Madrid event gets bigger

The setting for San Sebastian, the biggest festival in the Spanish-speaking world, captivates first-time guests: Tree-top cliffs box in three blowsy bays, and the sun often cedes to drizzle and bucketing showers.

San Sebastian has been buffeted by other elements.

Under Franco, fest films drew down tax breaks, and as a result, the studios brought in big films and big stars. With democracy, those privileges lapsed. The Basque Country also was rocked by separatist unrest.

San Sebastian bowed Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda” in 2004. This year, the competish features a strong Spanish distaff directorial presence, with world preems of Gracia Querejeta’s “7 mesas de billar frances” and Iciar Bollain’s “Mataharis.” Also unspooling are the BBC-Greenlight docu “Earth” and a diptych from Wayne Wang, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” (in competition) and “Princes of Nebraska” (as a sidebar special). The fest is bookended by David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” and Michael Radford’s out-of-competish “Flawless.”

Trailing Venice and Toronto, San Sebastian struggles to compete for star-laden world preems. But those jewels are not an obsession, claims fest director Mikel Olaciregui.

The festival’s main competition balances upscale name-director movies, sometimes exquisite smaller films from lesser-known talent and a strong art- or crossover-Spanish or Spanish-language presence. San Sebastian is admired for its director tributes. And it’s turned to emerging talent and territories.

A succulent E90,000 ($122,000) cash prize bulwarks an often high-quality New Directors competition.

With “Horizontes Latinos,” the fest has expanded into its natural back garden, Latin America, offering a panorama of art pics.

Films in Progress often affords sneak peeks of first films from Latin American filmmakers seeking completion finance. Expected this year are “Gasolina,” one of Buena Onda’s new Central America productions, and “Una semana solos” from Celina Murga, with Anna Katz and Lucia Puenzo, a promising femme Argentine filmmaker.

Lately, the festival has looked south and now east, launching Cinema in Motion, a showcase of unfinished Maghreb and Arab world movies. And it’s hiked industry events, seeking to consolidate its position as a bastion of indie and arthouse cinema.

For the future, says Olaciregui, he’d like to make the festival more attractive for stars.

FEST INFO

When: Sept. 20 – 29

Web: sansebastianfestival.com

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