Spain’s San Sebastián International Film Festival (SSIFF) kicks off tomorrow and there’s every reason to get excited about what looks to be a stellar edition.
Held in the seaside resort city of Donostia-San Sebastián in the Basque Country, the San Sebastián International Film Festival is the world's most important Spanish-language film festival.
It’s a wonderfully intimate A-list festival, which neatly wraps up the vibrant-but-hectic fall festival season after Venice and Toronto.
San Sebastián awards the Golden Shell top prize for Best Film, as well as the Silver Shells and the Sebastiane Award, delivered to a film that best reflects the values and realities of the LGBTQ+ community.
Javier Bardem, the winner of a San Sebastián 2023 Donostia Award for career achievement, was plastered all over the posters of this year's 71st edition and has sadly put back his on-stage acceptance of the distinction until the 2024 edition due to the “limits imposed under the strike called by the US Actors Union (SAG-AFTRA)."
It deprives this year’s festival of its biggest on-stage major star moment this year.
The fest will, however, enjoy an impressive 71-film line-up, as well as a jury helmed by celebrated French director Claire Denis, alongside Christian Petzold, Fan Bingbing, Cristina Gallego, Brigitte Lacombe, Vicky Luengo, and Robert Lantos.
No marketing, no preconceptions
Festivities opens with Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film The Boy and the Heron, which just had its opening night in Toronto at TIFF and will be heading to Lyon’s Lumière Film Festival in October. Producers Studio Ghibli have described the film as “a grand fantasy” loosely inspired by Japanese author Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel 'How Do You Live?', a coming-of-age story about the emotional and philosophical development of a young boy after the death of his father.
Ghibli took the unprecedented step of doing no marketing for the film, releasing no trailers and no plot summary, hoping fans would see the film with no preconceptions.
The Boy and the Heron will mark the fourth Miyazaki film to screen at San Sebastián. His previous films Spirited Away, Ponyo and The Wind Rises all graced the festival’s screens.
The line-up features an eclectic mix of established art house favorites and emerging talents.
These include the likes of Robin Campillo (120 BPM), presenting his new feature Red Island, a coming-of-age story set in 1960-’70 Madagascar; Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu) and his MMXX, an ensemble drama focused on four people (a therapist, her brother, her husband and a police inspector) who are all obsessed with their own personal issues; as well as American filmmaker Raven Jackson, whose first feature, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, will be competing for Best Film.
Produced by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is described as a lyrical exploration of the life of a Black woman in Mississippi and stars The Woman King's Sheila Atim.
Other titles on our radar include The Practice, the latest Argentine comedy from director Martín Rejtman (The Magic Gloves); Christos Nikou's (Greek Oscar entry Apples) new film (and first English-language feature) Fingernails, featuring an all-star cast comprised of Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White, Luke Wilson and Annie Murphy in a romantic drama about an institution that tests the presence of romantic love between couples; and the latest film from Australian director Kitty Green, whose stunning films Casting JonBenet and The Assistant both wowed audiences at the Berlinale.
Her new film, The Royal Hotel, had its world premiere at the 50th Telluride Film Festival on 1 September and has garnered very positive reviews. It is a psychological thriller about two backpackers, portrayed by Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick, who take jobs in a pub in the remote Australian Outback, run by Hugo Weaving's character.
On top of Robin Campillo’s Red Island, there’s a strong French presence this year.
Both Xavier Legrand and Thomas Lilti join Campillo in presenting films in Competition.
Legrand’s 2017 Venice-premiering film Jusqu’à la garde (Custody) was a tense masterpiece and his long-awaited second film, Le successeur (The Successor), is the tale of a designer who discovers a terrible secret in his family home when his father dies. As for Thomas Lilti (Hippocrate, Irreplaceable), A Real Job is a comedy-drama about the world of teaching, featuring Vincent Lacoste, François Cluzet, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Louise Bourgoin.
Elsewhere, one title has been causing a bit of a stir: the Netflix-backed documentary entitled No me llame Ternera, about Josu Urrutikoetxea, the former leader of the Basque separatist militant group ETA, which killed 883 people over its 60-year history.
ETA's campaign was to create a separate Basque state northern Spain and southwest France, before it was dissolved in 2018.
Urrutikoetxea was arrested in France in May 2019, having been found guilty in absentia of being a member of a terror group. He was acquitted in a retrial in 2021 for lack of evidence.
The inclusion of the doc as the opening film of San Sebastián’s Made in Spain line-up has sparked criticism due to the fact it gives a voice to Urrutikoetxea. An open letter signed by more than 500 people called for the film to be removed.
Still, festival director José Luis Rebordinos has stood by the film, saying: “We do not share their opinion that the film No me llame Ternera should be withdrawn from the programme of this coming edition of the festival for having Josu Urrutikoetxea as its protagonist and the fact that he held a very high position within the terrorist group, ETA.”
“Cinema is, among many other things, a source of history and has often endeavoured to take to the big screen protagonists, perpetrators of episodes of unjustifiable violence, but at whom it has wanted to take a closer look,” he continued.
He cited films such as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing as examples of such work.
Rebordinos concluded: “At the end of the day, we consider that the film No me llame Ternera should be seen first and criticised later, and not the other way around.”
The 2023 San Sebastián Film Festival runs from 22 to 30 September.