“It’s just pure emotion”: Zátopek biopic to open Karlovy Vary

Václav Neužil as Emil Zátopek

The 55th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival will open in August with Zátopek, David Ondříček’s much-anticipated biopic of the running legend. Meanwhile, among the 12 works in contention for Best Film this year will be three Czech titles – including, for the first time, a documentary. I spoke to Karel Och, artistic director of the region’s biggest cinema event.

Some years in the past I know you’ve had trouble finding any Czech films for the main competition. This year there are three. What has changed?

“The films, I suppose.

“We’ve always said that we are not an organisation which is aiming to, let’s say, promote Czech film.

“We are a bunch of festival programmers who are promoting the Czech film that they consider worth promotion, films which we believe have potential to speak not only to Czech people but also to foreigners.

Karel Och,  Jiří Bartoška | Photo: Ondřej Deml,  ČTK

“Of course we cannot overlook the fact that the distribution and exploitation of the films hasn’t existed for about 18 months, and obviously some of the films delayed, let’s say, the postproduction in order to be eligible for Karlovy Vary.

“After all a launch at Karlovy Vary is quite crucial for a Czech film, because it can be a launch-pad for the rest of the world, because of the ‘A’ category aspect of the festival.

“Also I would like to add that this is the first year when we are including documentaries in the main and East of the West competitions.

“This means that we had a bit of a wider range to select from – and in both competitions we have two fiction films and one documentary.”

Why did you end the dedicated documentary competition?

“I think our taste is to blame.

“The documentary films that we love and that we’ve always wanted to include are films which have bigger ambition, are really well scripted, are superbly executed – much better sometimes than any narrative or fiction film.

'Zátopek' | Photo: Julie Vrabelová,  Lucky Man Films

“And obviously the makers of these films, the producers, don’t want to be put in the ghetto of a documentary competition.

“They want to be measured and compared with films – not fiction films, not documentary films, but with films.

“And the level of staging and the approach from documentary filmmakers towards their job is really something much bigger than just a documentary film.”

This year you have a tribute to The Film Foundation, which was set up by Martin Scorsese to preserve classic works of cinema. How have you selected the 10 films that are being screened?

“I have to mention the name of Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian-American film critic who is also our foreign correspondent, mainly for Arab cinema.

“He’s a big cinephile and he collaborated on the selection – we did the selection together, and we’re really happy about it.

“I have to add that it hasn’t been an easy task, because to select 10 titles out of hundreds means that you have to leave a lot of films that you adore out, because the space is limited.

“But we still succeed in sneaking in films such as A Woman Under the Influence; by the way, I told myself that there won’t be an edition of Karlovy Vary without a John Cassavetes movie, and I hope to keep that for the years to come [laughs].

“And another title is Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point, with John Garfield.”

The opening film is Zátopek, in its world premiere, and people will be very excited about that. You have seen the film – give us a little sneak preview, what’s it like?

“Oh, it’s so exciting.

“I was lucky to be invited to three screenings within one year, in different stages.

“And it’s just pure emotion, the way the story is told.

“I’m not only talking about the scenes of the races. Obviously I was looking forward to those very much – the famous Olympic Games in Helsinki, etcetera.

“But I read the last version of the script and I knew that relationship of Emil Zátopek toward his wife Dana is quite particular and treated in a very modern way.

“That was something I was looking forward to seeing as well, and I have to say the balance between the intimate scenes and the sports scenes is really well executed.

“And it’s just gorgeously shot.

“It’s edited by Jaroslaw Kaminski, the collaborator of Pawel Pawlikowski: the Polish editor who studied at FAMU and edited Ida and Cold War.

“Also there’s Štěpán Kučera’s cinematography… I mean, I can only sing its praises.

“It’s really, really beautiful.”