Retrospective: San Sebastian International Film Festival
San Sebastian, September 2018. The 66th edition of the San Sebastian International Film Festival is in full swing and the whole city moves and vibrates with it. Kilometer-long lines at all theatres entrance starting at least one hour before the beginning of the screenings, red carpet, filmmakers and famous actors, positive energy and rays of sunshine.
These were the ingredients of the 2018 edition throughout my stay in San Sebastian: from September 25th to the 29th, four days full of films watching, press conferences, some free surfing time and delicious food.
The San Sebastian International Film Festival was held for nine days – between September 21st-29th and the programme included a selection of 191 films distributed in 18 different sections. Each film had at least one representative at the festival and the list of guests wasn’t short on well-known names, such as Isaki Lacuesta, Felix Van Groeningen, Benjamin Naishtat, Claire Denis, Robert Pattinson, Bradley Cooper or Ryan Gosling ,to name a few of the personalities who stepped on the red carpet and attended the press conferences.
Romania had only one film in this year’s competition – within the “New Directors” section. Hadrian Marcu who directed his first feature “A Decent Man”, a film inspired by Petru Cimpoeșu’s novel, “Naturally,” was present together with the DoP, Adrian Silișteanu, and the producer, Anamaria Antoci, at the special screenings, the press conference and the Q & A session on the last day of the festival. Although the Romanian film did not receive any awards, I have seen some great films, many of them awarded at this edition. The list of winners and some of the filmmakers’ statements, along with a brief personal opinion of those I’ve watched, down below:
Golden Shell for Best film: Between Two Waters – Isaki Lacuesta, Spain
For Iaski Lacuesta this is the second Best Film Award he has won at SSIFF, the first one being for “The Double Steps” on the 2009 edition.
A “Cristi Puiu” of Spain, Isaki approaches the chosen subjects in a realistic manner, always focusing more on his characters than on the action of the film. The great winner this year’ edition tells the story of two Gypsy brothers: Isra, sent to prison for drug dealing, and Cheito enrolled in the Military Navy. Isra is released and returns to San Fernando, eager to get back to his family and see his brother. His welcoming is not quite as he expected, nor the adapting process. San Fernando is considered to be one of Spain’s towns with the highest unemployment rate and Isra doesn’t have any luck in finding a job so he returns once again to dealing. The film is a follow-up to Lacuesta’s feature debut – The Legend of Time (2006), with the same cast and implicitly the same main characters.
For me, Lacuesta’s film was a foray into the simple life of the Gypsies living in the disadvantaged cities of Spain. Presenting the events in a slightly documentary style, Lacuesta gave me the opportunity to discover his characters in an intimate, honest, real way. A film about forgiveness, friendship and the inner struggle to reinvent oneself. Although it was 136 minutes long, it kept me breathless until the very end. Totally recommend it.
Special Jury Prize: Alpha, The Right to Kill – Brillante Mendoza, Philippines
Silver Shell for Best Director: Benjamin Naishtat / Rojo (Argentina – Belgium – Brasil – Germany –France – Switzerland)
Silver Shell for Best Actor: Dario Grandinetti / Rojo (Argentina – Belgium – Brasil – Germany –France – Switzerland)
Silver Shell for Best Actress: Pia Tjelta / Blind Spot (Norway)
Blind Spot was by far the best film I’ve watched this year in the international competition of the festival. Shot extraordinarily in one single take, the debut feature of actress-turned-director Tuvey Novotny portrays the drama of a family whose teenage girl is trying to commit suicide. During the press conference, Tuva said that through this film she „wanted to lift the focus on mental illness and make us talk about and its struggles. Writing the script, I knew I wanted to have this story told in one shot, I think the subject has to be carefully executed, we don’t want to dramatize mental illness.” They filmed for three nights, one take per shooting and chose the last one.
I asked Pia Tjelta what did this unique experience mean to her and how did she work with Tuva, a director on its debut feature: „I was emotionally exhausted after these three days of shooting, but I was in a very safe place with these guys with whom I worked very closely. Tuva is a very ambitious director, who trusts you and gives you space to do your thing.”
Although the subject itself is captivating, Tuva focuses on the emotions that the parents – especially the mother (Pia Tjelta) are living: shock, fear, despair, exhaustion, these being just a few of them. A film that I would watch again at any time and which I strongly recommend if you have the chance to see it.
Jury Prize for Best Cinematography: Pedro Sotero / Rojo (Argentina – Belgium – Brasil – Germany –France – Switzerland)
Jury Prize for Best Screenplay: Paul Laverty / Yuli (Spain – Cuba – UK – Germany)
The FIPRESCI Award: High Life / Claire Denis (France – Germany – UK – Poland – USA)
We are in space, far away from our solar system, on a spaceship whose only survivors are Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his little girl, Willow. A self-taught man with strict survival guidelines, Monte was has been a rape victim and has become a father without wishing so. When the spaceship was inhabited by a group of prisoners sent to space in search of black holes in order to “extract” electricity for planet Earth, life seemed an act of heroism. It does not take long until prisoners realize that it’s a deadly mission and so a death sentence. Without any contact with planet Earth and forced to survive together, each day becomes a battle and keeping one’s sanity becomes crucial. Thus, the twelve prisoners turn into wild and selfish beings driven by a sexual desire that seems to be the only way of survival.
During the intense 110 minutes of the film, strewn with explicit sex and rape scenes far too shocking to be described in words, Claire Denis manages to paint a realistic image of the human mind and its responses in the event of an incarceration. High Life has been rejected by the Cannes and Venice film festivals, but could not go unnoticed by all major European festivals.
Robert Pattinson, about the experience of playing in this film, during the press conference at SSIFF: „To do something where you feel there is no expectation from you, it feels quite refreshing; you feel like you won’t fail, it takes away the anxiety of doing a movie. I guess having an experience where eveything felt so organic, it made the film’s world real”
Juliette Binoche: „I have seen Claire struggling, nailing it the best possible. It wasn’t easy but I had the time of my life.”
Claire Denis: „It was a sort of of a bet to do this film. While we were shooting my mother was in hospital in Paris and I was travelling every weekend back to her. It felt like being in family (e.g – on the set) because everything seemed so difficult – the film, my mother, a situation of life and death.”
The San Sebastian International Film Festival is one of the European film festivals accredited by FIAPF and runs every year at the end of September. You can find more information about this year’s edition on their website.