Words fail me (almost) when I describe our family’s experience at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. My husband and I traveled with our daughter Samantha—on the autism spectrum and lead actress in Keep the Change—to see the movie’s international premiere in the Czech Republic. It was an unparalleled adventure! Adjectives like exhilarating, thrilling, and joyful only begin to capture what turned out to be the best trip of my life. While I’ve been fortunate to enjoy many wonderful vacations with friends and family (single and married, with and without children), nothing compares to attending a major European film festival with my husband and daughter in a country and town we might never have visited but for Samantha’s accomplished acting and her inclusion in a brilliant and beautiful film.
I can’t call our trip a dream come true, because what parent of a child with autism dares to dream their daughter will grow up to star in an award-winning movie? Not even me. In my most optimistic moment, I could not have imagined my daughter walking on the red carpet while photographers snapped pictures and strangers asked her for autographs or selfies.
Karlovy Vary is a uniquely beautiful spa town with gingerbread houses and 16th century architecture. Surrounded by a breath-taking backdrop of mountains, the town is one of those postcard perfect places that appears lifted from a fairy tale. Arriving after a two-hour drive from Prague, we were eager to check in and meet up with director Rachel Israel and the rest of our contingent. Imagine our horror as we attempted to check in at the Promenade Hotel and found they didn’t have our name or reservation, and informed us that Rachel Israel had left! Howard, ever resourceful, produced a postcard with a picture from the short film, with Rachel’s name, and after running to another hotel for “vouchers” and “accreditation,” we were admitted to this wonderful-but-overbooked town. Samantha was given an orange ribbon with picture ID and a big purple tag identifying her film as 1 of 12 (out of 94 films) competing for awards.
On the morning of the premiere, July 6th, we watched Samantha participate in a press conference with director Rachel Israel, co-star Brandon Polansky, producer Kurt Enger and editor Alex Camilleri. All of us wore headphones which translated questions and answers from Czech to English. Photographers seemed especially interested in taking pictures of our smiling and photogenic daughter before and after the press conference—much to her (and our) delight.
Later in the day, Samantha and Brandon were interviewed and photographed by reporters, before all of us were whisked away via 5 black limos to the Grand Theater. The streets were lined with festival fans who peered into our car while smiling and waving, apparently assuming we were all celebrities. Howard donned his sunglasses to add to the mystique. Suddenly, it seemed, we were anointed king, queen and princess for the evening. When we arrived on the red carpet, Samantha was introduced in Czech and then swarmed by photographers, while she smiled gleefully and waved at the crowd.
As we entered the theater and took our reserved seats, we were overwhelmed by the enormous size of the theater which holds 1200 people and was completely sold out! Although I have seen KTC six or seven times, I have never sat in an audience with foreigners watching my daughter up on a screen with sub-titles. How do they feel about people with autism? Could they (or would they) see beyond stereotypes? Would the characters’ jokes translate into another language?
I needn’t have worried. Everyone laughed in all the right places. At the end, as the credits were being shown, very few people exited. Everyone was on their feet applauding! Samantha and Brandon had a ten minute standing ovation. I thought my heart would burst. Samantha was surrounded by admirers and she was soaking up the love, posing for countless selfies. So many different kinds of people were moved: disabled people in wheelchairs, families with teenage kids, couples old and young, all of them congratulating Samantha, Brandon and Rachel.
Our daughter thanked and hugged everyone who complimented her. Watching her was so far beyond exhilarating, I was pinching myself. Once upon a time, when Samantha was an impossible seven year old being kicked out of a special ed school I was told: “Don’t worry, when she’s older you can put her in a residential setting.” From predicting that Samantha would be in an institution to watching her become a budding movie star is difficult to fathom, even for her adoring parents.
Believe it or not, the second screening at 10 am, on July 7th (Howard’s birthday!) was equally well received. I was amazed to see yet another crowd I was told had been standing on line to see Keep the Change bright and early for over an hour! Although this was a smaller theater, adjacent to the fancy Hotel Pupp, once again all the seats were filled. This smaller screening included a question and answer session which lasted about 40 minutes. Among the many questions, Samantha was asked how closely she resembled her character Sarah.
She acknowledged a “mix and match” of similarities and differences. “I like using the same expressions as Sarah. But I have a real boyfriend in New York and I’d NEVER talk about our sex life with other people. That’s inappropriate and private. TMI!” Lots of laughter for that answer.
There were many more wonderful moments, too numerous to fit into a single blog. On the day we left, we learned that Keep the Change had won Special Jury Mention and also the prestigious FIPRESCI Award from an international film critics organization. We smiled all the way home (and it was a long eight-hour flight).
Last but by no means least, Rachel’s 92-year old grandfather attended the festival. Born in Prague, he was the only member of his family to escape from the Nazis at age 14 through the Kinder Transport. What an amazing moment it must have been for him to see his grand-daughter Rachel honored (and to meet his adorable great-grand daughter Charlotte)! Samantha hugged him so enthusiastically, we were afraid she would knock him over; but he assured us that he loved her energetic affection and encouraged her to hug him anytime. Rachel and her grandfather were also interviewed by the press. I couldn’t help thinking that if her grandfather hadn’t survived the Holocaust, there would be no Rachel, no movie, no Charlotte. So much life, love and art has been possible because of him, including the magical and unforgettable experience we shared together in Karlovy Vary.