San Sebastian packs in premieres

Spanish festival set to debut 20-plus films

A little like a muscled trans-Atlantic brother keen to establish his superiority over his more genteel Euro sibling, Toronto annually siphons off dozens of international preems before San Sebastian starts up, and the Spanish event has to exercise its Basque cunning to fashion something special from what’s left.

In official competition terms, San Sebastian’s bounty this year is down from 2006 in international preems, but there’s still a slew of high-quality arthouse items that combine edginess and craft with the fest’s traditional Spanish-Latino slant. Taking all sections into account, we find 20-plus items making their first screen appearances.

“The films’ styles may vary,” explains director Mikel Olaciregui, “but in their substance, they’re united by the questions they ask about the existential issues facing man in the 21st century.”

This year will mark the first time that two Spanish women — two of Spain’s three leading distaff helmers — are up for the main prize.

Iciar Bollain follows up her internationally well-received “Take My Eyes” with her fourth feature, “Mataharis,” about a group of female detectives who inadvertently uncover the truth about themselves.

Gracia Querejeta, meanwhile, weighs in with the well-crafted femme drama “Seven Billiards Tables,” starring Maribel Verdu (“Pan’s Labyrinth”).

Another potential femme standout in the official section is Argentinian Anahi Berneri’s sophomore turn “Embodiment,” in which a middle-aged thesp returns to her hometown to face some home truths.

The fest’s Made in Spanish sidebar, meanwhile, features 15 of the stronger homegrown efforts from the past few months, including Rafa Cortes’ fest-friendly “Yo” and Jaime Rosales’ remarkable, stately “Solitary Fragments.”

“European films find it hard to break through barriers to international distribution,” Olaciregui says. “San Sebastian can help that.”

Other domestic thesps can be found in the Zabaltegi New Directors sidebar, including debuts from Diego Fandos — “Cosmos,” an allegorical fantasy about a Spanish boy who tries to save a cosmonaut — and Tom Fernandez, with “La torre de Suso.”

Olaciregui stresses this high number of debuts: “You see a festival’s success five years down the line,” he says.

Walter Salles and Isabel Coixet (Spain’s third leading femme helmer) appeared first at San Sebastian. “The discovery of new talent is an index of success. This is the festival’s cultural function,” Olaciregui adds.

Spanish-language cinema — particularly Spanish cinema itself — has traditionally been largely abandoned by the other major Euro fests.

Since the launch of its increasingly prestigious Horizontes Latinos sidebar, San Sebastian has become Europe’s highest-profile showcase for Latin American fare.

Ones to watch in 2007 are Argentine Pablo Fendrik’s gripping debut “The Mugger,” about a day’s work in the life of a middle-aged con man; Ernesto Contreras’ offbeat take on love and romance, “Blue Eyelids;” and Ana Katz’s sophomore effort, the wry comedy “A Stray Girlfriend,” in which the heroine wanders around in search of the man who abandoned her at the start of a romantic weekend.

In the Sept. 25-26 Films in Progress, a San Sebastian highlight, lead draws include Guatamalan Julio Hernandez Colon’s “Gasolina,” part of Buena Onda’s push into Central American production, and “Una semana solos,” from Celina Murga, another Spanish-language distaff promise.

What of the future of San Sebastian? Certain sections of the media, Olaciregui is aware, carp about the lack of glamour:

Olaciregui notes that there is a ” delicate balance” a successful fest must strike between quality cinema whose profile the fest helps to raise, accessibility and star power.

“It isn’t just all a question of sizes and numbers,” he adds.

San Sebastian, despite — or because of — its Michelin restaurants and full-bore fiestas, has growing industry heft.  

Top Euro sales agents — Wild Bunch, Bavaria, the Match Factory — roll in to test films with auds. Sogepaq dines business friends in the Old Part.

And there’s an industrial logic to many Latin American films packing its sections. With the Spanish theatrical market in free fall, Spanish and Latin American producers need to team on the key Spanish-lingo talent, which aggregates niche sales worldwide. “Talent and the international market are key to the films I make,” says Wanda’s Jose Maria Morales,” a regular producer of Latin American auteurs such as Carlos Sorin, Daniel Burman, Fernando Perez, Lucia Puenzo and Claudia Llosa.

On Sorin’s “Bombon, el perro,” Spain repped around just 20% of total returns.

Many such Spain-Latin American talent deals are solidified or sealed at San Sebastian. If you see producers at eateries Arzak, Akelarre or Nicolasa, they’re not just there for the cod al pil-pil.

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