'Letter' helmer Xu Jinglei gets director nod

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — If Mike Leigh thanked the Cannes festival for refusing “Vera Drake” and thus allowing him to win Venice’s Golden Lion, both San Sebastian’s Golden Shell winner Bahman Ghobadi and Goran Paskaljevic, who took this fest’s second prize, can thank Venice for the same reason.

Ironically, both films, which earned praise from auds and critics alike, were turned down for Venice competition in last summer’s game of musical festival chairs.

These low-budget, politically framed stories raised the profile of the 52nd Donostia-San Sebastian Intl. Film Festival, which closed Sunday to general acclaim as the best event in recent years under director Mikel Olaciregui.

Ghobadi’s “Turtles Can Fly,” a tragicomic Iran-Iraq co-production about kids, tanks, mines and satellite TV in a Kurdish mountain village — his third feature in a lightning career that began when “A Time for Drunken Horses” won the Camera d’Or in Cannes — was a particular favorite.

Also popular was “A Midwinter Night’s Dream,” by Serbian director Paskaljevic, which scooped the Special Jury Prize. Against a somber background of traumatic memories and the rise of ultra-nationalism, the film recounts a war veteran’s desperate attempt to live a normal life.

The social and political slant of many of the fest’s selections has given the San Sebastian a recognizable identity, while pics’ quality and the event’s large but smooth organization has earned it the status of the most important of Europe’s second-tier fests, as a bastion of art pics, indies, new directors and Spanish-lingo films.

Still struggling to find its feet was the Latin Horizons section, where quality was generally poor compared to last year.

However, buyers and fest programmers concurred that one of the most exciting sections was Films in Progress, a showcase for a select group of Latin American films seeking completion finance. Argentine Tristan Bauer’s post-Falklands War drama, “Enlightened by Fire,” won the sidebar Signis award, but many others raised interest, such as Edgardo Cozarinsky’s reportedly knockout upscale horror drama “Night Watch.”

A jury chaired by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa awarded the director nod to Chinese actress-helmer Xu JingLei, whose eye-catching second film “Letter From an Unknown Woman” embraces the full-blown romanticism of Stefan Zweig’s story, famously filmed by Max Ophuls in 1948.

From Denmark, Susanne Blier’s intense family drama “Brothers” took awards for lead thesps Connie Nielsen and Ulrich Thomsen.

The two English-language films that won awards were Michael Winterbottom’s “Nine Songs” (photography prize to young lenser Marcel Zyskin) and the U.K.-Ireland co-prod “Omagh” (screenplay, for Guy Hibbert and Paul Greengrass).

A separate jury awarded the Altadis-New Directors Award, which carries a E95,000 ($117,000) cash prize, to Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s French boarding-school drama “Innocence.” A special mention went to popular and charming Turkish picture about two village boys in love with the movies, “Boats Out of Watermelon Rinds,” by director Ahmet Ulucay.

In industry terms, San Sebastian coincided with the launch of two new Spanish distributors, Zeta’s On Films and indie Notro Films, plus pay TV operator Sogecable’s announcement of a clutch of mini-package deals with Spanish art-pic distribs.

Fest saw a handful of sales — Spanish distrib Alta confirmed it had taken “Turtles,” for instance — as well as a flurry of meet-and-greets and industry discussions and presentations, confirming San Sebastian’s position as a sounding board, entry point and export platform for the Spanish film industry.

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