The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival takes place in a stunning spa town, but its strong line-up and networking opportunities mean sightseeing is not always top of the agenda for industry visitors. Dan Fainaru [pictured] offers his take on the festial and the town.

One of Europe’s most venerated spa towns, Karlovy Vary has been a destination resort for two centuries, attracting the great and the good from around the world to treat their stiff joints, drink the town’s water and party hard.

A jewel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the city wears its history proudly — there are statues of Beethoven and Wagner and paths in the park are named after Dostoevsky and Chopin.

The only incongruous sight is the Thermal Hotel at the heart of the city, a towering concrete edifice built in the best Stalinist fashion during the communist regime. But even that has its purpose: the hub of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and all its activities, the Thermal serves as a reminder there is more to the town than its famous waters.

Started in 1946 and acknowledged for many years as the most important film festival in Central Europe, Karlovy Vary’s decline threatened to be terminal in the early 1990s after having to share its annual slot with the Moscow International Film Festival for 35 or so years. Resuscitated through the efforts of president Jiri Bartoska — an actor who still runs the event — and artistic director Eva Zaoralova — who retired this year to a consultant’s position, passing responsibility to Karel Och — the festival began to attract masses of film-hungry students who watched movies all day, partied all night and then caught some sleep in their sleeping bags wherever they happened to drop, usually under the open sky in one of the many public parks. It has also become a focal point for the industry, taking its place in the calendar between the two juggernauts of Cannes and Venice.

Given Karlovy Vary’s A-list denomination from FIAPF, the Official Selection must consist of world or at least international premieres, never an easy task given the scarcity of exceptional films to be shared by so many festivals. Nevertheless, Karlovy Vary has served as an international launchpad for major titles including Sergey Bodrov’s Prisoner Of The Mountain (1996), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001), Baltasar Kormakur’s Jar City (2007) and Joachim Trier’s debut Reprise (2006).

Film-makers say one enormous advantage Karlovy Vary has over most other festivals is the sincere enthusiasm of the predominantly young audiences, who respond warmly to almost every film. They also say that given the intimate dimensions of Karlovy Vary, it is a useful event to establish contacts and network at the parties thrown every afternoon and evening either by sponsors, films or international agencies.

Film critics — a spoiled race by nature — may not always enthuse over the main competition but they rush to catch up on titles in the programme they might have missed at other festivals, as well as the premieres on offer.

Karlovy Vary is more than generous in this respect, particularly when it comes to global independent cinema produced outside the mainstream, and in the event’s selection of Eastern European films, including the local Czech output, which can be considered unfashionable in the West. Many still wonder, for instance, why Jan Hrebejk’s Czech film Kawasaki’s Rosenever made it further on the world stage than the Panorama section at Berlin.

The reticence of major festivals to embrace Eastern European cinema offers Karlovy Vary’s programmers an open field to explore, and they seem to come up regularly with unexpected surprises such as the imaginative Russian musical Hipstersby Valery Todorovsky, which screened at the festival in 2009.

This goes some way to explaining why, by the end of the festival, visitors are left wondering why they never quite had the time to make better use of the facilities offered by such a world-renowned spa town.