San Sebastian Film Festival

After a summer of debate about emigration, the annual festival devotes a timely retrospective to the issue.

MADRID -- The haunting images were impossible to ignore. The despondent eyes of sub-Saharan Africans, having reached the coast of Spain after a desperate and dangerous sea voyage, were imprinted on Europeans' minds by TV news programs throughout the summer as a wave of would-be immigrants swelled with the good weather.

By its midway point, 2006 already had posted a record tally of immigrants seeking shelter in Europe from adverse conditions in Africa, Latin America and Asia. With Spain's role as a gateway to Europe from Africa and Latin America increasing significantly during the past decade, the San Sebastian International Film Festival has carved a niche amid the frenzied fest season by touting its unique bridge to those relatively less-accessible regions and their movie industries.

Fittingly, San Sebastian organizers have assembled an ambitious 30-film retrospective about global emigration to screen during this year's event. According to festival director Mikel Olaciregui, the movies have been organized to incorporate the 20th century's major migratory movements, including the flow from Africa to Europe, tension on the U.S.-Mexico border, Spaniards who headed for South America or other European nations during Francisco Franco's dictatorship and even the flow of emigres from Japan to Brazil.

"There are those films that discuss the journey, the traumatic trip, the experience of finding oneself in a completely unknown destination, and then the problems that include the relationship with the local population and all that encompasses," Olaciregui says. "Then there is the change that causes for the society, such as the American society, which is a melting pot of cultures that have emigrated there to create the present socioeconomic situation."

Landmark films such as Luchino Visconti's classic 1961 U.S. release "Rocco and His Brothers" and Elia Kazan's 1963 drama "America, America" are part of that analysis, as are lesser-known movies like Jose Luis Borau's 1984 drama "On the Line," which examines the plight of Mexicans attempting to cross the U.S. border illegally.

American films in this year's San Sebastian lineup include Robert M. Young's 1977 drama "Alambrista!" in which a young Mexican father seeks fortune in the U.S.; Louis Malle's 1985 drama "Alamo Bay," which centers on a veteran of the Vietnam conflict who is pushed to the edge when he sees Vietnamese immigrants move into a Texas fishing town; "America, America," which depicts Kazan's uncle's journey from Turkey to the U.S.; Tony Chan's 1993 drama "Combination Platter," which examines the lives of employees at a Chinese restaurant in New York; Joan Micklin Silver's 1975 drama "Hester Street," a Jewish immigrant tale; and Bo Widerberg's 1971 drama "Joe Hill," a biopic about that Swedish-American agitator.

In the wake of recent marches throughout the U.S. to protest possible immigration legislation and riots in Paris stemming from socioeconomic discontent among France's large North African community, the San Sebastian retrospective could not be more timely.

"The lines of poverty seem to go from south to north," Olaciregui says. "At one time, the south of Europe migrated to the north for the same reasons that cause immigration nowadays: a better life and a solution for those from countries that, due to a sociopolitical scenario, had an economic situation (that was) behind that of their neighbors."

Because much of its work force traveled to Sweden or Germany during the 1960s, Spain has much to offer cinematically to the recent discussion surrounding the issue, according to Olaciregui. Spanish films such as Carlos Iglesias' recent local dramedy release "Un Franco, 14 Pesetas," Iciar Bollain's 1999 dramedy "Flowers From Another World," Imanol Uribe's 1996 drama "Bwana" and Montxo Armendariz's 1990 drama "Las Cartas de Alou" speak to Spain's shift from being a nation that produces emigrants to one that receives them.

With myriad forces continuing to drive persons from their homes around the globe, Olaciregui believes that film can shed light on an increasingly pressing issue with far-reaching implications.

"These are questions that affect everyone," he says. "We thought it would be useful to examine how cinema has treated such an important, current subject."