Local films dominated the opening weekend of the 53rdannual Donostia-San Sebastian International Film Festival (Sept 15-24).

Half of thecompetition titles to screen over the opening weekend were Spanish orSpain-backed. One of the festival's most highly anticipated world premieres, NineQueens director FabianBielinsky's2 hour 14 minutethrillerTheAura (El Aura), earned praise for its stylish noir atmosphere and starRicardo Darin's performance but criticism for excessive length and slow pacing.

Darin, who isfabulously popular in Spain, was garnering buzz as a contender for an actingaward. He will present a new Spanish project, Jose Luis Cuerda's TheEducation Of A Fairy (La Educacion De Un Hada), in San Sebastian on Monday.

Other films alsoreceived mixed marks. Some earned solid but not ecstatic praise, along thelines of one Spanish critic's quip that Zhang Yang's Sunflower (Xiang Ri Kui) was finally "a Chinese film youcan understand," or another's feeling that opening film Obaba had great acting and production valuesbut ultimately "leaves me in a lukewarm state and without a mark on thememory."

Obaba was one of three films pre-selected bythe Spanish Cinema Academy on Friday for the country's nomination to theforeign language Oscar. The other two, not at San Sebastian , were FernandoLeon's Princesas andJose Luis Garci's Ninette.

Juan JoseBallesta, the young star of Spanish competition title 7 Virgins (7Virgenes), was the mostsought-after autograph outside the festival's decadent Maria Cristina Hotel,while jury president Anjelica Huston was among the most solicitedinterviewees.

Industry newswas sparse beyond a press conference by the Spanish Producers' Federation FAPAEreiterating its demands on the government, including a hike in tax breaks,stricter regulation of TV investment in cinema and a clearer definition of therole of the independent producer.

Spanishdistributor Alta Films revealed it had acquired rights to the festival'sclosing film The World's Fastest Indian, the company's sole pick-up in Toronto.

Sales house TheWorks said it would likely close deals with Spain, France and Scandinaviabefore the end of the week on Michael Winterbottom's A Cock And Bull Story, which received glowing reviews in theSpanish press.

Undergrounddirector Abel Ferrara, fresh from a Grand Jury Prize win in Venice for new filmMary, introduced aretrospective of his work with humorous modesty, warning against viewing hisearly films.

At a pressconference Sunday prior to receiving a lifetime achievement Donostia Prize, anda day after he toured the Guggenheim Museum in nearby Bilbao, Willem Dafoejoked he liked the town so much, "I should work for the San Sebastiantourism board."

Dafoe alsopresented his newest film, Venice premiere Before It Had A Name from Italian director Giada Colagrande."I like to work with people from outside my country who have a differentperspective and a different relationship with the business of makingmovies," Dafoe replied to a question of whether he would seek new projectsin Europe.

Cuba Gooding Jr(Zabaltegi screener Shadowboxer) and Dafoe were the highest-profile celebrity guests in town overthe opening weekend. Reflecting San Sebastian's relaxed ambiance, Gooding couldbe seen hanging around the Maria Cristina lobby and on the dance floor at TheAura's after-party.

Local reportssuggested employees of the Maria Cristina Hotel might go on strike beforeweek's end, a situation which plagued the festival two years ago.