must be what we consider a strong film, meaning a strong story, or a style, or esthetical approach that at least tries to be somehow different, innovative, or alternative.
Which regions do you think are the most intriguing ones to get films from at the moment?
KO: Georgia is probably one of the regions that has been represented more strongly in our programme during recent years. And not only at our programme. Look at Berlinale, I think they had three films in Berlin this year. We also have two beautiful films as premieres here in Karlovy Vary and some more in the sidebar. It again confirms the fact that you don’t need a huge amount of money to become a visible item on the map of the film production. Same with Greece. You need really strong support, especially intellectual support. Of course, some money is necessary but you need some spiritual and professional guidance which national film centres, like in Georgia, provide quite nicely. You also need a good atmosphere in the filmmaking community with mutual support. When I was in Tbilisi recently, I felt that very strongly.
Every festival is organized differently. Here your title is artistic director. What does that entail?
KO: It means that I don’t have to take care of the financing of the festival. That’s a big advantage. I have several friends in the same position that not only have to handle programming but sponsorship as well. The comfortable situation at Karlovy Vary, at least from the programming team’s point of view, is that there is the festival president Jiří Bartoška and the executive director Kryštof Mucha, and they handle the sponsors and the financing. Me and my team that I want to mention because I would be lost without them, can focus solely on the programme.
How do you work with that team?
KO: We have programmers focused on territories and some sections. So, Lenka Tyrpáková oversees the submissions and does the selection for the so-called East of the West countries, meaning Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkan countries, and the countries from the former Soviet Union. Martin Horyna is responsible for the documentary competition, etc. Then we of course travel around different territories and each of us is taking care of those. Then we watch certain movies together in a cinema, especially the local submissions. We go on to judge films separately and meet once a week to talk about what we’ve seen, and make decisions.
How many of the 200 titles in the program have you seen?
KO: I haven't seen maybe 15 films. With the intensity of the work and the things I have to organize with the other departments I sometimes have to base the decisions on the opinions of my colleagues, mainly for the sidebar programmes, with titles from Berlin or Cannes. But sometimes, in exceptions, also for the competition. And then I catch up with the films later on, but that concerns only the East of the West and Documentary competitions because it’s precisely those two mentioned programmers who have been very skilful.
How do you feel about the concept of having a competition? Is being an A-list festival not restrictive in that sense?
KO: Of course, the ideal situation would be a premiere-less competition where you just look at the year’s productions and go with your own taste. But at the same time, it is kind of boring because you only go for the discoveries of someone else. So, there is this excitement about an eventual discovery that makes you take the risk. Every now and then it works. There is a satisfaction in helping someone new to go out there and to create a relationship on which we can build on in the future. But competitions are a tricky thing in general because you sometimes think it doesn’t make sense to compare these movies. Every competition is kind of unfair. At the same time, if a film wins at an A-category film festival then it gets support for the next film automatically in certain countries. In these cases, it totally makes sense.
Speaking of promoting films after festivals, you have recently launched KVIFF distribution. What is your goal with that?
KO: Basically, we realized a few years ago that we have enough experience to start a label to combine distribution and festivals together with an established distributor and Czech television. We organize events and invite the filmmakers for the premieres in Prague. The main reason was to support arthouse distribution. We have a few distributors for that but it is not as good as it could be. And frankly, it’s a waste to focus all of our energy only on the ten days in the year. That is why we do the short film festival and now distribution. We discussed with Aerofilms, our partner distribution company, which films we would like to focus on. We started with Paolo Sorrentino [Youth] because we needed a long shot with a bigger name and we had really good results. But then we did Neon Bull [Gabriel Mascaro], Slack Bay [Bruno Dumont], A War [Tobias Lindholm], Paterson [Jim Jarmusch] and The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki [Juho Kuosmanen]. It’s what we consider outstanding examples of the European arthouse. Plus, we released our winning film It’s Not the Time of My Life by Szabolcs Hajdu last year, so we also aim to extend the life of the films that start at our festival.
Are you planning to expand that to local films? So far these are all from other European countries than the Czech Republic.
KO: That’s correct and it did cross my mind. But I think we need to work a bit more, maybe a year or two, to fully understand this form of hybrid distribution. It takes a while until you get into producer’s head, into the notion in the film business that you can actually be trusted with that. However, the company we work with, Aerofilms, has been doing Czech films sometimes, so it might even come earlier.