Karlovy Vary’s festival outside the cinema

Photo: Štěpánka Budková

Each year, as the Karlovy Vary Film Festival gets underway, the West Bohemian spa town becomes the Czech Republic’s undisputed cultural capital for a week. The epicentres are the cinemas of course, with more than 200 films from around the world. But there are all kinds of goings on that that keep the town abuzz from early morn to early morn for eight long days. Christian Falvey is in Karlovy Vary, trying to keep up with it all.

The reason that we come to Karlovy Vary each year, of course, is film. All 12,000 of us, as of Thursday’s statistics: film buffs, first of all, and filmmakers, to say nothing of the thousands here to sell the tickets, pour the beer, and keep the wheels turning, plus the countless students in sleeping bags around for the buzz.

It’s the biggest film festival in Central Europe and one of the oldest such events in the world. At the end of the day though, sitting in the cinema is “merely” the beginning:

“Yesterday I went to some concerts, it was very good. The weather wasn’t so good but it didn’t matter.”

“Well we didn’t see any movies unfortunately because they all were sold out, but we went out to a club last night and that was pretty good.”

“Have you been attending any of the other accompanying events outside the festival?”

“Not really, it’s mostly about the nightlife here for us, I guess. It’s a good nightlife, lot of people here, lot of young people, it’s a good time.”

“We are relaxing and enjoying ourselves.”

“In this fountain.”

“In the fountain, yeah, exactly.”

“What have you been doing aside from watching films at the festival?”


There are plenty of places to party in Karlovy Vary amid so many concerts, sideshows, pubs and clubs. Of the latter, the most frequented is Aeroport, the dilapidated former bank on the promenade covered in dancing light with the huge crowd in front waiting to get in. Jiří Šebesta started the club in the independent spirit of his alternative Prague cinemas Aero and Světozor. The crowds start coming from 10 in the morning for the café, DJs, VJs, live bands, comedy shows and Pecha Kucha night, a special project to showcase the work of designers and architects.

“In the past 10 years the film festival has definitely become very professional, really good and organised. But I think in the past 3, 4 years it’s lost a little bit of its independent style. There are some really VIP-style things in Karlovy Vary but I think, for a lot of the young people who come to the festival, there was not really a place they could go and hang out in a normal, chilled-out and independent atmosphere. So two years ago we tried to develop that here and I think we succeeded and I think the people are happy about that.”

Just about wherever you go in Karlovy Vary though you’ll find a projector, even at the alternative scene under an arch of Cheb Bridge, organised by local musician David Věchet.

“This scene is for the children – for children’s theatre and children’s movies. Then in the evening there’s a concert podium for regional groups and night cinema for adults, all of that here, under the bridge.

“And what’s that being projected now?”

“Carlsbad in 1942.”

Among the throngs in search of cinema, culture and alcohol along the promenade you’ll find commercial promotions vying for the attention of the endless passers-by, one stranger than the other - local celebrities pedalling exercise bikes for charity and this young woman, who I found jumping up and down in special boots in front of the festival headquarters.

“We are here promoting Asus, the computer company. And we are jumping on these jumping boots - power razors.”

“So that’s it, you just jump and you hope people will buy Asus computers?”


No matter how sleek the façade or commercial the sidestreets, Karlovy Vary is always at heart a festival of the masses, with less of the high-hat, red-carpet culture of festivals like Cannes, and defined by a taste for all things alternative.

Photo: Štěpánka Budková