San Sebastian Raises Curtain on Pizzazz and Political Debate

Courtesy of Karlos Corbella
San Sebastian Film Festival director Jose Luis Rebordinos

The festival kicks off as tensions brew elsewhere in Spain over a bid for independence in the neighboring Catalan region.

The San Sebastian International Film Festival kicks off Friday as Spain’s only A-list festival and a must for the Spanish-speaking industry. But the rest of Spain has a nervous eye on Barcelona where tensions are mounting ahead of a contentious referendum on independence in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia.

The Spanish government has been escalating efforts to halt the vote, which it says is unconstitutional, and police have arrested a dozen people in recent days. The referendum is scheduled for Oct. 1, the day after the festival ends.

While the two events may seem unrelated, San Sebastian sits in the restive Basque region, which has long wrestled with its own voices crying for independence from Spain, including a decades-long, bloody campaign by the armed Basque group ETA, which killed more than 800 people.

Organizers of the festival, which runs this year from Sept. 22 through Sept. 30, know that that as Spain’s biggest festival it enjoys the support of all the national institutions and is comfortable in that situation.

“Our festival takes place this year with complete normalcy like in any other year,” festival director Jose Luis Rebordinos tells THR. “We have all the institutions on our administration board, including the Spanish Culture Ministry. There is no problem here.”

No stranger to political debate, the festival regularly weaves together the glamor and pizzazz of a world-class festival with the purpose of offering a platform for public discourse. Organizers have created niches for voices to be heard, like the extremely popular Latin Horizons, featuring the latest work from Latin America and Basque Cinema, screening local films in the regional Basque language.

And this year is no different. So while James Franco will be in town for his The Disaster Artist, screening in competition, and Arnold Schwarzenegger will also come to town as the voice in Wonders of the Sea 3D and a host of others will liven up the red carpet, the festival stays a step ahead of the curve in facilitating public debate on tricky issues.

A Spanish Affair screenwriter Borja Cobeaga will see the world premiere of his fourth feature film, the dark comedy Bomb Scared, addressing the issue of Basque terrorism, which will screen at the 3,000-seat Velodrome theater.

But it is the festival’s pioneering spirit to include new voices that perpetually explores new terrain.

One of the additions to this year’s 65th edition is the Glocal in Progress section, which is similar to the industry magnet section Films in Progress, which screens unfinished films from Latin America and awards financing for finishing the project. Glocal offers buyers and sales agents a sneak peak at unfinished films from what the festival is calling “European productions in non-hegemonic languages (those not filmed in German, Spanish, French, English, Italian or Russian),” to promote the co-production and dissemination of these film.

Another new element is the addition of master classes through the International Film Students Meeting, which every year grows in attendance, that will allow students to tap into the wisdom and vision of key directors in the festival’s lineup.

But it is the festival’s Official Section competition that always steals the show. Strong titles this year include Wim Wenders’ Submergence — which will open the festival Friday night — Argentine director Diego Lerman’s A Sort of Family and Nobuhiro Suwa’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Out of competition, screenwriter for J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage and The Impossible, Sergio Sanchez makes his directorial debut with Marrowbone out of competition, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Charlie Heaton.

Also out of competition and as a nod to incorporating fresh voices, the festival will premiere the first two episodes of Alberto Rodriguez’s upcoming series La Peste, which will run on Movistar’s on-demand small-screen platform.

“Every year we try to be an accurate reflection of what is happening in the audiovisual landscape. This year we saw a couple of series we really liked and they are included,” Rebordinos said.

In addition to La Peste, Movistar Plus’ romantic comedy-drama Verguenza will screen 10 episodes in the festival’s Zabaltegi-Tabakalera section. Netflix produced Cobeaga’s Bomb Scared.

As with any top-tier festival, star power never flags. Glenn Close, Alicia Vikander, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, John Malkovich — who heads the Official Jury — Todd Haynes, Darren Aronofsky, Kantemir Balagov, Robin Campillo, Raymond Depardon, Ildiko Enyedi, Michel Franco, Robert Guediguian, Hirokazu Koreeda, Sebastian Lelio, Martin McDonagh, Janus Metz, Ruben Ostlund and Lynne Ramsay are some that are scheduled to attend the festival.

But for many festivalgoers in San Sebastian, one of the highlights comes in the form of the Donostia Lifetime awards. This year Ricardo Darin, Agnes Varda and Monica Bellucci will receive the honor.

Says Rebordinos: “The Donostia Awards are always a very special moment that never fails to move me."