This year's San Sebastian International Film Festival (September 20-29) may well be remembered more for the promise of next year's high-profile anniversary event, as well as the unfortunate global circumstances which affected the 49th edition, than for the festival's own merits.
Coming in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, many North American stars and directors cancelled their trips to Spain, including top Donostia award recipients Warren Beatty and Julie Andrews.
The events came as a blow for new festival director Mikel Olaciregui in his first year at the helm, although he reiterated that concern about the lack of US stars seemed frivolous in the light of what motivated their absence. The fallout didn't stop at cancelled trips: Kurdish actor Duzgun Ayhan, who eventually won a best actor award for his role in Swiss immigration drama Escape To Paradise, was reportedly stopped for questioning at the Bilbao airport on his way home from the festival because of his "physical appearance." Understandably, he refused to return to Spain to collect his award.
Compelled by the circumstances, in the end this year's festival accented its Spanish and European roots. San Sebastian prides itself on being an intimate affair where professionals of all types and 'stripes' have the chance to mingle, where new talents can get discovered and, as Olaciregui put it, where Spanish-language cinema may find a "launching pad" into the international market. The directors and stars who graced the Basque coastal town this year included major European and Latin American names such as Nanni Moretti, Mike Figgis, Chiara Mastroianni, Bernardo Bertolucci, Marisa Paredes, Maria de Medeiros, Eduardo Mignogna and Alfonso Cuaron.
The festival's award roster also underscored its European and Spanish-language character, including the best film Golden Shell prize for Chilean Orlando Lubbert's black comedy A Cab For Three (Taxi Para Tres), best director for France's Jean-Pierre Ameris (C'est La Vie) and best actress for Spaniard Pilar Lopez de Ayala (Madness Of Love). The jury's reading of the awards was met with cheers for the best actress nod and jeers for the best film choice. A few onlookers went so far as to accuse the jury of nationalist sympathies. Whatever discussions went on behind closed doors at the posh Maria Cristina hotel, insiders said the jury made its verdict in a record two hours.
Among Spanish and international critics, who spent much of the week criticizing what they saw as a lacklustre competition line-up, the clear favorite was Jose Luis Guerin's Work In Progress (En Construccion), a pseudo-documentary about the social effects of the construction of a new building on the residents of a historical neighborhood in Barcelona. Guerin went home with the FIPRESCI prize and a special mention from the official jury.
At the fest's fledgling sales office, coordinator Alicia Luna said that cancellations from US companies such as Sony Pictures Classics didn't hamper an increased volume of meetings and screenings. Alta Films confirmed its pick-up of Spanish rights to First Hand Films' title Escape To Paradise while Golem said it picked up Spanish rights to Norwegian black comedy Elling from Trust Film Sales.
Next year marks San Sebastian's 50th anniversary and by all accounts it will be a major event. In addition to the usual roster of invitees, many of those missing from this year's edition are expected to make an extra effort to attend.