DIARY OF A RECKLESS FESTIVAL INTRUDER
Day 7 – Thursday 10 September
Five penguins in a car
It is mainly during the more ceremonial moments that you notice how this year’s festival is a low-profile edition. But the minimal number of invitees adds a new dimension to the event: never before have so many employees brought their fiancé, their spouse or their children to the festival, thus offering a modest insight into the personal lives of people you normally only meet under professional circumstances.
Today a guest delegation is invited for a brunch at a very special location: the villa of Miroslav Zikmund, the great explorer who was celebrated during last year’s festival. The phenomenal mountainside villa, mainly made out of wood, is crammed with souvenirs and memories. Visitors are delighted about the unique architectural phenomenon that rarely opens its doors to the public… and about the silver medal of honour they receive on the occasion of the festival anniversary.
This is the last day of the festival, but the event ain’t over till Saturday when the marathon will take place in a slightly modified form. Unlike the other major annual event in Zlin, the Barum Rally, a race that was to be held for the 50th time in the woods surrounding the city in August. The event is cancelled, as the organisers were scared off by the influx of international (mostly Italian) fans. The decision made bad blood in this rally-mad country. Why children's film and not rally? Why the 60th anniversary but not the 50th? The festival was bombarded with angry reactions on social media. Covid once again shows itself as a phenomenon with a green heart.
I am in the cinema, watching the interesting Italian film THE SWEETIES, when the result of my test arrives. I’m mainly nervous about the hassle with access codes. It works for me, but some of my companions still have to wait a few days before receiving the correct codes to consult the account. I am happy with the result, but every time when climbing the slope towards Hotel Moskva, standing at the front door running out of breath, I think "that test is not correct, the virus caught me anyway."
For every festival regular, translator Pavel is a familiar face, assisting us at all official occasions. For him it has been a particularly quiet edition. During the festival he took 3 full days off - that has never happened before. But someone else has been working super hard this year; Eliska guaranteed that all blogs and interviews were published online every day, often even after midnight. For which I am very grateful – thank you so much, Eliska!
Festival President Cestmir Vancura addresses the journalists at the press conference: “Five years ago when installing a new festival staff, we decided to go back to our roots: bring the festival back to the kids, the families and the city. That is why we were well prepared for this exceptional situation, as we have our loyal audience to fall back upon.” More than 11,000 people attended the screenings. The mayor of the city shows his appreciation for the festival’s bravery. “Courage and endurance are crucial aspects of the Bata culture”. Then Marketa Pasmova announces the awards. Among the most notable titles are H IS FOR HAPPINESS, LIFE WITHOUT SARA AMAT, THE CROSSING, there is a “team award” for THE PACK and the Audience Award goes to INTO THE BEAT.
The awards are publicly announced during the grand closing gala, broadcast live on Czech national TV. There is a robot bringing awards upon stage, there is a charming tribute to Jiri Menzel, and there is a Golden Slipper Lifetime Achievement Award for Eliska Balzerova, who acted in numerous children's film classics, including the ones made by Karel Kachyna. Later that evening I see her standing at the bar, surrounded by festival people. Without understanding a word of the language, I see how she holds the attention of her audience with her storytelling talent. But the small scale of this edition is now striking. There are fewer guests at the gala, less grandeur, less overkill. Last year I stood proudly upon the hillside looking out over the Congress Centre, where hundreds of dressed up guests had gathered, flags were waving, orchestras were playing, cars coming and going. Now the square in front of the Centre remains remarkably empty.
Personally, I am not a great teller of jokes. I was 17 years old when I asked my friends' attention for the amazing “joke about the monks and the French fries” and when no one laughed, I decided this had been my final attempt. But Jiri Konecny proves himself to be a true grandmaster. A joke that starts with “a guy was driving 5 penguins through town in his car” can't possibly go wrong. But when back in my room two hours later I recall his classic Czech joke about “a blind and a one-eyed guy walking through the woods to meet their grandma”, I burst out laughing again.
The next morning we leave for home. Only 259 more days to go, someone has calculated.
Day 6 – Wednesday 9 September
Czech = Central European French
Bring five men together in a festival context and immediately you have the impression you’re looking at a bunch of kids on a school trip. But take five men to a hospital for a Covid-test, and immediately it feels like the yearly medical school check-up that I remember from my childhood. But with more fun!
First I have to face the International Expert Jury for an interview, for which they’ve tried to scare me all week long. How to deal with Alexandre the unstoppable motormouth? Or with Judit, whom I’ve been told is coming from Another Dimension? And if they are truly experts, what exactly is their expertise? I guess … diplomacy? How else would you justify a sentence like “what you get to see in Zlin, you don’t see in Karlovy Vary”? We love you, Judit!
I appreciate the fact that the festival arranged us a Covid-test. Together with Jiri, Angelos, Felix, Alexandre, and the extremely helpful jury angel Anna we get into the car and on our way to the hospital. We’re all a bit giggly, trying to deny the seriousness of the situation. The atmosphere in the waiting room is like a football team’s dressing room right before the game, or a band backstage before the concert: cocky pep talk and nervous silliness. The festival offered us the privilege of a superfast priority treatment. One by one we’re called in. Isn’t it a sign of the times that these days people try to take selfies while undergoing a Covid-test? I’m happy not to be captured on any picture – I was told nobody was making faces as silly as I did. Well, it ain’t exactly fun, and even many hours later I still feel a bizarre itch inside my nose, but I’m super happy we had it done.
Solace can be found in the cinema. I’m right in time to see LIFE WITHOUT SARA AMAT. This humble and delicate film seems to have grown into this year’s Zlin revelation. It is like somebody has thrown a small rock into the pond, and even hours after the screening the rings on the water are still growing. Everything fell at its place so beautifully in a film full of dignity.
I’m having an ice cream in good company – am I the only one who never heard before about “freshly mined charcoal ice”? In front of the hotel, taxis are waiting to take the first guests back home. Always a sad sight. Soon we’ll be the only foreigners left.
Isn’t it frustrating that after visiting the Czech Republic for so many times, I still don’t understand a single word of the conversations going on around me? And ‘not a word’ can be taken rather literally. The Czechs to me always seem to have a ‘wordy’ culture, there’s always an awful lot of words involved. Much more the French than the English approach. Most problematic are Czech names, and some mistakes even found their way into this blog. Zusa should have been Zuzka (probably I’m getting it all wrong again), Petra’s last name should have been Nacasova, and I’m sure I made many more mistakes during the week that hopefully went unnoticed. Men are easier to deal with, in general they’re called Pavel, Martin or Tomas, and that’s it.
But no one has as many words as Alexandre. I adore people telling a solid story, which in his case seems like 100% guaranteed. He gives me an entertaining overview of his exciting career, but somewhere half way I’m about to collapse – I really need to go to bed. While we didn’t yet arrive to his more successful days in cinema. I force him to end the story in full doom and gloom.
Interview with the International Expert Jury for Feature Films for Children & Youth
“Finally getting away from that dishwasher”
There is one jury in this festival in which so much expertise is gathered, that they could easily be described as “the jury from another dimension”. Awards have been decided by now, so Jiri Konecny, Louise Højgaard Johansen, Judit Bardos, Alexandre Dupont-Geisselmann and Felix Vanginderhuysen presume I might be fishing for the results. But I am mainly after a totally different type of information. They have the longest names of all festival juries and the longest CV’s attached to it – Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present you “The International Jury”.
Let’s check how well you got to know each other during the festival. Who has been drinking the most?
Felix: That must be Alexandre, always having large beers. Jiri maybe could be a contender, he sometimes disappeared for hours, pretending to be “at work”, but who knows …
Who talked the most?
Judit: As a president, Jiri led all the discussions.
Alexandre: We often forced Felix to talk from his expert perspective after almost 100 years in children’s film.
Who fell asleep most often during screenings?
Judit: Me, only once, for a brief moment. And once I saw Felix …
Felix: Impossible! Not me …
Louise: Me too, just for a moment.
Jiri: I saw it happening to people in other juries but not in ours!
Who comes from another dimension?
Louise: Judit, and you can take that as a compliment.
Jiri: I suspect Judit to be R2-D2, she speaks at least five languages, probably even more. In our jury “coming from another dimension” is one of the greatest compliments a person could get.
If you as a festival organiser could steal one thing from this festival and take it home with you, what would it be?
Louise: The synergy between city and festival, the way the whole town comes to live. I love local festivals, and even though this is a very international event, still you can get a sense of the local flavour and meet the audiences in person. That is a dream!
Jiri: The festival’s tradition and how the city’s tradition adds to that. Zlin has basically been a “film city” since forever.
Judit: I love the park being full of children and families. You don’t get to see that in Karlovy Vary.
For most of you it is the first physical festival to attend in a long time. How much did you miss it?
Felix: For me the decision of the Zlin Festival was crucial. Over the last months I had to cancel 6 festival trips and I kept my fingers crossed all summer for Zlin not to be cancelled too. Hanging out with our jury for me was so enlightening, combining thorough film discussions with less serious conversations afterwards at the bar.
Louise: The work of a festival programmer can be pretty lonesome. I’m working from my home in Prague, from my kitchen, and it is really amazing to finally get away from that dishwasher and see my colleagues and friends again. Hopefully this will mark the start for many more travels this year. But we festival people don’t know yet what will happen. We all have a strong Plan A, but we need to keep Plan B in our minds.
Alexandre: It is important to get started again. The reluctance to re-open cinemas after the lockdown might have planted a seed in the minds of people that something is very wrong with cinemas. Now festivals could be a motivation for the audience to go to the movies again.
Jiri: What I missed the most is that actors and directors couldn’t be here with us. What a pity. From this year’s competition, some of them could have brought a wonderful energy to the festival.
Any more impressions to share on the city of Zlin?
Jiri: I’ve been studying the architecture and urbanisation of this city and I’m a big fan, this is one successful example of how a city can be organized. Except this highway crossing right through the town centre, which is a problem to be solved.
Judit: I adore the rooftop of the Bata building.
Jiri: Of course, you felt connected to your other dimension! It looks like a UFO gateway.
You have been watching two competitions, one for children and one for teenagers. What did these selections tell you about young audience films today?
Felix: It seems much more difficult nowadays to find high standard quality films for children than for teenagers. In our discussion about the youth section we had at least 4 candidates to receive an award. In the children’s section much more often we said “yes, but …”.
Alexandre: I can’t accept this idea. In the kids competition films were included from around the globe and we should realise that our European perspective is not the only doorway to the world. Maybe for kids, more than for teenagers, it is important to stay close to their daily reality. Many of these titles from China, Brazil, Chile, South-Korea, etc. might have a huge relevance for the domestic target audience, and that is a perspective that sometimes we might be missing.
Jiri: For me the question how to judge these films as an adult was surely legitimate. I would love to hear more opinions from kids and learn from what they actually appreciate. Teenage films in general are standing closer to our adult reference framework.
Louise: In general children and youth films are often subject-driven, elaborating on one specific theme. The nice thing in this selection is that on top of that many films also came with an amazing artistic vision.
Judit: I had the feeling from these films that many children and teenagers today are all alone, without families, and they don’t have the words to express their problems. It is up to my generation and the next ones to do something about that.
Let’s check some more details about the films in your competition. What was your favourite animal in this week’s selection?
Louise: There were very few animals. I was missing the cats.
Alexandre: We had ongoing discussions about the dog in MONICA AND FRIENDS – was it actually green or blue?
(discussion continues again…)
Felix: We had a horse in SUNBURNED and a pony in H IS FOR HAPPINESS.
Jiri: My favourite was the tiny frog in ROCKS.
Which mature character would you like to get to know better, or maybe ask out on a date?
Louise: Without even considering that would be Marlon from INTO THE BEAT!
Jiri: The grandmother in LIFE WITHOUT SARA AMAT was a very nice and interesting lady, I wouldn’t mind having a chat with her. But Sabine Timoteo, playing the mother in SUNBURNED, used to be one of my ultimate idols, so that is my obvious choice.
Felix: The mother in SUMMER WHITE would be more suitable for my age. She could teach me how to dance, and tell me how “it is all in the eyes”.
Alexandre: And she was smoking all the time – good for you!
Judit: I would love to meet both the boy and girl from LIFE WITHOUT SARA AMAT, maybe together with the director.
Zlin always had the tradition of putting one country in focus, which couldn’t be done this year. Please suggest one country (except your home country) for a future edition.
Louise: I enjoyed watching the South and Latin-American films as they have a special flavour and a great energy. Being brought up on Northern-European cinema, this felt really refreshing.
Jiri: I would go for Great-Britain. There is a lot for us to learn from them.
Alexandre: The two Asian films in competition (from South-Korea and China) made me think about diving a bit deeper into that continent. Learning about their film history, we might get a better understanding of the films they are making today.
Felix: Italy! I’m sure that for a youth section many films have been made there that we haven’t seen yet.
Judit: Finland, Sweden, Norway …. I want to see more from that part of the world.
Pick one director that you think should once make (or have made) a children’s film.
Jiri: Ridley Scott would surely be able to make an utterly thrilling and accessible quality film for children.
Alexandre: Stanley Kubrick, as the Moskva Hotel reminds me all the time of THE SHINING.
Judit: I go for Quentin Tarantino!
Felix: I wonder how Sergio Leone’s style and approach would work out in a children’s film.
Louise: Lars Von Trier, as children’s film is the only genre he didn’t try so far. The result would probably be slightly disturbing, and very interesting.
Interview with the International Expert Jury for Animated Films for Children
“A wolf driving a Harley Davidson”
Interview with the International Expert Jury for Animated Films for Children
“A wolf driving a Harley Davidson”
Leaving the congress centre after the interview, I’m walking down the stairs with Martin Vandas, producer of animated films, and I see how Katariina Lillqvist and Noro Drziak go the wrong direction and manage to get lost in 5 seconds. That is no coincidence. They are both animators. Animators in general can get lost quite easily in buildings, and in their own thoughts and fantasies. Especially for me, they stayed focussed all the time doing the interview. Ladies & gentlemen, I proudly present you, Martin, Katarina and Noro, aka the “Zlin Animation Jury”.
Let’s check how good you already know each other after 5 days of jury work.
Martin: We all knew each other before but now it is good to be in a jury together.
Who has been drinking the most?
Noro: I think Martin.
Who has been talking the most?
Noro: Again that is Martin.
Katariina: Fins are silent.
Martin: I am a producer and they both are animators, who are in general more introverted.
Who fell asleep most often during screenings?
Noro: That is probably me, but it was only for one second.
Katariina: Me too, only once, after that exquisite Italian lunch we had.
Can you introduce each other in one sentence?
Katariina: Martin will be the grandfather of our future animated docs.
Martin: Katariina is the gipsy queen of fairy-tales and the mother of a nice dog.
Katariina: We both are owners of a similar type of street dog.
Martin: I met Noro when he was about to finish his master student’s movie and came too late to work in the school film studio. I offered him: we can move the studio to my house and prepare one room as your production unit.
How much have you been missing the festivals?
Martin: This is my second festival after the lockdown and you feel the people’s urge to talk and connect again, taking in account safety precautions of course. This is a great opportunity to catch up with others, and the fact that everything looks like normal again, is a great achievement.
Noro: I missed the festivals only a little bit, as an occasion to meet people.
Katariina: And for distribution! I just finished a new film and now we wonder where to present it. It would be sad to only present it online.
All of you have been in Zlin before. Noro, you even have been living here for many years. How do you feel about this down?
Noro: It feels like coming home for me, which makes me really happy. The place still looks so familiar, and even better than before.
Katariina: This town feels very familiar to me too. In Tampere, my hometown in Finland, we also had a shoe factory. I was here for the first time in 1990, and I am so happy now to see that young entrepreneurs have picked up again this shoe-making tradition. I‘m curious to see the results.
In your jury you have to watch approx. 45 short films in total, divided into the -6 and 6+ categories. Do you have any advice for the programming committee?
Martin: It is confusing to see the short films together with the TV-episodes. It feels somehow uncomfortable to compare them as for the TV-series we only get to see a small part of the entire programme. On the other hand, TV-episodes are often made under better conditions than student or short films.
Katariina: Also the educational programmes are hard to be compared with other films.
What does the selection tells you about the animation of today?
Martin: That films for very small children might be the most difficult ones to make. That audience is often underestimated. Children are clever, they are trained to watch and understand way more audio-visual content than we do. When making films for a young audience, you should see them as your business partners. Treat them with respect, and you will be respected in return.
Katariina: I have the feeling that the really good stories are missing. Whenever something becomes trendy, there is a risk that the focus easily gets lost. Many films about climate change are simply bringing up the topic. “Let’s have an ice bear, that is a strong symbol for climate change!” But by simply bringing the elements together, you’re not talking yet about a real change. The same with gender equality or other socio-political topics, lacking the strong narration.
Martin: I guarantee, with a strong narration, you will always be successful. That has always been the power of animation. But more and more when seeing films, I am confused. Knowing how much time and energy is invested in an animated movie, I wonder why you don’t bother to make a strong point.
Noro: And there were too many bears!
Then what animals are missing in today’s animation? Can you recommend one?
Noro: A fly.
Martin: The virus!
Katariina: I would like to see more ordinary street dogs.
Which animated character would you like to ask out on a date?
Katariina: In THE 7 KIDS, a Russian film in this year’s competition, a wolf is hired as an au pair for 7 little goats. It is a strong wolf with a Harley Davidson.
Noro: Definitely Jessica Rabbit. I don’t understand what she sees in this Roger Rabbit.
Which feature film director would you like to see making an animation film?
Katariina: I would like to see an animation made by Emir Kusturica, including the music.
Noro: I suggest Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko, who made rather surreal films full of imagination in the 1960’s.
Martin: I’m planning to make a feature film with Daria Kashcheeva (represented in Zlin with her short film DAUGHTER). I think she has all the skills to make a wonderful feature.
What about the situation for Czech animation?
Martin: As a member of the Association of Animation Producers, we are lobbying with the Film Fund to increase the support for animation and create opportunities for TV-series. For the animation industry, short films are the spirit, the seeds, and TV-series are the grain, that brings daily work for the animators and long term opportunities to develop ideas. For the shorts, the conditions are very good, we have a lot of young talents with extraordinary successful festival representations, but for the grain the Czech television is the crucial partner. For Czech TV, animation is like Cinderella or the Ugly Duckling, no slots are available. The problem is that animation requires such a long process. As a TV director, during your 6-years legislation you can start up new projects but you will not be there to even finish them.
Usually when mentioning Czech animation, people start talking about the past. It is nice to hear you talking about the future!
Martin: Czech animation history is a good brand, a strong label. Now we should try to “make Czech animation great again”. Luckily we established good relationships with our Slovak companions.
Noro: For animated TV-series we might be doing a bit better in Slovakia, where national television is more supportive. Which creates jobs for young animators and on a longer term should establish a stronger industry.
Martin: I tell my students that “animation is always a co-production”. National projects are an exception. With such an amount of work and money involved, even for shorts, it is impossible to do it on your own.
Katariina: Over 30 years I have been doing co-productions with Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, … but seldom with Czech partners. With the new generation of people working for Finnish television, maybe one day I will be able to make a Czech-Finnish co-production.
Interview with the International Jury for Student Films
“Scaring all the cats and dogs in town”
The Zlin Dog is a street dog! As a competition for student films, it might stand a bit aside from the regular programme, but it often attracts among the most interesting films and filmmakers. Jury members Marta Jodko, Martin Kotik and Angelos Kovotsos definitely don’t look like street dogs, they are fast as a greyhound, proud as a poodle, smart as a Labrador, determinate as a Pitbull and loyal to the bone. Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present you the “Zlin Dog Jury”.
What is this Zlin Dog all about?
Marta: It is a student film competition. We are watching 60 short films in 3 categories: live action, animation and documentaries.
Let’s see how good you know each other after 5 festival days. Who has been drinking the most?
Who has been talking the most?
Marta: If I’m the drinker, then Martin definitely is the talker.
Who has been falling asleep the most during screenings?
Unanimously: None of us! Our jury secretary Anne would never allow that to happen.
Can you share with me some crucial information about your fellow jury-colleagues?
Marta: Martin is very much into animation and Sachertorte.
Martin: Marta is a true Polish intellectual.
Marta: And Angelos is genuinely super nice, and knows very well how to explain things.
Marta, if you as a festival organiser could steal something from the Zlin festival and take it with you to the AleKino festival, what would that be?
Marta: The time of the year, when it is nice and warm, and kids are invited to come out and play in the park. I adore all the activities going on here in the park during the festival.
Angelos: The fireworks!
Marta: Yes, the fireworks too, but I would feel guilty about scaring all the cats and dogs in town.
You’re currently visiting one of the rare festivals that is actually physically taking place. How much have you been missing the festivals?
Martin: It has been half a year, since the beginning of March, and of course I missed it enormously, mainly the networking and meeting with people from different countries.
Marta: The first night in Zlin for me was euphoric. Finally getting together again with friends, talking and laughing, felt extremely liberating.
I would love to hear some of your impressions on the city of Zlin.
Marta: Great architecture, plenty of green nearby the centre, and beautiful hills surrounding the city.
Angelos: There’s hills everywhere in the world, even in Athens!
Marta: Not where I come from. And I like the festival’s visibility inside the city centre. Everything is about the festival, it spreads all over town and adds to the lovely atmosphere.
Martin: I like the dynamics of the city, with all these young people and university students. It feels like a very progressive city and I really like it.
Watching these films, what does it tell you about film students nowadays?
Marta: They are creative.
Angelos: Their work looks impressively professional. It gives hope for the future, especially for the animation and animated documentaries, which is an interesting trend. It inspired me to include animation in the project that I’m currently creating.
Marta: Their films deal with a broad spectrum of themes, about important problems in the world of today, but also about emotions. Some films use a delicate approach, others are very straight-forward and intense.
Martin: Students seem to be very sensitive and they care about the future.
Would you perhaps have some advice for them for the future?
Angelos: Don’t be afraid.
Martin: Keep going.
Marta: And go deeper and deeper into the topic. Don’t stay on the surface.
If you could pick one person from the entire film history that you would like to see serving as a mentor for students, who would that be?
Angelos: Orson Welles, although I’m not sure if he had the skills required to be a good mentor. Maybe Fellini then.
Marta: Stanley Kubrick, as he always wanted to be in control of everything.
Martin: In terms of animation, I would say Chris Meledandry, the producer of the ICE AGE and DESPICABLE ME franchises, or Genndy Tartakovsky, the director of HOTEL TRANSSYLVANIA.
If you had a massive budget to invest in a student film project, how would you spend it?
Martin: I would never do it, I’m a responsible person.
Angelos: It should be forbidden for students to work on a big budget.
Marta: But you could spend it on workshops, formations, scholarships, consultations, travel budgets, … I think it is better to invest in ideas rather than in the making of a film.
Angelos: Or in a festival where they would get interesting feedback.
Marta: Yes, but that festival already exists. It’s called the Zlin Dog.
Day 5 – Tuesday 8 September
Can I be your Ringo?
Don’t you underestimate the influence of what is published on festival blogs. This morning Felix finds a little flower bouquet under the windshield of his car. He is totally convinced that is due to the status given to the Mustang in this blog. This is extremely flattering for both him and me.
The sun is shining brightly and I’m invited for a morning walk with festival friend Judita Soukupova. It is amazing … the hotel turns out to be only a few steps away from the forest – home to the legendary Koliba hotel. Here the serene atmosphere is like food for the overstimulated festival soul.
Interviewing some of the festival juries is an interesting task that was given to me. And interviewing the animation jury is like a trip to another universe. It is no coincidence that when leaving the building after the interview, I walk down the stairs with Martin, who is a producer. The two other jury members turn the wrong direction, disoriented in less than 3 seconds. They are both animators, who in general have a reputation for getting lost easily in buildings, and in their own imagination.
We’re having a photo session for the festival website and I decide to have my portrait taken next to the garbage bin. Martin is an young photographer, who grew up in the festival and now comes with a daily selection of excellent cinema pictures. Watching over his shoulder while he is doing colour corrections, I’m honestly satisfied with the result. Which is something I wouldn’t say easily when having my picture taken.
I’m a big fan of the “60 years of Zlin Memories” photo exhibition. Today I see local people carefully scanning the pictures for familiar faces, which is basically the same as what I am doing. There is a glorious picture of Jitendra Mishra walking the red carpet, a sparkling portrait of Danica Jurčová and I pick up a glimpse of Mitsu Tahira’s bright smile. There are sections about Petr Koliha and Rock Demers. I’m particularly happy that one lovely section is dedicated to Mila Radova, often working behind the scenes of the festival but her work is 100% vital to keep this massive ship sailing.
I haven’t updated you on the Covid-situation for quite a while now. “Sooner or later we will all get it” is one of the sentences heard most often these days. Or “We are a nation of free spirits.” I suppose almost every European nation (except Switzerland?) tends to portray themselves as such, but to me it sounds like a lousy excuse. The numbers In Czech Republic are rising dramatically – 1,200 new cases per day, more than double compared to last week. Probably from Thursday on drastic measures will be taken again. I try to get my name on the list for a Covid-test, offered by the festival to its foreign guests. The procedure is complex, but I succeed with much appreciated help from guest coordinator Petra Vajova.
While evening screenings here are often sold out, among professionals the decline of the cinema system is often discussed. Quoting jury member Alexandre Dupont-Geisselman: “This lockdown situation has planted a seed in the minds of people that cinemas might be dangerous places to go. It is the festivals that might motivate the audience to go to the movies again.” Still people ask me almost every day: “Why isn’t there a platform exclusively dedicated to children’s content? Isn’t that something for ECFA to launch?” Which is a totally absurd question for everyone who has ever been dealing with film sales and territories.
Later that night strolling through town with the masterful cinema team (Jaroslava, Lucie & Zuska), this feels like walking the streets of Liverpool in the company of John, Paul and George. I proudly pretend to be their Ringo, which was always the role that suited me best.
In Belgium I never was a regular at local bars or pubs, I’ve never been much of a café person. Here in Zlin, the Irish pub waitress and I speak with our eyes – when it’s about gin-tonic (lemon, no cucumber) we understand each other without words. That is a more intense relationship than I ever developed with a bartender back home. I guess that says something about me and Zlin.
Day 4 – Monday 7 September
Ice hockey or football?
A promise made late at night, still should be kept the next morning. Even though I was a bit overconfident last night when I promised to find out exactly how relevant THE PACK is for Czech teenagers, I show up in the cinema one hour early - unfortunately that detail had slipped my mind since last night – to address the young audience together with producer Julietta Sichel. Surprisingly enough it will be one of this year’s most satisfying festival experiences.
My heart sinks when I look inside the cinema: 14-year-old students from the Sports & Ice Hockey Academy are not exactly the kind of audience that speaks out easily. The Q&A is hard work for both main actors. One of them is a car mechanic. Different from his character on screen, he has this kind of aura that would make me trust him completely with my car. Another actor from the film currently serves as security guard at the kids village - with his hair bleached I hardly recognize him. When I tell the students that I came all the way from Belgium – a country where ice hockey doesn’t even exist – to hear their opinion, I see the class’ toughest kingpin taking off his cap to arrange his hair for the photoshoot. Suddenly this has become “their movie”. When Julietta and I record their reactions, a queue of 20 youngsters lines up, and they all loved the film. Some of them share honest stories with us. “I just joined a swimming club and as a newcomer I feel like an outsider. It is not easy." I am so proud of their responses! This guerilla intervention was only possible thanks to the delightful cinema team, who was super helpful as always. So please a big round of applause for Jaroslava, Lucie, Zusa, and the others.
Together with the international jury I am invited to the film studios up the hill for a private screening of THE CROSSING. In this inspiring place full of cinematographic memories, a treasure trove of Czech film industry, I'm wasting my time on my first game of table football in 30 years. The best player of the whole jury team? Jury secretary Suzanne! With her by my side, goals are scored. As soon as she leaves, I’m facing a cruel defeat.
I am curious about this year’s jury's verdict because awards are also influenced by the current festival situation. Some films are less suitable for online viewing. I found it meaningful that when serving in a festival jury earlier this year, all jury members who saw the film in the cinema voted for THE HOUSE OF US, while the ones watching this intimate, delicate film at their home computer didn't understand what we thought was so special about it. Other festival programmers came with similar stories.
I know Jaroslava’s soft spot for British cinema. When she recommends me DAYS OF THE BAGNOLD SUMMER as one of her favourites, I know this is a must-see. Only afterwards when summarizing the story to a colleague, I realize what a weird film this is (spoiler alert!!): “The most hopeful moment is when the dog dies …” In this story about a mother and son who can’t find a level to communicate, their moments of intense mutual alienation are utterly cringy. But at the same time this is an empowering and warm-hearted film that asks for a continuous restrained grin.
One of the most exquisite screenings in this festival is THE PAINTED BIRD, a recent Czech adaptation that does justice to the rawness of Jerzy Kosinski's literary classic. Due to the current circumstances the film hardly had any exposure. The festival is very proud to welcome director Vaclav Marhoul, an exceptional self-taught artist. Director Marketa Pasmova is walking on clouds!
In the evening my interview with the Zlin Dog jury (soon to be found elsewhere on this website) ends in a bit of chaos. Due to my poor planning, I am the only one staring into a full plate while the jury has already finished eating. When later I listen to my recordings, I can hear myself chewing my food all the time. In the background I hear the TV commentators about the Czech Republic - Scotland football game. This country may lack some football talent at the moment, but today I was face to face with the new ice hockey generation and that looked very promising, even in terms of cinema!
Day 3 – Sunday 6 September
Guardian angel of the day award
I have this notebook at home for collecting promising projects and production rumours. Somewhere in the middle of that book, on the bottom of a right page, is a note that says: HUNGRY BEAR TALES – follow up closely! This morning, five years after I took that note, I find myself in the cinema surrounded by a bunch of very young visitors watching the Hungry Bears compilation programme. It’s such a pleasure when plans finally become reality, and even exceed my high expectations.
Zlin festival weekends are for family audiences, and they show up en masse. Some school screenings this week have been cancelled, but the people are not forsaking their festival. Families continue to take their kids to the cinema, as they have done for 60 years, underlining the importance of this event for them.
Which was proven in yet another event. Today the exhibition opens with photos from the festival history, put together with great care by Jaroslava Hynstova, and for which she wrote a series of wonderful stories and anecdotes that capture the history of the festival in all its facets. I enjoyed them every time they were posted on the festival website, as they appealed to several generations of festival goers. The pictures testify to the enormous impact of this festival on the entire region. From today on, I see people strolling along the panels, carefully reading the accompanying texts.
The moment I checked into the Hotel Moskva I already knew: sooner or later I will lose that key. Yesterday it already happened; the lady behind the reception gave me a reproaching look. "Try to be more careful, we don’t have another spare one." Today the waitress in the Tam Tam restaurant comes to me: “I recognize you! You forgot your key here yesterday. I just had it delivered to the hotel.” She deserves my "guardian angel of the day" award.
Some things still leave a void in the current festival edition. Children may only enter the kids village on the market square with written permission from their parents. Accidental passers-by, attracted by the festivities, are not allowed in. The square looks rather empty. And there are only two red carpet ceremonies. The festival avoids attracting the masses. Events like the red carpet and the fireworks are allowed to take place, but cannot be promoted.
That is why there is no dancing after the screening of INTO THE BEAT (read the interview here), although everyone seems to be really into it. I once heard someone claim that he could tell from the steps of the visitors what kind of film they had just seen - someone who just saw a western walks out of the cinema very differently than a Schwarzenegger adept. The German film, which has its international festival premiere here in Zlin, drags the audience into an exciting dance party. The story neatly follows the copybook, but it keeps your heart beating to the rhythm of the film. Behind the colourful facade is a lot of pain and loneliness, as dancing mainly becomes a way to mask your grief. I discover the whole new experience of crying behind a facemask. I can actually recommend it, it is quite practical.
On the hotel terrace, consternation is huge. It was just announced that Jiri Menzel has died at the age of 82. The director, who has contributed so much to Czech heritage, was a regular guest in Zlin. Many of the people here have once worked with him. From the international youth film community, we express our condolences to Czech film fans. From tomorrow on, a beautiful photo of Menzel will be shown on screen prior to many festival screenings. Tonight he is saluted with slivovitz. Despite the great sorrow, people hang around on the terrace until the early hours of the morning. How do I know? Because someone told me, of course.
Day 2 – Saturday 5 September
Soap and slivovitz
You thought injecting disinfectant was the craziest proposal you already heard? In Zlin they go one step further. Rumour has it that the hand cleaning sets in the congress centre are filled with pure slivovitz. If it smells like slivovitz, looks like slivovitz and tastes like slivovitz, it probably is slivovitz? And then again, why not? In every festival edition in Zlin I’ve seen strong festival bacteria successfully being drowned in the local liquor.
When my badge is scanned at the cinema box office this morning, a message pops up on the screen: “This badge does not allow you to attend screenings.” The super helpful girls from the guest service know how to quickly fix a problem. “Maybe you are just a bug in the system,” they suggest and make it sound like a compliment. The Zlin guest office is so good they can make everything sound like a compliment!
The Zlin Festival is a powerful player, but now again not so powerful as to change the Czech laws. Or the mind-set of the people. As a festival, you can take all necessary precautions, but you cannot change what goes on inside the minds of people. That is why I feel perfectly at ease at festival events where all safety measures are taken into account, but I am terrified when packed with five people in a hotel elevator and I am the only one wearing a facemask. The Czech national policy says: masks are not mandatory in outdoor events or indoor events with less than 100 visitors. This makes a half-full cinema with 99 visitors a dormant source of ultra-contamination. In the street a child laughs at me because of my mouth mask. “Huuuh, I am the corona virus” he screams, running after me. I picked up a rumour that the festival will offer guests a corona test upon their return, and I am strongly considering having it done.
Weekends were always special to the Zlin festival, as that is the moment when the entire local community comes out to celebrate, parks are crowded with children playing festival games and there is music at every street corner. That for me was always the most spectacular achievement of the festival, even more than the impressive number of international industry people gathering here. The industry people aren’t here this time, but families are, also in September! The games and music still go on, although with a little less intensity than under normal circumstances, and the festival still has a very visible presence in the entire city. Michael Harbauer explains: in these times when online shopping is booming, for some goods we still go to a local shop. Why? Because we trust the shop keeper, we are familiar with the supply, and we want to choose for ourselves,… That is exactly the role that a festival can fulfil. If you want to find a way around the impersonal online uniformity now and then, there is a festival that you trust and that helps you putting together your own package.
Within that package of films, some titles are causing quite some fuzz. Everyone seems unanimously enthusiastic about festival revelation LIFE WITHOUT SARA AMAT, a Spanish film that surprises us all with its personal tone, its delicate approach and its beautiful portrayal of life in a small Spanish town. “Integrating small village life in an almost lyrical way was my passion in the making of this film,” says director Laura Jou in an interview on the festival website. You can watch trailer here.
In the evening there is the premiere of THE PACK. Rarely did a film feel so closely associated with the festival. The story is set in Zlin, it was shot in the local ice hockey stadium (director Tomáš Polenský: “Zlin has a unique, old arena. I love that brick facade.”), the project was pitched here last year as Work in Progress and now the European premiere is being celebrated in a packed congress centre. Even in this gigantic hall, the stage almost seems cramped for the immense film delegation. Among at least 30 crew members on stage are several local actors. Especially for this premiere they wear caps and facemasks with the cool logo of the film on it. Only the director remains absent. He just became a father last week, as we can see in his video message. Poor Tomáš Polenský is from then on addressed by the presenter as “the breastfeeding director”. The film tells an interesting story about ice hockey and bullying, but is unfortunately not able to free me from my prejudices about ice hockey in general (for which I am to blame, not the film!), which can mainly be summarized as ‘a bunch of cocky kids constantly ramming each other of the pitch’. "I’d rather see some curling," is not considered a very wise saying in this hockey-crazy nation. You can watch trailer here.
The evening ends in Hotel Moskva. However familiar this place may be after all these years, the hotel still manages to surprise us. When asked around among the guests, it appears that everyone had trouble finding the soap, although it was neatly displayed on the bed, in a wrapping that you would normally expect to contain a cookie. Rumour has it that one of the guests even put the nicely wrapped object in his festival bag, intending to nibble on a biscuit during the screening. Eating soap and burping foam bubbles immediately reminds me of the scene from SNOW WHITE, presumably the first movie I ever saw in the cinema. My kind advice to the staff of the Hotel Moskva: please avoid any possible confusion between soap and sweet snacks in the future.
Day 1 – Friday 4 September
A roadmap for cruising the Czech Republic
Can a festival survive without fireworks? Oh yes, it can, but why would it? The fireworks on the Zlin Film Festival opening night are every year a magnificent sensation, dedicated to the inhabitants of this modest Czech city.
This year the festivals owes even extra gratefulness to the local residents. They always bring a festive vibe to an event that is deeply entwined with the lives of families and children across the entire region. But now that international guests remain almost completely absent in the festival scenery, the entire festival atmosphere and the load factor of the cinemas rests on the shoulders of the locals. Only a few reckless intruders have travelled in from abroad to experience the festival on-the-spot.
Together with my traveling companion Felix I arrive in Zlin after a two-day journey, that we made because not for the world we would want to miss a single Zlin festival edition. And also because we want to convince you that the festival circuit is not dead, and that it is worth to keep planning and organizing festivals, also in a physical form, with a real audience, real guests, real events. One week long, the Zlin Film Festival will prove that this actually can be done.
From a distant past I remember a trip with my girlfriend by car to Marseille, the then criminal capital of Europe. As soon as we saw the first signposts on the highway, the car filled with a strange tension. We closed the windows and locked the doors from inside, as if danger lurked around every corner. Only later I realized how silly and pointless our paranoia had been. A similar feeling comes over me on the way from Belgium to Zlin. We looked up coloured zones on online maps, we packed our luggage with large stocks of face masks, … On the German highway a flickering sign warns us that we are approaching the disaster area, this Sodom & Gomorrah called Czech Republic. We recite our codebook of festival rules: no hugging with festival friends, no kissing, … Rigorously, we will set a good example!
In my work over the past months I almost pretended that Covid 19 didn't exist. I don't feel like writing every article in the conditional tense: “if we can ever see this film at a festival again, well… if there ever comes another festival, well… if humanity ever might be interested again in trivialities like children's film,… ” But in a blog about festivals in troublesome times, the virus simply can’t be ignored. On the contrary, I should convince you that festivals are possible and meaningful despite the threat. So I have to be extra careful. How stupid would it be to read on the festival website: “Author of corona-related festival blog admitted to hospital in Zlin…”?
Since we don't feel like traveling by plane, Felix invited me to take a ride to Zlin in his car, the legendary Ford Mustang (that you can admire in all its glory, parked in front of Hotel Moskva all week). We have spread the trip over two days. Bearing in mind the reputation of the motorway between Prague and Brno (as anyone can confirm who was once transported from Zlin to Prague airport and urgently needed to catch a flight), we cross the Czech Republic on side roads meandering from one beautiful village to the other over a picturesque hilly trajectory. (Why all this commotion about the Tour de France? From now on I want to see the Tour of the Czech Republic on television!) The woods are crawling with people picking blueberries - in the village shops the wicker baskets are on sale. Everywhere in the fields are bales of hay, every village seems to be built around small ponds in the green, and all the time we’re passing castles and monasteries. Until we enter the highway after a few hours, and are almost immediately stuck in traffic. At walking pace we stumble further towards Zlin. That highway is such a bad promotion for this beautiful country! I know the Czechs as hard working people, so why don't they get that damn highway finished finally?!? In the opening show, the host Roman Vojtek will refer to it with a smile: “I come from the future, from the year 2080 I travelled back in time to this festival. And oh yes, I can tell you that they have just finished the highway construction works.”
What happens to our good intentions when entering the driveway towards Hotel Moskva? “We still hug,” say the familiar staff members in the welcoming committee. So do we… That doesn’t mean that the festival is nonchalant with precautions! Entrance policy during the opening night is stricter than ever, face masks are mandatory, and in the welcome package (Zlin has always been generous with presents) I find a jar of disinfectant gel. And it’s up to everybody to make his own choice - hugging is not mandatory, however strong the urge may be to embrace each other after such a long absence.
H IS FOR HAPPINESS (you can watch trailer here) is the perfect opening film for an audience of all ages, and in the run-up to the festival, director John Sheedy was extremely helpful with interviews and intro clips - thank you so much! - but during this gala evening, the room was almost exclusively filled with adults, mainly dressed up dignitaries. For the few international festival organizers present, this is a rare occasion to share experiences and expectations. “Hybrid” is the new normal, but the word makes me feel as if I'm the only outsider in a world of illuminati - is there anybody who can explain exactly what this word means and how it will influence the way how I personally participate in a festival?
The AleKino festival this year will be a hybrid event, says Marta Jodko. According to Louise Hojgaard Johansen, the Athens Int'l Children’s Film Festival will go for a full online experience. Both have good reasons to justify their decision. In a test project during the summer, the Athens festival attracted hundreds of children for online screenings, AleKino only counted a few online viewers - they need the physical cinema screenings to keep the festival alive and kicking.
Schlingel is the festival that has the guts to say: we go for the full cinema experience, even with all the restrictions, like for instance foreign guests not being allowed to watch films together in the cinema with local kids. (Also here in the Zlin school screenings, international juries are as much as possible separated from local young audiences.) But what sticks with me is the plea of Schlingel director Michael Harbauer: online watching makes our scope bigger and broader than ever, but it narrows down our world, until we ultimately are only at ease with our own family in our own home. Real exchange between countries, between cultures, between people, is only possible when travelling and meeting each other, not only on the screen but also in person. Immediately I remember why I came to Zlin and wanted to mingle as a festival intruder among the local audiences. Because not only the films belong at the festival, but also the people. I am pleased that the Zlin Film Festival has had the courage to take up that challenge, and I am happy to be a part of it. Not only because that way I can hang out on the terrace of the Irish Pub in Hotel Moskva until late at night with beloved friends from the industry (how nice to see them again!) but because only right here, I can hear the beating heart of the youth film industry.
2020: Zlín diary - prologue
Once upon a time there was a festival. Its name is Zlín Film Festival – International Film Festival for Children and Youth. It is located in a beautiful industrial town called Zlín whose former dynasty of the Baťa family gave it an original and exceptional image. This year is very special not only because it celebrates its 60th edition but also due to the pandemic disease COVID-19. Many international guests were summoned to the Zlín kingdom to join the festivities but unfortunately worldwide restrictions prevented them from doing so. But there is still hope. His name is Gert Hermans and he is coming to Zlín on a strong horse Mustang and he will supply the festival supporters and friends with his thoughts and perceptions about this edition in this new blog 2020: Diary of a reckless festival intruder.
Stay tuned every day from September 4 to 11 September.