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10 Things to Watch for at the San Sebastian Film Festival

With its 66th edition running Sept. 21-29, San Sebastian is the highest-profile festival in the Spanish-speaking world. Here are 10 things to watch for at this year’s installment.

Could the tide be turning? Following Cannes, Locarno, Sarajevo and Venice, of European events, San Sebastian will sign a gender-parity charter at this year’s event. More eye-catching, San Sebastian joins a growing bevy of events — Venice Days and Mexico’s Morelia, for example — in having at least one major section with more titles directed by women than men. In San Sebastian’s case, it is the 2018 Europe-Latin America Co-Production Forum. That makes sense: Screening finished films, festivals depend on women’s movies getting made, and highlighting projects can further that goal. “We support ways for more women’s films to get made,” says San Sebastian director José Luis Rebordinos.

Danny DeVito, Judi Dench and Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose “Shoplifters” won this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or, will pick up career achievement prizes at the San Sebastian Donostia Awards. Flushed with success at Venice and Toronto, Ryan Gosling (“First Man”), Bradley Cooper (“A Star is Born”) and Robert Pattinson (“High Life”) are also confirmed for San Sebastian.

Five films by women screen in competition, and in all, 34% of San Sebastian’ biggest section titles — competition, New Directors, Horizontes Latinos, the Forum and Films in Progress — are directed by women. Significantly, San Sebastian has also zeroed in on movies by genuinely exciting female talent from territories where young women directors are moving stage center, making films which position women in a very different places from the aspirational inter-class romance of yore: Catalonia’s Celia Rico (“Journey to a Mother’s Room”), Meritxell Colell (“Duo”) and Clara Roquet (“Libertad”); Mexico’s Lila Avilés (“The Chambermaid”), and Chile’s Pepa San Martin (“Happiness”).

Netflix has “Roma” in its Perlas best-of-the-fests section. Kim Jee-woon’s “Ilang: The Wolf Brigade” has been acquired by Netflix. Amazon Studios co-produces Felix Van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy.” One more OTT platform deal at least on a San Sebastian title may well be announced before its inauguration. As Netflix produces movies by some of Spain’s highest-profile filmmakers — its third original feature, Isabel Coixet’s “Elisa & Marcela,” went into production in May — that OTT presence will almost certainly grow at San Sebastian, Rebordinos says. “Netflix is producing movies in Spain. Who knows if next year it, or Movistar Plus, might have Spanish productions in competition?”

If there’s one trend among San Sebastian’s highest-profile titles, this year it’s the ever-deeper plunge into genre, whether Claire Denis’ deep-space set “High Life,” Kim Jee-woon’s futuristic actioner “Ilang,” Peter Strickland’s cursed dress chiller “In Fabric,” Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s propulsive political corruption thriller “The Realm” or Benjamin Nashtat’s period noir tale of covert violence, “Rojo.” As production volumes hold but theatrical arthouse audiences contract, even august name auteurs need to step up in scale to stand out in a crowd; thrillers in Spain allow Spanish filmmakers to maintain the anti-establishment ethos of Spain’s arthouse tradition while reaching out to broader audiences.

Nearly half the directors in competition — Markus Schleinzer, Tuva Novotny, Louis Garrel, Simon Jacquemet, Benjamin Naishtat, Sorogoyen, Carlos Vermut and Juan Vera — made their solo fiction feature debut this decade. This year San Sebastian will possibly stand or fall on how many of their films confirm them as international name auteurs.

Mixing big names — Kim Jee-woon, Claire Denis, Naomi Kawase — newer talent and the best of this year’s cinema, San Sebastian should pack a punch this year in part because Cannes was “spectacular” and Venice’s competition had “powerful titles,” Rebordinos says. Netflix has forced traditional TV series production to react. Could it now be galvanizing foreign-language movie production as well, forcing it to raise the bar or perish?

Venice’s Production Bridge hit 2,200-plus execs this year. Accredited industry participants at San Sebastian may not be far short, tracking as of late August to come in above last year’s 1,621 accredited industry participants. Deals still go down before or at San Sebastian, whether they’re on sales agent pick-ups or festival breakouts. But business is now energized by two newer factors: the festival’s evolution as a co-financing event, galvanized by the 2012 launch of its Europe Latin America Co-production Forum; and TV, with Movistar Plus original series “Gigantes” and “Arde Madrid” world-premiering at this year’s event. One of San Sebastian’s biggest industry panels may well unspool Sept. 22, as directors and execs discuss the creation and markets on new drama series, where much of the smart money is these days in Spain.

Argentina’s Juan Vera opens San Sebastian with “An Unexpected Love,” an ambitious, literate and questioningly romantic separation dramedy starring Ricardo Darín, in competition. Brillante Mendoza’s political thriller “Alpha: The Right to Kill,” Isaki Lacuesta’s brothers drama “Between Two Waters” and Iciar Bollain’s “Yuli,” Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta origins story, all bow at San Sebastian.

Beyond the clutch of already-noted women-directed titles, Schleinzer’s “Angelo,” Jacquemet’s “The Innocent,” Natalia Meschaninova’s “The Core of the World,” Inés María Barrionuevo’s “Julia and the Fox,” and hard-boiled penitentiary thriller “The Prince” were all generating good buzz by late August. Garrel’s Truffaut-ish “A Faithful Man” sparked a bidding war among Spanish distributors; “A Twelve-Year Night” a massive ovation at Venice. Koldo Almandoz’s “The Deer” looks like one of the most notable titles from a building Basque cinema.

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