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San Sebastian Festival Roundup

After a few years of missing out on the excitement and chaos of the festival period, San Sebastián returns with a full repertoire. Located in the north of Spain, the relatively small coastal city has been attracting ever-growing numbers of people (excluding the COVID-19 interval) to its September film festival, first held in 1953. The San Sebastián International Film Festival (SSIFF) emulates a pattern familiar to most other festivals, opening with a lucky chosen film followed by several other premiere events, press conferences, and a commemorative closing gala. For this edition, Modelo 77, starring Miguel Herrán from Netflix hit series Money Heist, launched the festival, and Marlowe, with Liam Neeson and Diane Cruger, put an end to the week of celebration. Both were out of competition.

Originally established as a festival dedicated to Spanish-language film, SSIFF opened its arms to films in other languages within the first two years of its existence, quickly raising its profile beyond Spain’s borders. This international status is reflected in the winners that have emerged from the Official Selection (Sección Oficial), which in the past few years alone includes Crai Nou (Romania), Dasatskisi (France and Georgia) and Pacificado (Brazil). Just last week, Colombia’s Los reyes del mundo was awarded this year’s top prize, the Golden Shell for best film, during the 70th edition of the festival. Identified as an “underdog victor” by Guy Lodge in Variety, the up-and-coming director, Laura Mora, made history with her win, “marking the third consecutive year that a female filmmaker has taken the top prize at the Spanish fest”. Another feat is 12-year-old Renata Lerman’s unmissable performance in her father’s film El Suplente which earned her the Silver Shell for Best Supporting Performance. Amidst these successes lay a questionable Austrian entry, Sparta, which left empty-handed following its disqualification at the Toronto International Film Festival for “inadequate protection of child performers” according to Lodge. Glenn Close had to withdraw as the president of the jury due to personal matters just before the festival, thankfully, Argentine producer Matías Mosteirín was able to fill her shoes without hesitation.

Alongside the Official Selection, SSIFF offers several other categories of awards, from Zabaltegi-Tabakalera, a section open to a wide variety of films due to the category’s purposeful lack of restrictions, accepting submissions from any genre to any length, to Perlak, where previously-premiered films compete for the San Sebastián Audience Award. A more recent addition to the 13 competitive and non-competitive sections is the Surprise film, where one film is selected to screen at the festival following its world premiere elsewhere. For this past edition, the surprise was the Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde. Its Cuban-Spanish star, Ana de Armas, travelled to San Sebastián as well, participating in a press conference and presumably adding to the coverage of the Netflix drama.

As SSIFF celebrates its 70th anniversary, it is interesting to recall the festival’s shift from functioning under the restrictive cultural environment of Franco’s dictatorship to a more representative festival in democratic Spain. The expansion of the festival demonstrates the considerable diversity that the festival now represents. It was only after Franco’s death in 1975 that Spain was able to breathe and, as mentioned in another Variety article by John Hopewell, “the modern festival’s foundations were first laid”, cementing the path that has brought us here today.

Image ‘Oliver Stone in the San Sebastian International Film Festival by Mario A.P. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.