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FNE at Zlin 50th Anniversary: Zlin's long road to the top

Cathy Meils 2010-06-01

The Zlin International Festival of film for Children and Youth (www.zlin-fest.cz) proudly bills itself as the oldest children's film festival in the world -- as well as the largest. But international wasn't always in its title. That return to the heady days of the mid-1960's took over 25 years and a revolution (velvet) to achieve.

In 1965, the then-four year old festival was rapidly expanding (along with the Czechoslovak "New Wave" cinema that was grabbing excitement worldwide) from its first one-day event to a truly international event, with 23 countries and four continents represented, as well as an international jury of European film professionals. By 1968, with the Russian invasion and crackdown on personal and political freedom, "international" was wiped out of the Zlin film festival's vocabulary.

It wasn't the first, or even the second set-back for the festival. The central Moravian city, home to the Zlin Film Studios (www.ateliery.cz which has specialized in children's and animated films since shortly after its opening in the1930's, hosted its first festival, "Film Harvest," in 1940 and a second edition in 1941. The next attempt was the 1948 "Film Festival of Workers." It soon vanished. Then, in 1961, the First National Festival of Czechoslovak Film for Children and Youth took place over three days in the dark cold of January. This time, the festival took root.

While it was a staple on the Czechoslovak calendar, and drew audiences of 1,000 children at a time to the largest cinema in the country, the festival was largely unknown and unnoticed elsewhere. When expanding media conglomerate Bonton (www.bonton.cz) bought the Zlin film studios (since renamed Ateliery Bonton-Zlin), it acquired the festival as part of the bargain. Under the leadership of Bonton founder Martin Kratochvil, Bonton determined to put the sleepy festival back on the map, bringing international films and guests to the provincial town.

The festival's next transformation came under the management of festival director Petr Koliha. Koliha, a veteran of Czech TV (www.ceskatelevize.cz) with production and directing credentials, brought his considerable bureaucratic expertise and managerial vision to expand the festival and its sponsoring partners. The festival sections and juries expanded to include not only films for children, films for youths, and animated films, but debut films and a competition of films from the regional Vysegrad countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary). As Bonton scaled back its involvement, the festival reached out to a coalition of international, national, and local companies along with state and local funds.

With the 50th anniversary, Zlin takes on its most ambitious programme to date. For a festival that carries a history of endings and beginnings, Koliha tells FNE that after the 50th edition it's time to start afresh. That means, he said, a fresh look to the festival, and revamping of the festival's spin-off activities, and a concentration on upgrading the level of the competitions -- especially in the European debuts section. And if that doesn't work out, Koliha has a shelf full of scripts at home and a back-up plan to return to directing films. But, judging from the applause greeting the ambitious programme of the 50th anniversary edition, starting on the next 50 should be smooth sailing.

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