San Sebastian gets 'A' in poli sci

War-related titles play well; fest sales scene lackluster

As the 55th annual San Sebastian International Film Festival winds its way to its closing-night awards ceremony on Saturday, attendees are already reflecting on an event that was hot on politics and cold on deals.

A host of titles focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan combined with a number of current events-related films from Latin America to make this year's festival a strong one for political storytelling.

Nick Broomfield's documentary-style feature "The Battle for Haditha," Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" and 18-year-old Hana Makhmalbaf's "Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame" each addressed the effects of war through different points of view and enjoyed enthusiastic receptions.

But it wasn't only war-related films that grabbed attention. Richard Lester's restored version of the Beatles film "Help" and the world premiere of documentary "Earth" were the subject of dinner conversations around town.

As the world's largest Spanish-speaking film festival, San Sebastian has carved a niche as the festival that introduces the world to original voices from Latin America and Spain. This year's Latin Horizons section boasted an especially rich mix.Chico Teixeira's "A Casa de Alice" and "Satanas" were two standouts.

"In Latin America, there aren't 100 years of filmmaking that dictate what you can do with your film. You plan what you need, and according to your resources, you make it happen," said Rodrigo Guerrero, producer of Colombia's foreign-language Oscar entry, Andres Baiz's "Satan."

"We are an example of the next generation of filmmakers in Latin America, who grew up feeding on American pop culture, without political inclination, which was a big problem for Latin American cinema in the past. Politics came before cinema, therefore it made for a stale presentation," Guerrero said.

This year's event went a step further with its Latin flavor by inviting Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron and Brazilian cinematographer Affonso Beato to teach more than 100 students from 17 European and Latin American film schools at the first workshop organized at the festival by Panavision and EPC in Spain.

"Many film schools have been creating new generations, which turn out more commercial directors (and) advertising directors than filmmakers. Film schools focus on a technical level and not on conceptual elements," said Cuaron, whose son Jonas saw his short "The Shock Doctrine" screen at the festival.

Meanwhile, the Spanish film industry used the festival as a platform to entice co-productions and location shoots.

Several of Spain's regions — including Madrid, Catalonia, Galicia and the Canary Islands — hosted events and trumpeted accomplishments. Producers' lobby FAPAE held a press conference to sound the alarm on pirating — a recurring theme throughout the festival.

"Today's consumer is very impatient," said Cameo Media boss Juan Carlos Tous, who spoke at a festival roundtable that addressed illegal Internet downloading. "It's no longer a question of enjoyment but of possession, because the quality of the production is no longer important."

Most at the table agreed that the future is in creating new experiences that can't be enjoyed on smaller screens.

"Cinema has been threatened for a long time," said Oliver Dock, director of All Media-EMEA. "In the '30s, it was the birth of television. In the '70s, it was video. Now it's the Internet. It's important to know how to evolve with the times."

Though sales have never been San Sebastian's forte, this year was noticeably slower.

"There's nothing to pick up for Spain," complained one Spanish distributor who asked not to be named. "All the good stuff is already taken."

But sales agents reported a strong market.

"I'm having one of my best festivals ever," Latido CEO Max Saidel said. "I have lots of things cooking but nothing to an-nounce yet."

"This festival is still happening," veteran sales agent and KWA chief Kevin Williams said. "The TV buyers are especially serious. They're working their socks off."

One thing was clear, there were a lot of fresh faces in town this year.

"With MIFED's disappearance, Europeans are still looking for a strong festival at this time of year. They go to Venice or Locarno, but they still have a budget for MIFED and are using it to go to San Sebastian," Williams said.