An emerging generation of new Basque filmmakers is making its mark in the San Sebastian Festival, building on the foundations of now consolidated creative and industrial infrastructures.

Only time will tell if the Basque Country can follow in the footsteps of Catalonia, another richer region of Spain, and launch a modern day new wave. Expectations however, remain high.

The new generation is widely represented at this year’s San Sebastian.

A prominent member of the group is David Pérez Sañudo, whose highly anticipated feature debut, mother-daughter social drama “Ane,” plays at the festival’s New Directors sidebar. Handled by Latido Films, “Ane” was developed at the Madrid Film School ECAM Incubator, then won three prizes at Málaga’s WIP in April.

Imanol Rayo, winner of the Zinemira Award with “Bi anai” in 2011, presents in New Directors his rural tale “Hil Kanpaiak” (“Death Knell”), produced by Bilbao-based Abra Prod.

Six of the 11 features at Zinemira, San Sebastian’s Basque showcase, are first or second works.

They boast a wide range of themes. For example, “Nora,” the Zinemira opener and sophomore film by Lara Izagirre (“An Autumn Without Berlin”), is a drama-comedy about a 30-year-old woman who lives with her grandfather in a small village in the north of the Basque Country.

When Nora’s grandfather dies, she inherits his old van and decides to take a road trip along the Basque coast to deliver the man’s remains in the south of France, where her grandmother is buried.

In “Hijos de Dios” (God’s Children”), Ekain Irigoyen tells the story of friendship focusing on two homeless veterans, sleeping under one of the cornices at Madrid’s tourist-packed Plaza de la Ópera. They star to journey down the busy streets of the capital, the film becoming a hymn to life, death and dignity.

Aitziber Olaskoaga’s “Jo ta ke” (“Non Stop”), which participated in San Sebastian’s Ikusmira Berriak development program in 2019, narrates how a film crew embarks on a trip from the Basque Country to La Mancha, which has Spain’s only high-security prison as the film explores concepts of national identity.

Amaia Merino and Miguel Ángel Llamas’ “Non Dago Mikel?” (“Where Is Mikel?”) recounts the disappearance in 1985 of Mikel Zabalza, a young man from Navarre arrested by the Guardia Civil, who confused him with an ETA activist. 35 years after his death his family still demands the truth.

The pix-in-post WIP Europa sidebar hosts documentary “918 Gau” (“918 Nights”), the feature debut of Arantza Santesteban, which narrates her arrest and subsequent 918 nights in prison charged with terrorism. An 2018 Ikusmira Berriak project, it is produced by Marian Fernández Pascal at Txintxua Films.

Beyond social issues, the features address further universal themes such as family, violence and dignity, but often have very specific settings in the region. That entails building stories with maximum detail, truthful and faithful to the people that inhabit the region, how they walk, understand life, and interact with others.

“Thematically, Basque Cinema has started to become more universal, which will give it a greater presence on the international festival circuit,” says Jara Ayucar, Basque Audiovisual co-ordinator.

A young or youngish generation of filmmakers have had access to fils across the globe, making for genre-blending movies, where different style coalesce, even in single sequences.

Pérez Sañudo’s “Ane,” made with highly dynamic sequence shots, sets a mother-daughter relationship in the context of the protests against the construction of the high-speed train in the Basque Country.

“Multiple new directors are emerging with projects, and that’s no coincidence,” San Sebastian Festival director José Luis Rebordinos says.

Lazy loaded image
Nora Credit: Filmax

“It’s true that unconsciously there is a previous generation that influences us in a remarkable way. We admire films like Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga’s ‘Loreak,’ Koldo Almandoz’s ‘Oreina’ or Roberto Castón’s ‘Ander,’ and I would like to think that despite differences, there may be an opportunity for dialogue between ‘Ane’ and those films,” he adds.

“We have drunk from the work of short filmmakers whom we greatly admire: Asier Altuna, Koldo Almandoz, Borja Cobeaga, the Moriarti Factory… Current Basque Cinema owes a lot to the short film development and the Kimuak program,” he adds.

Beyond the San Sebastian lineup, the new generation takes in filmmakers such as Estíbaliz Urresola, whose feature debut “20,000 Species of Bees,” produced by Gariza Films and Sirimiri Films, was selected at Madrid-based ECAM Incubator. The Basque-language project turns on a six-year-old girl who sometimes struggles as the world tries to catch up with the fact that she was born with a penis.

Also, dystopian allegory “The Platform,” the first feature by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, at one-point Netflix’s most watched movie in the U.S. during the pandemic, has made the Basque filmmaker a new international talent to track.

Several Basque filmmakers are launching their own production companies to carry out projects in a market where consolidated players such as Irusoin and Moriarti already operate.

“I co-produce because it’s difficult to get someone to back you and develop with you a feature film project,” says Pérez Sañudo, who co-founded Amania Films and relied on Katixa de Silva and Elena Maeso to finance “Ane.”

Factors explaining the emergence of a new film generation and the build in Basque cinema at large cut several ways.

There is a breeding ground for new talents, nurtured by the San Sebastian Festival, its Ikusmira Berriak development residency, the Noka mentoring program, Basque broadcaster ETB and producers associations.

“I think we all are working together, and this is helping the emergence of a new generation,” Rebordinos says.

Another key element is a stable financing environment: After the 2008 crisis, the Basque government has maintained its direct subsidy support for Basque films. Moreover, since 2015, the three Basque territories offer tax breaks that can reach up to 40% in Gipuzkoa when it comes to films shot in the Basque language.

“There are more economic possibilities than in other places. In that sense, we are fortunate. I have the feeling that it is a virtuous circle. As there are more possibilities, more creators emerge. The creators make visible and give value to the industry,” Pérez Sañudo says.

Further obvious changes come on the industrial side. One is the increasingly international ambition of Basque film production.

A growing trend towards co-production, either with Spanish or international production companies, allows Basque producers to up the ante in terms of film budgets.

“Akelarre,” a Spain-France-Argentine co-production, directed by Argentine’s Pablo Agüero, one of the highlights of the Official Selection, is vying for the San Sebastian Golden Shell.

Produced by two top Basque companies, Iker Ganuza’s Lamia Producciones and Koldo Zuazua’s Kowalski Films, “Akelarre” is a revisionist thriller set against the background of the 1609-14 Inquisition trials of suspected witches north and south of the France-Spain border.

As a project, “Akelarre” was selected for San Sebastian’s Europe-Latin America Co-Production Forum, where it earned the Arte Prize.

From the beginning, it was designed as a technical-artistic co-production with France. Later, thanks to its participation at Ventana Sur, Argentine co-producer Campo Cine joined the project.

Via tax vehicle Sorgin Films AIE, “Akelarre” benefited from Bizkaia tax advantages.

“International co-production opened doors to distribution in the project partners’ countries and the film has already been sold near worldwide,” says Iker Ganuza.

“Akelarre” is a clear example of a film with a local theme, but of universal interest, which has crossed borders in both production and distribution, he says, concluding that, “Undoubtedly the film takes advantage of the international outreach and prestige that Basque Cinema has achieved in recent years.”

Lazy loaded image
Akelarre Credit: San Sebastian Festival