Karel Och – new artistic director of the Karlovy Vary film festival

Karel Och

When the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival gets underway in a couple of weeks, it will offer viewers nearly 200 movies across three competition categories, retrospectives, and a host of other sections. The man ultimately responsible for the selection of all of those films is Karel Och, who, at only 37 years of age, will this year serve as Karlovy Vary’s artistic director for the first time.

Karel Och
When we spoke recently at the festival’s offices in central Prague, I first asked Och how he had become interested in movies in the first place.

“It just happened, in a way. I started to go to a local cinema in my home town, which is a small town about 100 kilometres from Prague. I became friends with the owners or the people who worked there, and later on helped them to change the light bulbs, and tried to influence the programming of films [laughs]. I just somehow became part of it. I liked the smell of cinemas.

“When I was 18 I thought, why not try to study film? There is a famous Czech film historian, Karel Čáslavský. I met him when I was 18 years old and I asked him, what should I do to have your job? He said, well, I’m an autodidact, but you should try film studies at Prague’s Charles University. Later on, a few years after that, I was lucky to be accepted, and that’s how it started.”

When did you first go to the Karlovy Vary festival as a viewer? And what was your experience then?

“Actually, I’m ashamed to admit that I never went there as a viewer. I only went there for the first time when I was hired as a jury secretary. Since then I’ve been trying to catch up on what it’s like to be a spectator, and I try to use as many occasions as possible to meet with viewers, to spend time with them and to get vibrations from the audience. But I actually missed the experience before I started to work at the festival.”

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
What was the first year that you worked there? And how do you think it’s changed since that time?

“It is exactly 10 years ago. I started in 2001 as a jury secretary. It was just a job for the actual festival itself, so I wasn’t involved in the preparation of that festival in the spring.

“It’s changed a lot. Obviously, that goes together a lot with changes in the world of film festivals, in general. The industry aspect of film festivals is stronger and stronger, so this obviously also goes for the Karlovy Vary film festival.

“I think 2001 was a year between the wonderful 1990s, which was a sort of a golden age of Karlovy Vary, when 20-year-old colleagues would go there to see films that until today they remember…They are now my age and they still come to Karlovy Vary, but they don’t sleep in tents any more, they sleep in hotels. However, they have the same passion.

“So, it did change a little bit. It’s a little less ‘Woodstockian’, compared to the 1990s, but this flair is still there. You can see it from the immediate reactions of the audience, that there is something strong still.”

I know you go to a lot of film festivals. How would you compare Karlovy Vary to other festivals around Europe, or around the world?

John Malkovich,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“Again, the audience response is something which makes Karlovy Vary rather particular and special. People might not know it, but there are many festivals in the world which are not as accessible for regular audiences.

“That is something that we really try to put an emphasis on – we try to repeat films as many times as possible. So I believe it’s the fact that a regular spectator has a lot of chances to see good films, to meet interesting people.

“I guess also it’s the festival trailers – especially in the last few years – that make our festival very special.”

In recent years you’ve had stars from the previous years appearing in the trailers.

“Exactly. We are really happy about that, because it confirms that despite the fact it’s not easy to bring a star to Karlovy Vary, once we get him there he becomes a friend of the festival.

“That’s why John Malkovich appeared in a trailer a year after he came, and that’s why Jude Law agreed to play in the trailer that will be released during this year’s festival.”

For many years you’ve been involved in programming the festival. What is the secret of programming a film festival? How do you do it?

“There’s no secret. We are a group of people who start watching films about 10 months before the festival, going to several film festivals, trying to see what’s new, what are the hot new directors to follow.

Jude Law,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“At the same time, we try to put together interesting tributes and retrospectives which would help create the wonderful atmosphere during the festival, with the help of older films.

“Basically we get to see hundreds of films. During the viewing procedure we start to get an idea as to what the festival could be. There is no idea before we start to watch films as to what the festival should be about, in terms of topics, etc. It comes during the process.”

Do you have debates about the films? Or are there some films that will only have been seen by one person?

“No, we definitely don’t do it that way. We try to make sure as many of us as possible see films. Basically, the official selection gets watched by all four all-year-round members of the programming team.

“Obviously we also have a group of pre-screeners who help us to go through the submissions, which now number almost 2,000. But not a single film gets to be seen by only one person.”

This year you are for the first time artistic director. You’re following the great Dr Eva Zaoralová, who did so much to revive the Karlovy Vary festival in the mid to late 1990s. Those are big shoes to fill – are you daunted filling those shoes?

“Well, for me the biggest challenge at this time – given the fact that I took over only about five or six months ago – is to bring the 46th Karlovy Vary film festival safely into port in July, and with the help of my colleagues to have it secured.

Eva Zaoralová
“There are a few things which I will try to change a little bit according to my vision, but it’s nothing really revolutionary, nothing big. As I see it, there is a sense of continuity. I feel lucky to have Mrs Zaoralová around, because she’s continuing as artistic consultant. So it’s much easier for me.”

You must have met a lot of great actors and directors over the last 10 years. Have there been any which made a particular impression?

“Yes. I like to recall my conversations with Jim Jarmusch, whom I met in Iceland at the Reykjavik film festival last September. The advantage of a smaller festival is that you get to talk to people more than once, you can catch up the day after and have a really nice conversation and get to know people.

“I was lucky to have such conversations with Jarmusch, who is a really amazing, very charismatic, and calm person, and is very knowledgeable about cinema. I’m grateful to this job that I get to meet such people.

“As far as Karlovy Vary is concerned, I like to remember Danny Huston, who came to introduce films by his father John Huston about four years ago. He stayed for the whole thing and became a very good friend of the festival. He was very humble when he was talking about his father’s films, and he had a lot of wonderful stories from classic Hollywood to share. He was calling his friends and asking them, why don’t you come to Karlovy Vary? – It’s a great festival. So he is one of the wonderful guests we’ve had.”

Obviously films come first at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, but partying is also a big side of the event. Do you have to kind of pace yourself socially, so you can get through all those 10 or 11 nights?

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
“Well, I wouldn’t say that I’m such a night owl during the festival, because we have to wake up early and we have meetings every morning. But it’s good to go to such places and to talk to people, again, about the day they’ve had, what they’ve seen, what was the reaction. And we couldn’t just go to sleep, I think – we need to relax a little bit after the long days.”