The 71st edition of Spain’s esteemed San Sebastián International Film Festival (SSIFF) is about to unfold, and cinephiles worldwide have every reason to anticipate an outstanding event. Nestled in the charming seaside city of Donostia-San Sebastián in the Basque Country, SSIFF stands as the most significant Spanish-language film festival globally. It’s a delightful A-list gathering that gracefully concludes the bustling fall festival season, following in the footsteps of Venice and Toronto.
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The heart of the festival lies in its awards, with the coveted Golden Shell for Best Film taking center stage. Additionally, there are Silver Shells and the Sebastiane Award, honoring a film that best captures the values and experiences of the LGBTQ+ community.
One noteworthy aspect of this year’s festival is the presence of Javier Bardem, the recipient of the 2023 Donostia Award for his outstanding career achievements. His image adorns the posters of the 71st edition. However, Bardem has regrettably postponed his on-stage acceptance until the 2024 edition due to the constraints imposed by the strike called by the US Actors Union (SAG-AFTRA). This decision leaves this year’s festival devoid of its most prominent on-stage star moment.
Nevertheless, SSIFF will shine with an impressive lineup of 71 films, supported by a distinguished jury led by celebrated French director Claire Denis. The jury comprises Christian Petzold, Fan Bingbing, Cristina Gallego, Brigitte Lacombe, Vicky Luengo, and Robert Lantos, adding to the festival’s prestige.
No Marketing, No Preconceptions
The festival’s festivities commence with the screening of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece, “The Boy and the Heron.” This film recently premiered at TIFF in Toronto and is set to grace the screens at Lyon’s Lumière Film Festival in October. Notably, Studio Ghibli took an unconventional approach by refraining from any marketing efforts for the film. No trailers or plot summaries were released, encouraging viewers to experience it with an open mind.
“The Boy and the Heron” marks the fourth Miyazaki film to be featured at San Sebastián, following the success of “Spirited Away,” “Ponyo,” and “The Wind Rises.”
The festival lineup is a tapestry of established art house favorites and emerging talents. Filmmakers like Robin Campillo, known for “120 BPM,” present their latest works. Campillo’s “Red Island” is a coming-of-age story set in 1960-70s Madagascar. Cristi Puiu, acclaimed for “The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu,” offers “MMXX,” an ensemble drama exploring the personal struggles of four individuals. American director Raven Jackson, in her debut feature film “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” competes for the Best Film award. Produced by Barry Jenkins, the film provides a lyrical exploration of the life of a Black woman in Mississippi, featuring Sheila Atim from “The Woman King.”
Other Titles to Watch
Several other titles deserve attention. “The Practice” is the latest Argentine comedy from director Martín Rejtman, known for “The Magic Gloves.” Christos Nikou, Greece’s Oscar entry with “Apples,” presents his first English-language feature, “Fingernails.” The film features an ensemble cast that includes Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White, Luke Wilson, and Annie Murphy, and explores the presence of romantic love in relationships.
Additionally, Australian director Kitty Green, celebrated for “Casting JonBenet” and “The Assistant,” returns with “The Royal Hotel.” This psychological thriller had its world premiere at the 50th Telluride Film Festival and has garnered positive reviews. The story revolves around two backpackers portrayed by Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick, who take jobs in a remote Australian Outback pub managed by Hugo Weaving’s character.
Apart from Robin Campillo’s “Red Island,” French cinema boasts a strong presence at this year’s festival. Directors Xavier Legrand and Thomas Lilti join Campillo in presenting their films in competition. Legrand, known for “Jusqu’à la garde (Custody),” brings “Le successeur (The Successor),” a tale of dark family secrets. Meanwhile, Thomas Lilti, acclaimed for “Hippocrate” and “Irreplaceable,” delivers “A Real Job,” a comedy-drama centered on the world of teaching, featuring Vincent Lacoste, François Cluzet, Adèle Exarchopoulos, and Louise Bourgoin.
Controversial Inclusion: “No me llame Ternera”
One film causing a stir is the Netflix-backed documentary titled “No me llame Ternera,” focusing on Josu Urrutikoetxea, the former leader of the Basque separatist militant group ETA. Over its 60-year history, ETA claimed responsibility for the deaths of 883 people in its campaign for a separate Basque state in northern Spain and southwest France, ultimately dissolving in 2018.
Urrutikoetxea, arrested in France in May 2019 and acquitted in a retrial in 2021, has become a divisive figure. The decision to include this documentary as the opening film of San Sebastián’s “Made in Spain” lineup has sparked controversy. More than 500 people signed an open letter calling for the film’s removal.
Festival director José Luis Rebordinos, however, stands by the film’s inclusion. He asserts that cinema has often explored the lives of individuals involved in unjustifiable violence, citing examples like Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” and Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing.” Rebordinos believes that “No me llame Ternera” should be viewed before critiqued, emphasizing cinema’s role in examining complex historical figures.
The 2023 San Sebastián Film Festival promises to be a diverse and thought-provoking cinematic journey, with a blend of established and emerging talent and critical discussions surrounding controversial subject matter. The festival will run from September 22 to September 30, offering film enthusiasts a rich tapestry of storytelling from around the world.