Big names, big themes at San Seb

Hollywood stars mingle with political, social issues

Richard Gere, Demi Moore, Viggo Mortensen and Samuel L. Jackson are a few of the faces adding star power to the 55th annual San Sebastian International Film Festival, which kicks off today and runs through Sept. 29.

While locals appreciate the star power, it is the festival's focus on political and social issues and commitment to its Latin flavor that make San Sebastian unique.

"We look to create a varied, balanced lineup that reflects the different kinds of cinema being made right now," festival director Mikel Olaciregui said. "There's a cross section of new and veteran directors, different genres from a variety of countries and languages."

A total of 16 films will vie for the festival's Golden Shell, awarded by a jury presided over by U.S. writer-director Paul Auster.

Politics is never far from the fore in San Sebastian, and this year's festival is heavy with features focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Iraq conflict gets a high-profile billing with Nick Broomfield's "Battle for Haditha" in the official competition. The documentarian's scripted effort will run alongside 18-year-old Iranian director Hana Makhmalbaf's film "Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame," about a 6-year-old Afghan girl's struggle to learn the alphabet in a war-torn society.

David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" will open the official competition and Paolo Barzman's "Emotional Arithmetic" will close the festival, highlighting the close ties between the Toronto International Film Festival — where both films premiered — and San Sebastian.

"We're not interested in lowering our standards in the film selection to have only world premieres," Olaciregui said. "We offer the films a different market and another chance to be seen."

The official section does offer a number of world premieres, however, including those from two of Spain's veteran female directors — Iciar Bollain's "Mataharis" and Gracia Querejeta's "Seven Billiards Tables" — as well as Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield's documentary "Earth" and Auster's out-of-competition "The Inner Life of Martin Frost."

One of the festival's favorite programs is the Zabaltegi section, which encompasses the New Directors and Pearls sidebars. Pearls gives festivalgoers a chance to catch up with films they might have missed at previous events in the year, while New Directors offers first- and second-time filmmakers a slot in an international venue and a shot at the coveted €90,000 ($120,000) Altadis-New Directors Award.

But perhaps one of the most important ingredients for the success of San Sebastian is its role as a gateway between Latin America and Europe.

"The festival's Latin flavor strengthens San Sebastian," said Wanda Films' Miguel Morales, a regular co-producer and distributor of Latin American features, including the competition title "Embodiment." "The impact and prestige in Latin America are almost greater than in Spain."

The Latin Horizons section showcases Latin American movies not yet released in Spain and offers a €30,000 ($41,000) Horizontes Award. The Films in Progress section, meanwhile, helps unfinished Latin American projects find financing for postproduction and guarantees the winner a spot in next year's festival lineup.
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