Zlinfest - an international film festival that is for and about children

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For this week's Arts, we visited the 47th Zlín Film Festival, one of the oldest movie festivals in the world that is dedicated to children and young people. This event, which once primarily showcased socialist children's cinema, has become an important festival on the world film calendar after reinventing itself since the Velvet Revolution.

Sarka Halastova is a spokesperson for the Zlinfest:

"For obvious reasons, there was a certain period after 1989 when the festival was looking for a new identity in the new, changed Europe. Now, we can definitely say that the reputation of the festival has improved in recent years and thanks to our building up of contacts we can see the fruits of this collaboration and we have created ties with the most important children's festivals in Europe and we can see how the number of films that want to participate in Zlin and that want to compete in our categories is rising every year."

Zlin's identity as a film festival is intrinsically linked to the history of film production in the town, which dates all the way back to the 1930s. Zlin was the place where many fairytales and animated films were produced during the socialist era, which earned Czechoslovakia a deserved reputation as a major centre of children's film. Sarka Halastova again:

"We are very proud of the Zlin film studios. During the communist era the majority of the most remarkable children's movie productions were made here and some of the most seminal animation artists like Karel Zeman and Hermina Tyrlova were working in the Zlin studios. So I think it makes sense that this festival was created here."

With three main competitive categories (for animated films, feature films for youth, and feature films for children) as well as a large selection of special competitive sidebars, Zlín now resembles many other international film festivals. Nevertheless, Sarka Halastova says its core values remain unchanged, namely that this is an event that is primarily for and about children:

"We try to keep the festival as open and accessible as possible. First of all it's meant to be for children and about children so we try to make it as open as we can for kids. Consequently all the screenings are for free, all the accreditations can be obtained for free and the supporting educational, cultural and entertainment programme is also free-of-charge. That's how we try to bring the audience closer to us."

Zlinfest's focus on kids is also reflected in the number of accompanying events it organises for the benefit of children, including seminars dealing with issues like childcare and child protection. Variety Magazine's correspondent for the Czech Republic and Slovakia Will Tizard says the child-friendly nature of the Zlin Festival is what gives it its unique atmosphere:

The actress Libuse Safrankova and Andrei Chalimon, photo: CTK
"The festivals that I generally cover deal in films for adult audiences, so this is a really unique experience for me. What's impressive about Zlin is that it's not just a festival of films for children and youth, but that it actually involves them. They are really quite closely involved - there are two children's juries and the audiences are made up of kids. You can hear them squealing and shushing and clapping. It really gives you a feeling of the sort of impact these films will have on their intended audience. It's really the energy of the children in the audience and the children on juries that makes the Zlin Festival something special."

This year's festival also offered a wide variety of events like concerts and workshops in a rich supporting programme, which is now an integral part of the Zlinfest and ensures that there is plenty for guests to do besides watching films.

The Zlin Festival now also attracts a number of high profile Czech and international guests. This year the event was attended by former child actors Andrei Chalimon, who starred in Jan Sverak's Oscar-winning Kolya, as well as Sixth Sense and Forrest Gump star Haley Joel Osment, who has a special fondness for youth-oriented film festivals like Zlin:

"I've done a couple of other film festivals that are sort of similar to this in the past. The difference between these festivals and others is that the real focus is on the kids and on really making a difference in their lives and giving them the access to film that they really deserve. The atmosphere here in Zlin is just really, really impressive. It's great to see these kids just eat up all these movies and really get involved in the process. And our future is in these kids' hands, not just when it comes to the movie business but in terms of larger issues. So it's really exciting to come here and do a good thing for them. I was happy to come for that."

The fact that the Zlinfest is now able to attract guests of the calibre of Haley Joel Osment is symptomatic of the growing status of the event. This year nearly 60,000 people attended festival screenings and there were projections of 357 films from 40 different countries, an indication says Sarka Halastova of how the Zlin festival continues to go from strength to strength:

"I am proud to say that I think we have developed even further and we are seeing a rise in the number of visitors and accredited guests. We are happy to see that the interest in our festival is increasing and it's getting lots of international recognition, which I think is well deserved."

Photo: CTK
Of course Zlin is in the heart of Moravia so it was no surprise to see that a traditional dulcimer band comprised part of the entertainment at the Zlinfest's closing party, which was attended by all the festival guests, including the filmmakers, critics and journalists who regularly trawl the film festival circuit. Radio Prague asked these seasoned film-industry hacks how they think the Zlin festival compares with events of a similar nature:

[Film journalist] "The Zlin Festival is quieter and it's more peaceful. I like it because it's very small and you can always find somewhere to go. When you meet someone you can spend a lot of time with them because you can establish a close relationship because everything is very nice and near. I also like the town of Zlin. It's a very nice city full of young people. I simply think this is a nice festival."

[Festival juror] "I think that this festival tries to make itself very friendly and accessible for families. You can come here and bring your kids. This makes it very different. First and foremost, it's a very relaxed festival. You don't meet those business types who are always in a hurry and who are trying to just get movies and buy stuff. So it's very hard to compare with other festivals."

[Film Producer] "This is more like home. They take very good care of their guests. We feel very welcome here. I've just returned from the Cannes film festival, which is a whole different ballgame. If you don't have a film in the official competition there, you can forget about it. People care about you here. In Cannes you can go hell. It doesn't sound nice but that's just the way it is. It's always good to be in a place where you feel welcome. That makes all the difference."

You can find out more information about this year's Zlin Film Festival, including details of the movies screened and competition winners, at www.zlinfest.cz