Hometown Productions Shine at the Basque Country’s San Sebastian Festival

Credit: San Sebastian Festival

This quality in this year’s crop of home-grown productions at the San Sebastian Festival is no surprise to anyone following the region’s growth in recent years, but it is impressive.

Below, 20 Basque projects and finished films and series which stand out at this year’s event.

“Akelarre,” (Pablo Agüero)

A former San Sebastian Festival Co-Production Forum project, “Akelarre” is the latest from Cannes Jury Prize-winner Pablo Agüero (“First Snow”) and plays in this year’s main competition. Heavily influenced by Jules Michelet’s novel “The Witch,” Agüero’s period drama came from a “feeling of injustice that almost all works of fiction dealing with witch hunts perpetuate, clichés first created by the Inquisition.” Seven companies combined on the ambitious co-production.

S.A. Film Factory

“Patria,” (Aitor Gabilondo)

HBO Europe’s original series about two families caught up in the Basque Country’s armed conflict with the ETA organization, “Patria” appears in line to set a new high-water mark for premium production in Spain. Aitor Gabilondo directs the series, arguably the festival’s most buzzed-up title to date this year.

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PATRIA david herranz HBO

“Ane,” (David Pérez Sañudo)

Playing New Directors and one of the most anticipated of Basque features at this year’s festival, rolling off three prizes at April’s Malaga’s Work in Progress, a fraught mother-daughter relationship drama set in a 2009 Bilbao impacted by construction plans for a high-speed train. First time helmer David Pérez Sanudo directs with bold, kinetic sequence shots a multi-level movie about growing up and aging, communication and community.

S.A.: Latido Films

“Death Knell,” (Imanol Rayo)

Imanol Rayo returns to San Sebastian, nine years after his debut feature “Bi Anai” won the Zinemira Award, this time in the New Directors section with his second feature “Death Knell,” a crime drama about family trauma and a missing set of human bones.

“Boast,” (David Pérez Sañudo)

Keeping busy at this year’s festival, David Pérez Sañudo also heads this K 2000-produced series following Amaia, a primary school teacher with skeletons in her past she’d rather forget. When the women’s association of Uriola commits to join the Alarde parade, she must face her broken family, torn apart by the same event 25 years earlier.

S.A. The Mediapro Studio Distribution

“Arzak Since 1897,” (Asier Altuna)

A festival regular, and founding father of a modern Basque cinema, Altuna won the Youth Jury Award in 2005 with “Aupa Etxebeste!” and the Irizar Award in 2015 with “Amama.” This time, he brings a documentary about the family behind one of San Sebastian and the world’s most famous restaurants, Arzak. The film opened this year’s Culinary Zinema section and is distributed in Spain by Barton Films.

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Arzak Since 1897

“Ella I Jo,” (Jaume Claret Muxart)

A painter mother attempts to phone her daughter, also a painter, who’s just moved to Athens with her partner and their son. Shot in 16mm, the paintings and painting – the mother uses natural tones, works in an airy apartment – are delightful. Mother and daughter don’t speak, however, though their paintings do connect with a remarkably similar style. Made at San Sebastian’s Elías Querejeta Film School.

“Autofiction,” (Laida Lertxundi)

A nominee for Locarno’s Golden Pardino – Leopards of Tomorrow award in 2018, Bilbao-born, L.A.-based filmmaker Lertxundi’s brings her newest film to this year’s no-rules Zabaltegi-Tabakalera section. Playing with fiction and identity, the film has no fourth wall, inviting the audience into an almost paradoxically impersonal, considering the film’s title, world of Lertxundi’s making.

“Ya No Duermo,” (Marina Palacio)

A buzzy, singular, rural revisiting of vampire cinema with echoes of the sobriety of Víctor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive.” Selected by Kimuak and premiering in the Zabaltegi competition, it depicts the relationship between a man and his nephew. Through shooting a vampire film together, a child lives out a rite of passage as the adult becomes childlike again.

“Nora,” (Lara Izagirre)

Opening this year’s Zinemira sidebar, Izagirre’s “Nora” returns after featuring in 2018’s Europe-Latin America Co-Production Forum. Nora, who dreams of becoming a travel writer, is stuck writing the horoscope for the local paper. When she inherits her grandfather’s van, she sets out across Spain’s northern coast, learning that what she needs and what she wants are two different things.

S.A. Filmax

“Lobster Soup,” (Pepe Andreu, Rafael Molés)

Back in San Sebastian to close this year’s Zinemira, “Lobster Soup” won the Ibaia and Treeline Distribution awards at the festival’s 2018 Lau Haizetara Documentary Co-Production Forum. Unspooling in a coastal Icelandic village, the documentary tracks everyday activities of the townspeople as tourists, the mountains and a lava field push them towards the sea.

S.A. Wide

“Caminho Longe,” (Josu Martínez, Txaber Larreategi)

In 1986, ETA militant Alfonso Etxegarai was deported by both Spain and France and ended up on the African Island of Sao Tomé. Now, in a journey documented by Martínez and Larreategi, he returns home after decades in exile, accompanied by his partner, Kristiane Etxaluz.

S.A. Adabaki Ekoizpenak, Gastibeltza Filmak

“El Drogas,” (Natxo Leuza)

15 years in the making, “El Drogas” documents the background of seminal Spanish Rock & Roll artist Enrique Villareal, directed by fellow Pamplona native and close friend Natxo Leuza. “Telling the story of a rock star with total access from an intimate and personal perspective seems to me the best way to meet the person behind the artist,” says Leuza.

S.A. Nueva Cartas

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El Drogas Credit: San Sebastian Festival

“The Miramar Murders: The State Vs. Pablo Ibar,” (Olmo Figueredo)

Sevilla-based La Claqueta co-founder Olmo Figueredo takes the reigns on this true crime doc series, examining a Miami triple murder case for which Pablo Ibar was convicted and sentenced to death. Maintaining his innocence from the beginning, Pablo’s family tries to raise more than a million dollars needed to mount a defense for a court-ordered retrial. The Basque Country’s Irusoin co-produces.

S.A.: Filmax

“God’s Children,” (Ekain Irigoien)

Self-produced by filmmaker Ekain Irigoien, “God’s Children” turns on two homeless vets who spend their nights on the streets of one of Madrid’s most posh neighborhoods, Plaza de la Ópera, in a story of survival and friendship.

“Jo Ta Ke,” (Aitziber Olaskoaga)

Playing out of competition at San Sebastian’s Zinemira Basque showcase, a medium-length feature developed at the 2019 Ikusmira Berriak exploring constructs of national identity as a film crew travels from the Basque country to La Mancha, home to Spain’s first high-security prison.

“918 Nights,” (Arantza Santesteban)

A 2018 Ikusmira Berriak project, filmmaker Santesteban’s account of her arrest and subsequent 918 nights in prison charged with terrorism. Produced by Marian Fernández Pascal at go-ahead Basque outfit Txintua Films, and screening as a work in progress at WIP Europa.

“Where Is Mikel?” (Amaia Merino, Miguel Ángel Llamas)

In 1985 Mikel Zabalza, a young man from Navarre was picked up by Spain’s Guardia Civil, charged with being an ETA activist. 20 days later, after fervent protests in response to the official account of the arrest, his body was found floating in the Bidasoa River. Today, with no arrests or explanation offered, his family continues their search for the truth of what happened to him.

S.A. Izar Films

“Talent,” (David González Rudiez)

A meta story about guerrilla filmmaker Jorge, who is deep into the project he believes will establish him on the avant-garde film scene. When he is awarded a big money grant for a project long thought to be dead, he must decide if he still wants to shoot a commercial film with real financial backing. It’s Rudiez’s second Zinemira selection after 2018’s “La Noche los Lleva.”

“Urtzen,” (Telmo Esnal)

When Spain was forced into lockdown after March’s COVID-19 outbreak, Esnal, a regular co-director with Asier Altuna, revisited the long-dormant project “UR, el gigante del mar” from photographer, graphic designer and author Pablo Azkue. “Urtzen” employes Azkue’s archived footage, dialogue, photos and sound to reflect on existence.

S.A. Atera Films

John Hopewell and Emilio Mayorga contributed to this article.