Event connects with local after turbulent times

San Sebastian Film Festival @ 60

The little island protecting the bay where the Spanish town of San Sebastian is located is a perfect metaphor. The film festival that takes place in that town is like a solid bulwark against the troubled waters lapping against Spain’s film industry.

But it hasn’t always been that way. The festival earned its current status as Spain’s major movie platform the hard way.

The first festival, with a budget of under $2,000, was the result of the decision by a group of local businessmen to attract trade. It became a Category A fest in 1957, when it inaugurated its Golden Shell award.

The following year saw the arrival of the first stars from the U.S., including Anthony Mann, with Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” famously losing out that year to Tadeus Chmielevski’s “Eva Wants to Sleep.”

In the turbulent ’60s, San Sebastian was marked by uncertainty. In 1967, there was even talk of moving the fest to the southern city of Marbella. The town’s surrounding Basque country was roiled by constant unrest until the death in 1975 of Spain’s strongman leader, Francisco Franco. Even after that, foreign guests were often no-shows.

“Issues that had been hidden suddenly came to light after Franco’s death,” recalls Manuel Perez Estremera, who was fest director in 1993-94.

Plus, the business began to change rapidly. One major decision that came in the post-Franco years was the elimination of taxes on films released in Spain — a key factor in the decision-making of distributors. Films such as “Star Wars” and “Jaws” started appearing in Spanish cinemas.

The San Sebastian fest’s modern era began with the 1986 arrival of the popular Diego Galan as its director. His name is now practically synonymous with the event.

By then the fest had developed a reputation for elitism and was disconnected from the town’s citizens. Galan oversaw the rebuilding of good relations between the fest and its host city — and today San Sebastian takes pride in the intense involvement of the locals.

“One night a taxi driver told me the festival was a pile of garbage,” recalls Galan. “And I thought, I have to win this taxi driver over.”

One measure was to set up the Donostia lifetime achievement awards. In 1989, the prize went to a seriously ill Bette Davis, who died days after her final San Sebastian bow. (To this day, Galan is moved by the fact that the thesp made the journey at all.)

The Donostia formula worked: There are five such honorees this year. The fest’s lovingly curated retrospectives, dating back to the ’80s, were set up with the aim of attracting overseas critics.

They offer “a guarantee of quality that the official section can’t always match,” Galan says.

Meanwhile vets recall with affection Galan’s “Breakfasts at Tiffanys” — meets designed to pull together bleary-eyed industryites in a bid to make the fest a place to do business. This effort has largely succeeded.

Despite efforts under fest topper Rudi Barnet in the early ’90s to ratchet up the glam to Venice levels, San Sebastian’s essentials have not altered dramatically since the first of Galan’s two tenures.

Manager Mikel Olaciregui, who led from 2001 to 2011, adopted an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary approach.

More recent initiatives have included Films in Progress, consolidating the fest’s lengthy relationship with Latin American cinema, and an increasing focus on Basque-language films.

In the opinion of some, the fest’s identity is still a little blurry around the edges.

“Looking to the future, the best thing that San Sebastian could do is define itself more clearly,” says Perez Estremera. “But you have to admit that if it’s been around for 60 years, it must be doing something right.”

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