San Sebastian to make statement

Fest will unspool emotional, politically charged fare

This year's San Sebastian International Film Festival is shaping up to be dominated by politics and social issues. Organizers have cobbled together a lineup laden with features touting plots straight from newspaper headlines. It's another year when San Sebastian seems ahead of the political curve.

As the curtain lifts on the 55th San Sebastian International Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday and runs through Sept. 29 in Spain's northern Basque region, all the pieces are in order for a top-notch event, true to form for the world's most important Spanish-language festival. Expected are features from world-renowned directors mixed with a bevy of up-and-coming talent and sprinkled with a hefty dose of Latin flavor from South American films vying for a spot in the international market.

Nick Broomfield's "Battle for Haditha," which focuses on U.S. Marines in Iraq, is joined in the Official Section by other political films like Hana Makhmalbaf's "Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame," about a 6-year-old Afghan girl's efforts to go to school.

"Cinema being made nowadays treats not only political subjects but all the subjects that affect a person of the 21st century, and we try to reflect that," San Sebastian festival director Mikel Olaciregui says.

Socially charged films in the official competition include Wayne Wang's "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," about the lives of Asians in America; Paulo Barzman's Toronto film festival closer "Emotional Arithmetic," which examines the lingering legacy of the Holocaust; and Esteban Shroeder's "Matar a Todos," which brings the political focus to South America as a Uruguayan woman looks into her country's military past.

This year's lineup includes an unusually high number of English-language films, including David Cronenberg's opening-night film, "Eastern Promises," and Michael Radford's closing-night offering, "Flawless," screening out of competition. Both films will have their European debuts in San Sebastian.

Spanish pubcaster Television Espanola, capitalizing on the festival's penchant for socially charged films, will offer a new award — namely Spanish broadcast rights — for the film that best portrays the "female universe." There are several contenders, including two Spanish films in the Official Section — both from veteran female directors. From the director of "Take My Eyes," Iciar Bollain's "Mataharis," about a detective agency run by women, will have its world premiere the first weekend of the festival. Gracia Querejeta's "Seven Billiards Tables" looks at a woman's efforts to rebuild her life.

Lest anyone think a political and socially conscious atmosphere anathema to fun, San Sebastian enjoys the reputation among buyers as being one of the most fun events of the year.

"San Sebastian has a great selection of movies and it's always a fantastic all-round experience," says U.K.-based acquisitions exec Alexandra Rossi of New Line Cinema. "The food is sublime and the town so beautiful."

The festival's size also appeals to buyers.

"Aside from being very well-organized, the size allows you to see lots of different films and meet with everyone," Spanish producer-distributor Wanda's Miguel Morales says. Wanda is co-producer on official competition entry "Embodiment" and Spanish distributor of "Earth" and "Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame," also in the official section, as well as Carlos Saura's "Fados," screening in the Zabaltegi section.

One of the favorite sections is the Zabaltegi, with its mix of New Directors and Pearls from previous festivals. Pearls gives festivalgoers a chance to catch up with films they may 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.

"For me, San Sebastian is the best platform our film could have," says Iker Montfort, producer of Max Lemcke's "Casual Day," running in the New Directors showcase. "San Sebastian is on the same level as Cannes or Berlin when it comes to launching a film."

San Sebastian's role as a gateway between Latin America and Europe continues to be a potent ingredient.

"The festival's Latin flavor strengthens San Sebastian," Morales says. "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. Additionally, the Films in Progress section helps unfinished Latin American projects find funds for postproduction and gives the winner a foothold in the international festival circuit by promising a spot in next year's lineup.

Star power this year comes in the form of Richard Gere and Liv Ullmann, who will receive Donostia Lifetime Achievement Awards. Viggo Mortensen, Samuel L. Jackson and Demi Moore — among others — also are expected in town during the festival.