(This article was updated on Sept. 17)
Last year, September’s San Sebastian worked a minor miracle, staging a safe on-site festival as second-wave COVID-19 built up in Spain. This year, on-site attendance will be up, though travel problems, caution and costs in Latin America, the U.S and Asia will prevent a full attendance.
That said, this year’s festival, running Sept. 17-25, will be firing on all cylinders — as a Spanish-language movie emporium, a new talent hub and launchpad for the local Basque industry. Following, ten takes on the most important film event in the Spanish-speaking world:
Star Power: Cruz, Banderas, Bardem, Depp, Cotillard, Chastain, Tucci, Peters
Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas attend the Spanish premiere of “Official Competition,” Javier Bardem the world premiere of “The Good Boss.” Johnny Depp (contentiously) and Marion Cotillard accept career-achievement Donostia Awards. Jessica Chastain will grace “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” the sole U.S. movie in main competition, Stanley Tucci and Clarke Peters the world premiere of “La Fortuna.” Mobbed by huge crowds, stars love San Sebastian. Their 2021 presence will be select, but still potent.
Genre: The New Revolution
Following on Cannes winner “Titane,” “Earwig,” from Lucile Hadzihalilovic, another French femme genre auteur, weighs in as certainly one of the most anticipated titles at San Sebastian. Expect more wows from women horror directors later this year, says San Sebastian festival director José Luis Rebordinos. But there’s another revolution in the making. San Sebastian used to prime straight-arrow arthouse. Now, “Earwig” and “La Abuela,” a classic horror play, both screen in competition. China’s “Fire on the Plain,” another Golden Shell contender, is a thriller, as is “The Daughter,” out of competition. “It’s not so much that auteurs now want to make genre movies, rather that they want to tell stories and are using genre to achieve it,” Rebordinos says. Genre auteur movies look set to revolutionize Europe’s former arthouse scene.
“Official Competition” was well received at Venice. There’s good word on “The Good Boss” and two competition first features, both from women: Dane Tea Lindeburg’s “As in Heaven,” a female-centric coming-of-age period piece made with a modern eye; and Romanian Aline Grigore’s “Blue Moon,” a telling portrait of toxic masculinity — sexist, authoritarian, violent, self-pitying — in a shady modern-day hotelier clan. New Directors’ buzz titles take in Mar Pecio’s “That Weekend,” a mother-daughter drama with Western tinges; “Josephine,” from Spain’s Javier Marco, a prison-set romantic drama with a fantasy streak, starring “Julieta’s” Emma Suárez; and “The Rust,” from Colombia’s Juan Sebastián Mesa, a critique of the frailty and devastating fallout of rural economies.
When San Sebastian announced a Donostia Award for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” star, it caused an international furor. Why prize a figure, critics asked, who lost a libel case against U.K. tabloid the Sun for calling him a wife beater? Depp has not been arrested, nor charged nor convicted of gender violence, San Sebastian retorted, reminding critics it had always fought “inequality.” It will now team with (H)emen, the Basque association of women in the audiovisual sector and scenic arts, to organize a festival workshop tackling gender equality and the Depp controversy. “A division was occurring between people and collectives who, in my opinion, share common objectives,” Rebordinos says. Expect more gender initiatives in the future.
Movistar Plus: Upping the Ante on Film and Television Series
A second hugely awaited San Sebastian title isn’t even a film, but rather six-part series “La Fortuna,” produced by Movistar Plus, AMC Studios and Mod, starring Stanley Tucci and “The Wire’s” Clarke Peters. It is the first TV series from “The Others” director Alejandro Amenábar. A good-humored adventure-thriller straddling the U.S. and Spain and past and present, “La Fortuna” is the biggest international co-production in Spanish history. “La Fortuna’s” San Sebastian world premiere comes weeks after Movistar Plus unveiled pic “Modelo 77,” from Alberto Rodríguez. The big question is now whether Movistar Plus will move into movie production with the same vigor it has shown with drama series. It is certainly moving more into San Sebastian, creating a ground-breaking San Sebastian Virtual Cinema on its platform.
Open for Business
This year, much of France’s international industry will roll into San Sebastian. It could hardly be otherwise. Venice business turns on its lineup; Toronto 2021 was hobbled by travel restrictions; the AFM will play out online. All over Europe, producers and sales agents are desperate to sit down at the same table with potential partners and clients. Much of the film business cannot be conducted just by Zoom. San Sebastian is as near to Paris as Cannes, an easy train ride to a stunning resort. Expect a considerable French and continental Europe presence this year.
Local Heroes: Spain’s Powerful San Sebastian Presence
Battling fears that a new subsidy system would obliterate domestic filmmaking, San Sebastian 2021 boasts the strongest Official Selection Spanish film presence in years: Seven titles, four in main competition, and “Official Competition” segueing straight from its Venice premiere.
But what’s really striking about this year’s Spanish film lineup is the films’ shared high production standards and their marked diversity, Rebordinos says. That’s seen in the competition contenders. A post-Basque conflict reconciliation drama, “Maixabel” from Iciar Bollaín, is “openly political,” he says. Fernando León de Aranoa’s “The Good Boss” weighs in as a workplace comedy, Paco Plaza’s “La Abuela” looks much more mainstream, but is a tale of nightmarish relatives. A fiction-doc hybrid, Jonas Trueba’s “Quien lo impide” extolls the vision and virtues of Madrid millennials.
Hot Ticket Projects
Launched in 2012, San Sebastian’s Europe-Latin America Co-Production Forum has fast consolidated as the festival’s industry centerpiece, framing the latest projects from many of the hottest arthouse directors and producers in Latin America. This year is no exception: Hernán Musaluppi is backing “El Viento Que Arrasa,” from Argentina’s Paula Hernández (“Sleepwalkers”) and Chile’s Story Board and Sebastián Lelio Cristian Leighton’s “El Porvenir de la Mirada.” Brazil’s Desvia Produçoes is behind Johnny Ma’s “Chin-Gone,” “Alemania” is backed by Tarea Fina, and “La Sucesión” by Pasto and Gema Films. New Argentine Cinema icon Diego Dubcovsky produces Romina Paula’s “People by Night.” It’s a powerful lineup. Expect many of these titles, in a few years’ time, to be playing major festivals.
Basque Talent Build
It’s a mark of just how far the Basque industry has come this decade that one piece of news this year is that there is no Basque director in main competition, though there is a Basque production, Iciar Bollaín’s anticipated “Maixabel,” produced by Koldo Zuazua’s top Basque outfit Kowalski Films. The power of the Basque industry will be felt in multiple other ways too. The San Sebastian ecosystem of the Festival, Tabakalera, Filmoteca Vasca and Elias Querejeta Zine Eskola is still growing. Its latest move, a high-powered drama series development lab, 2deoseriak, will be presented at the Festival. The Leire Apellaniz produced “The Sacred Spirit” scored heavily at Locarno. A new generation – Mikel Gurrea, Alauda Ruíz de Azúa, David Pérez Sañudo, Esti Urresola – have films in the works. Public broadcaster ETB is driving into premium fiction and targeting youth audiences, yoking Basque roots and innovation.
$1.9 billion for the Spain AVS Hub
On March 24, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced the launch of a Spain Audiovisual Hub plan to offer a total €1.6 billion ($1.9 billion) over 2021-25 to power up Spanish film and TV production, and encourage big foreign players to shoot and set up production centers in Spain. Just how that works is another matter. A two-hour presentation on Sept. 21 at San Sebastian is expected to give details. It is likely to be rather packed. The bigger picture is encouraging, however. “For the first time ever, audiovisual is on a Spanish government’s agenda,” said José Nevado, at Spanish producers assn. Pate. And in a big way.