Spain's leading film festival, the Donostia-San Sebastian International Film Festival (Sept 18-28), kicks off today with award-winning Cuban director Fernando Perez's dialogue-free fictionalised documentary Suite Havana - one

of several bold programming selections sure to set tongues wagging at this year's edition.

Yet the real controversy looks likely to surround Sunday's screening of Julio Medem's documentary on the volatile situation in Basque Country, La Pelota Vasca, La Piel Contra La Piedra. The film already made national headlines on Wednesday after two people interviewed by Medem demanded they be edited out of the film and accused the director of a biased portrait which "scorns the victims" of ETA.

In a press release, Medem declined to comment prior to the film's Sunday premiere, "where the media, the public and the rest of those interviewed can evaluate my genuine intentions: a presentation committed to non-violence and political dialogue."

As both Medem's and Perez's films illustrate, San Sebastian does not shy away from riskier material and is certainly on the cutting edge of programming documentaries, that global genre-du-jour. The Medem piece screens alongside four other potentially contentious documentaries in the Zabaltegi Special Screenings. Many of the competition titles broach social issues as well, some in a documentary-like manner.

Made for just under $500,000, Perez's homage to everyday life in Havana is cast with people off the street and set to the sounds of the city. Majority co-producer Jose Maria Morales of Spain's Wanda Vision, who chose San Sebastian over Locarno or Toronto for the international premiere, is aware of the gamble festival director Mikel Olaciregui has taken.

"When Mikel approached me about opening the festival I said it would be an honour - especially for such an alternative, low-budget film. We are very happy with this magnificent, modern work. But viewers must be advised this is no action movie."

Regular San Sebastian attendees need no forewarning. Two years ago, Jose Luis Guerin's Barcelona-set Work In Progress (En Construccion), a leisurely-paced, 125-minute pseudo-documentary, stole the hearts of critics and went home with their FIPRESCI prize and a special mention from the jury. Wanda was that film's Spanish distributor.

The Perez and Medem films also reflect San Sebastian's growing profile as a required stop for buyers of Spanish and Latin American cinema. "It's a great launching pad for Spanish-language films or any films," says Morales, who hopes to seal further European sales and an in-talks pan-regional Latin American distribution deal after tonight's screening.

This year's tributes to Preston Sturges, Michael Winterbottom and the Cinema of the Maghreb, and career-achievement Donostia Awards for Sean Penn, Robert Duvall and Isabelle Huppert underscore the festival's reputation for flaunting "glamour with intelligence." Missing from that coterie will be Chazz Palminteri, whose last-minute, work-related cancelation has left the competition jury temporarily without a chairperson.

San Sebastian may also have to grapple with a workers' strike at the Maria Cristina Hotel, hub of festival activity and accommodations for the highest-profile guests. Negotiations to resolve the strike were still going on Wednesday.