Location Basque Country: Local Industry Sets International Agenda

One main attraction of shooting in the Basque country is its small but vibrant - and increasingly international - production community

Courtesy of Film Factory

SAN SEBASTIAN –“Handía” (Giant), San Sebastián’s 2017 flagship Basque movie, a tale of two brothers’ deep affective bonds, says much about the film ambitions of the Basque Country – and why the Basque Country should grow as a shoot locale for films or TV from Europe and beyond.

Set down the decades from 1836, the tale of two brothers’ love, warped but never destroyed by grinding poverty, romantic rivalry and the carnage of the 1833-40 Carlist War, begins with shots of the Basque Country and a voiceover: “Change is the only thing that is not changing.”

One of the biggest attractions of shooting in the Basque Country is the Basque country. “Handia’s” prologue captures rolling pine-clad hills seen in pale dawn light, steep cliffs, and scrub-desert expanses.

As “Game of Thrones” showed, turning Bizkaia’s islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe into Season 7’s Dragonstone, and the stark-cliffed beach of Itzurun into the place where Daenarys finally steps onto the shores of Westeros, one large lure of the Basque Country is simply the singularity of its locations, ranging from Frank Gehry’s titanium Museo Guggenheim in Bilbao to its wild coast, crag-topped hills and steep-buffed mountains.

Another is the Basque Country industry itself. For near two decades from the late-80s, in industrial terms, Basque cinema was a survival act. From around 2004, the Kimuak shorts program, consolidated Basque government and TV backing, via pubcaster ETB – which buys Basque movies at above market prices – and the breakout hit of “Aupe Extxebeste!” a light – if spot-on – social satire and the first Basque-language feature in years, laid the foundations of a modern Basque cinema.

“With Basque Government and ETB aid, producers are in a favorable position to take their project to a national or international level,” said producer Koldo Zuazua.

Basque production volume may not have risen much in very recent years, said Joxean Muñoz, the Basque government’s deputy culture minister: Counting minority co-productions, the Basque Country makes an average score of features a year.

But priorities have changed.

“For a film industry with such a small domestic market, it’s important to make movies which can interest international partners and reach markets overseas,” Muñoz argued.

That looks to be happening. Pitched Sunday at San Sebastian’s Europe-Latin America Co-production Forum, Pablo Aguëro’s “Akelarre” has two French co-producers, La Fidèle and Tita Productions, and has been acquired for world sales by Film Factory Ent., in a deal announced Sunday. One day later, Film Factory Ent. revealed it has also boarded Fermín Muguruza’s awaited animation feature “Black is Beitza.”

After “Loreak” and “Handía,” Irusoin/Moriarti producer Xabi Berzosa said at San Sebastián that his next two features will both be international co-productions. Set up at Txintxua Films, “Kilker, the Cricket Hunter,” from Asier Altuna (“Amama”) is also a natural for overseas co-production, unspooling between Paris and the Basque Country.

“The search for international openings is our opportunity and our challenge,” said “Kilker” producer Marián Fernández Pascual.

A producer of the extraordinary Gkids-bought animation film “Birdboy: the Forgotten Children,” Carlos Juárez agrees: “We need to ramp up exports.”

Talked up for years, Basque Country tax breaks are “pretty well generalized,” said Muñoz. Channelled via AIE tax vehicles and offering investors 30% tax breaks, they allow Basque producers to come to the international table – and with the rest of Spain – with far more muscle, said producer Eduardo Carneros.

Basque production is broadening its gamut. San Sebastián Basque movies this year range from a period piece (“Handía”) to broad comedy (“Operación Concha”) to auteurist intimacy (“Dying”), a thriller (“Akelarre”) and road movie (“El doble más quince”), even a musical (“Dantza”). “There are as many trends as producers and directors,” said producer Leire Apellaniz.

The Basque government is also broadening its range of incentives, introducing this year development grants and now Film Basque Country, a move to homogenize tax breaks across the Basque Country, build a stronger digital locations base and present a united front for the Basque Country’s shoot locale appeals in international, Muñoz said.

Once an afterthought, in Film Basque Country international is once again moving stage center.