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What to Watch for at the San Sebastian Film Festival

Opening on Sept. 20 with Roger Michell’s “Blackbird,” starring Kate Winslet and Susan Sarandon, and set at a stunning Basque resort, the San Sebastián Film Festival marks the highest-profile film event in the Spanish-speaking world. Here are 10 early takes on 2019’s edition.

A Festival of Discoveries

“Every festival has its own personality. Venice is now mainly a platform for big star-driven U.S. movies, Cannes for very high-quality cinema,” says festival director José Luis Rebordinos. “We search for new talent, and if you want to know what’s going on now in Latin America, come to San Sebastián.”

Five of its main competition movies are first or second features, with some very good word-of-mouth: David Zonana’s pointedly elegant Mexican class-gulf drama “Workforce,” and Belen Funes’ “A Thief’s Daughter,” a vision of low-income youth juggling love, broken families and bills. New Directors is now firmly established as the festival’s major sidebar.

“We can’t compete with the world’s biggest festivals for big world premieres, but we can snag first features,” Rebordinos says.

Stars and Bars

Penelope Cruz, Costa Gavras and Donald Sutherland receive career achievement Donostia Awards; Javier Bardem will present the ocean protection-themed “Sanctuary.” Kristen Stewart talks “Seberg.” Most stars sample the extraordinary Basque pintxo tapas in San Sebastián’s old quarter. Many, unsurprisingly, find a reason to return.

Buzz Titles

There’s heightened anticipation for “The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy,” Justin Webster’s latest venture into what he terms “character-driven narrative non-fiction series.”

It’s also noteworthy just how many buzz titles are from women. In competition: “A Thief’s Daughter,” Alice Winocour’s “Proxima” with Eva Green, and Canadian Louise Archambault’s “And the Birds Rained Down”; in New Directors, “Shattered Night” and Lucía Alemany’s “The Innocence.” San Sebastian also showcases Movistar Plus’“Perfect Life,” a 2019 Canneseries winner directed by Leticia Dolera.

Tapping Into Nightlife

Penelope Cruz, Costa Gavras and Donald Sutherland receive career achievement Donostia Awards; Javier Bardem will present the ocean protection-themed “Sanctuary.” More stars will be confirmed closer to the event. Most sample the extraordinary Basque pintxo tapas in San Sebastián’s old quarter. Many, unsurprisingly, find a reason to return.

Navarre Celebrates Locations

Since the 1950s, Spain has been a favorite European shooting locale. One of the biggest reasons remains its locations. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Navarre Film Commission will hold an exhibition at San Sebastian of 18 of its hugely contrasting locations, plus the titles shot there. These range from the Bardenas canyon badlands (“Game of Thrones”) to Artajona’s medieval fortress (“Robin and Marian”) and the woods of Urbasa (“The Sisters Brothers”). The settings are extraordinary and still part of a relatively undiscovered Spain.

Industry Consolidation

“We’ve battled over the last nine years to consolidate San Sebastian as an industry meet,” says Rebordinos, San Sebastian director since 2010. That now looks to have been achieved. San Sebastian’s Europe-Latin American Co-production Forum is now firmly established, alongside Ventana Sur as the key art film meeting point exploring that axis. San Sebastian accredited 1,698 industry delegates last year, almost as many as Locarno or indeed Venice. The caliber of producers attending also has spiked. Among companies with Forum projects this year: Gullane, Tu Vas Voir, Campo Cine, Patagonik, Malbicho Cine, Tarea Fina, Storyboard Media and Magma.

Basque Industry Growth

Once, San Sebastián supported Basque cinema, now Basque cinema bulwarks the festival. Its filmmakers, moreover, have the confidence and ambition to fan out from a base of finely wrought art films (“Jordi’s Letters”) into international co-production (“Window to the Sea”), mainstream Basque-language plays (“Agur Etxebeste”) and even Castilian Spanish swings for the national market (competition entry “The Endless Trench,” “Double Plus Fifteen”). All these titles play at this year’s event, a platform for a Basque cinema panoply.

Streamers Build Presence

Movistar Plus, Spain’s biggest pay TV/SVOD platform, has scored a competition berth for its first original film, “While at War,” Alejandro Amenábar’s period plea for political tolerance. For the second year running, Netflix has a movie in official selection, “Diecisiete.” And HBO will present early footage and the cast from its highly anticipated “Patria,” a vision of the impact of the Basque conflict.

Year-Round New Talent Hub

Festivals are increasingly pressed to justify their worth to sponsors or state backers as more than just one-off events. It’s a waste of their expertise to only come into play for eight to 12 days a year. So San Sebastian is re-positioning from an annual festival to year-round hub. Much of its larger focus turns on new talent: a project development program, Ikusmira Berriak; a training initiative as part of San Sebastian, Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola; and a New Technologies Startup venture. The battle for supremacy in a streaming age will be one for talent. San Sebastian’s focus ensures its relevancy.

Women Make the Grade

“I totally agree with Venice’s Alberto Barbera when he says there shouldn’t be [gender] quotas,” says Rebordinos. That said, 35% of competition movies and an eye-catching 57% (eight of 14) of New Directors titles are directed by women. The latter may be some kind of record for a major festival’s main sidebar.

Relevant Themes

Eight of the 15 Horizontes Latinos concern violence. Five of the six Latin American Films in Progress picture broken families, riven by civil conflict, prejudice and big city emigration. Multiple movies depict conflictive parent-child relations. Parents fail children who then fail as parents. One example: Judging others and herself by narrow standards of musical excellence, Anna in German competition entry “The Audition” is still seeking to prove to her long dead mother that she did not deserve to be forgotten.

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