Zlínfest – the Czech Republic’s most audience-friendly film festival

Photo: CTK

The Zlín international film festival stands out among the Czech Republic’s many film showcases such as Karlovy Vary and Jihlava in that its main emphasis is on films aimed at children and young audiences. It is also one of the oldest festivals of its kind in Europe.

Photo: CTK
Sanette Naeyé is a programmer for Holland’s Cinekid festival, which is perhaps the largest film festival for children in the world. She was at the Zlínfest this week as a member of the main competition jury and is familiar with the event’s long and colourful history:

“What is very important is that it is a very old and established festival. It will be 50 years old in two years time so it’s an old but very vivid festival. In the early days, it was very interesting for the western part of Europe because it collected so many titles we would not have had access to very easily.

“After the wall came down, it had some problems re-establishing itself and finding its new international role. I have the impression that they managed this very well. It’s still a growing event.”

Since the fall of socialism, the Zlín film festival has had to reinvent itself somewhat. Although it still hasn’t managed to become as important an event for film industry professionals as some festivals in western Europe, Sanette Naeyé says it has managed to carve out a very specific niche for itself on the film festival circuit.

“Well, for the film industry there are places such as Berlin and the Cinekid festival in Holland where people come mainly for the professional side of things like the seminars and the markets and co-production markets.

“Zlín doesn’t have such a big profile in this regard. But it also makes it special because it is really focused on the audience and tries to give them so much stuff and so many film titles, which is amazing because I don’t think you get that anywhere else in the world. You feel here that the social and cultural impact of the event still counts.”

Charlie Cockey, a programmer for San José’s Cinequest festival, is another regular visitor to Zlín, who also appreciates the event’s unique atmosphere:

“I’ve always enjoyed the programming here. I was twice on the jury. The first year that I was on the jury, I was incredibly impressed with the quality of the films, particularly those aimed at the youth.

“They were quite adult films, but were simply focused on adolescents and the concerns of adolescents in terms of their identity and fitting into the world. But its treatment was very adult and honest.

“In terms of the festival itself, I love the atmosphere. I love the energy. I love coming out of the theatre and seeing hordes of kids doing things like drawing chalk pictures on sidewalks or whatever. I think it’s a remarkable and wonderful enterprise.”

Zlín’s emphasis on child audiences is one of the festival’s major selling points according to veteran broadcaster and film journalist Phillip Bergson, who has been coming to the event for more years than he cares to remember:

“The first time I ever came, I was on the main jury with the cinema legend – Horst Buchholz – who alas has gone to the green room in the sky. The big, pleasurable surprise for all of us was going into the incredible Velké Kino cinema at eight o’clock in the morning and seeing and hearing a thousand children and then in fact not hearing them, because they were so fascinated and absorbed in the cinema.

“This was the most magical experience from my first time in Zlín and I have seen it repeated again today. Children are the best audience when they like the film. They really are quiet and absorbed in it. And these are the spectators of tomorrow.”

Some local Moravian folk music was just one of the many other extra-curricular cultural activities on offer at the Zlín festival.

Ondřej Hrudká is a member of the festival management team. Besides screening an incredible 571 films, he says that the festival this year organised a huge amount of ancillary events, which ties in with its audience-friendly philosophy:

“One of the most distinct features of the festival is the immense amount of supporting programme events. This year, we have nearly 100 events, not just in Zlín but in its satellite towns as well.

“Another very distinct feature is the fact that all our screenings and supporting events are free-of-charge.”

One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the presentation of the Hollywood blockbuster The Golden Compass by its star Dakota Blue Richards. The fact that the festival can now attract guests of this calibre is perhaps a sign of the event’s growing status.

So what did Ms Richards make of the Zlínfest?

“It’s a really lovely place. It’s kind of sad that we are only here for four days, because we don’t get much of a chance to look around, which I would really love to do.

“But, it’s really nice here. All the people at the festival seem really nice as well and it’s just a lot of fun being here.”

Zlín's identity as a film festival is also intrinsically linked to the history of film production in the town, which dates all the way back to the 1930s.

Zlin’s Bonton Studios was the place where many fairytales and animated films were produced during the socialist era by legendary directors such as Karel Zeman and Hermina Tyrlova, which earned Czechoslovakia a deserved reputation as a major centre of children's film.

Phillip Bergson says that there is still plenty of scope for Zlín’s local film industry and its burgeoning film festival to cooperate on developing the town’s potential as a future centre of cinema production:

Karel Zeman
“Of course, the famous Bonton Studios are here, which is where the legendary Karel Zeman made many of his films. The festival is a perfect continuation of this tradition. I believe there is still a film school at the studios today, where they are training people in animation and other techniques.

“I think this ties in perfectly with the festival. I think this event can also be used to attract foreign people, who have screenplays or other ideas in the fantasy genre or other genres, to come here and use it as a venue.

“This doesn’t just apply to Zlín as such, but the surrounding countryside as well, which is rich in chateaux and wonderful forests and places where any kind of film could be made within this fantasy genre.

“I think there is a lot can be done in the film-commissioning sense by encouraging the people who come to the festival with their films to think about staying and relocating a screenplay here or nearby…”

You can find out more about this year’s Zlín film festival at its website www.zlinfest.cz