Ten Highlights of the 2011 San Sebastian Film Festival

by Matthew Turner

Be still, my beating heart!

I’ve been going up to Edinburgh every year for the Edinburgh Film Festival since 2001 but until four weeks ago I had never been to an international film festival. Every year, when the San Sebastian Film Festival rolls around (just a few weeks before the London Film Festival but, crucially, not clashing with anything else) and fellow film reviewers come back raving about it I am consumed with jealousy, so this year I thought I’d take the plunge and go. I left it all till the very last minute (including a nail-biting emergency passport renewal) but I got a great hotel  recommendation from a friend, and the nice lady at the festival’s travel bureau sorted me out with a cheap flight, so I was good to go. Needless to say, I’m glad I did. It’s a wonderful festival in a beautiful city and I will be going back every year for the rest of my life. After the jump, my ten highlights from this year’s Donostia (that’s what they call San Sebastian in San Sebastian).

1. Arrugas

I saw 24 films over eight days and Arrugas was far and away my favourite. Based on an award-winning graphic novel by Paco Roca, Arrugas (which means wrinkles) is an animated drama about Emilio, who’s suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Shunted off to a care home when his family can no longer look after him, Emilio gradually strikes up a friendship with his roommate Miguel, who’s like the care-home equivalent of a prison fixer. And when Emilio’s deteriorating condition threatens to see him moved upstairs to the feared top floor (from which no-one ever returns), Miguel and Emilio’s other care home friends rally round to help hide the seriousness of his Alzheimer’s from the officials. The film is beautifully animated and superbly written, treating a genuinely moving and occasionally deeply upsetting story with warmth and humour. My enthusiastic tweeting got spotted by the film’s producers and they told me they are trying to secure a UK release for it, so fingers crossed that somebody picks it up over here. I was also delighted to find the graphic novel  (in Spanish – sadly it doesn’t seem to be available in English yet) at the delegate centre fnac stand, though I confess I haven’t read it yet.

2. Man wearing tapas and meeting Miss Bala at the Opening Night Party

I’d heard great things about San Sebastian’s opening night parties (“tapas hanging from the walls” was one claim) and it didn’t disappoint; at least if all you want from a party is excited festival chatter, the chance to spot a celeb or two and a steady stream of delicious nibbles. The particular highlight in this last regard was a man WEARING tapas, walking around in a sandwich board with food-bearing cocktail sticks stuck into it. Here is a short video of me marvelling at the Man Wearing Tapas, taken by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. Later on, when all sensible British film journalists had retired to their hotel rooms, I wandered round a corner and discovered the VIP area, where I a) brushed past Clive Owen, b) exchanged email addresses with Miss Bala (aka Stephanie Sigman, star of the excellent Miss Bala) and c) hoovered up many delicious pastries, which they somehow hadn’t gotten around to serving in the non-VIP area.

Stephanie Sigman in Miss Bala

3. Pintxos with journos

Whenever I told anybody that I was going to San Sebastian – film journos and non-film journos alike – they unfailingly said the same thing: “OH MY GOD, THE FOOD IS AMAZING!”

And my God, they were right. Pretty much every bar I went into was laid out like this. Now, having lived in Madrid for three years I thought I knew a thing or two about tapas and that “pintxos” were basically just Basque for tapas. What I wasn’t prepared for was the experimental nature of the food – each little delicacy was like a work of art, with weird-looking combinations of things all stacked up on top of each other like Scooby Snacks. It was also fun meeting San Sebastian veterans who would eagerly drag you to their favourite food places. Incredibly, I only had one sit-down meal the entire eight days I was there, proving that it’s possible to exist entirely on pintxos alone. My personal favourites were a) the tortilla de bacalao (smoked cod omelette) at Bar Cepas (Bradshaw filmed me reviewing their equally good meat-stuffed peppers here), b) creamed cod wrapped in grilled red pepper and coated in a light batter at the bar opposite the Principal cinema and c) a sort of crispy cone stuffed with fresh crab meat, also at the bar opposite the Principal.

4. Midnight press screening of Either Way

I’d been told that San Sebastian was a very relaxed film festival but I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. I’d assumed that the press screening schedule would be much the same as London and Edinburgh, i.e. tonnes of inevitably clashing films with only one screening each, showing between 9am and 5pm each day. In fact, the press screening schedule presented almost no problems at all, with each of the main films receiving at least two press screenings, sometimes on the same day (Don’t want to get up for the 9am screening of opening night film Intruders? Come to the 11am screening instead!). Also, the press screenings continued up until midnight, even if the midnight screenings weren’t quite so well attended. As it was, I had one of the nicest screening experiences I can remember, sitting in a beautiful, mostly empty, cinema (the aforementioned Principal) at midnight, watching a charming Icelandic film called Either Way, about two men doing road-works in the middle of nowhere. Almost nothing happens (at one point one of them gets an upsetting letter, but that’s as action-packed as it got) and yet I thoroughly enjoyed it. It looked beautiful too. No word yet on a UK distributor yet, but you never know.

5. The scenery

If you ask me, all film festivals should be held in coastal towns. And if not all, then at least more. One of the biggest pleasures of San Sebastian, for me, was getting to walk over this  bridge several times a day on my way to the press centre and main screening venue (the Kursaal), which was positioned here. You could walk out of a film and be less than thirty seconds away from views like this and this. I mean, really, you don’t get that in Edinburgh.

6. Fassbender Frenzy Reaches Fever Pitch

If you’re on Twitter and following lots of film reviewing types you might have spotted this tweet from @PeterBradshaw1: “Heterogay hysteria for Michael Fassbender at #SanSebastian2011 has risen to new levels. He’s coming here from Barcelona on his motorbike”. Hysteria is something of an understatement. Seasoned industry professionals, including producers, journalists and PRs, were giddy with excitement about possibly getting to meet Michael Fassbender and I don’t mind admitting I was among their number. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find on the internet that photo of him arriving on his motorbike in full leather gear that was on all the front pages but trust me, Fassbender fans, it’s out there somewhere. Sadly, although I did get to stand within touching distance (and talked to actor Liam Cunningham, who’d come along for moral support and free booze), I bottled out of actually talking to him. Ah well.

7. The Keler tent

All film festivals should have a Keler tent. Acting on a tip-off from Peter Bradshaw, I requested an entry card from the press office and was granted access to the tent, which had been set up within a stone’s throw from the Kursaal,  right by the sea. Incredibly, they served free food, beer and coffee all day until around midnight or so, every night. Now, normally, you’d think, ‘Oh, free beer – I bet it’s horrible’, but no, it was bloody good beer. I’m not much of a lager drinker by nature (I’m a Guinness man), but it really was delicious. Sadly, it is currently unavailable in the UK, but hopefully that will change [I assume my complimentary case of Keler is in the mail? ed]. The food was great too, so naturally word of the Keler tent’s wonders spread like wildfire and soon it was the festival’s unofficial hang-out with all manner of famous faces popping in.

Keler 18 - the cool, crisp taste of the Basque country. Mmm, refreshing!

8. The rain and Shame

To be fair, the weather in San Sebastian wasn’t perfect ALL the time. In fact, for the first three or four days it was downright miserable. Still, I’d been told that the walk along the Concha Bay was one of the main things to do in San Sebastian, so when I realised that the venue for Steve McQueen’s Shame (featuring a frequently full-frontal Fassbender) was on the other side of the bay I thought I’d take a leisurely stroll and take in the sights. Unfortunately, it was like walking through a cloud and I got completely drenched, despite being armed with a smallish umbrella, but the scenery was so gorgeous that it was totally worth it. The film was great too, although I learned a valuable lesson, which was: Never Sit Behind The Woman Doing The Electronic Subtitles (imagine watching a film and having someone sitting in front of you with an open laptop for the entire film. Annoying).

9. Hanging out with the Wild Bill gang

As a result of hanging out in the Keler tent, I met the cast and crew of Wild Bill, including director Dexter Fletcher, lead actor Charlie Creed-Miles, actress Charlotte Spencer and producers Tim Cole and Sam Tromans. The film (which I loved) ended up winning an audience award and the reception to the public screenings had been positively rapturous, so they were all on something of a high and a joy to hang out with. Inevitably, this lead to a boozy night of celebrating during which we attempted to stalk Michael Fassbender, only to discover that he had, rather suspiciously, gone to bed early. (I saw the two Spanish actresses from La Voz Dormida leaving his hotel at 2am, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence). Also, well, this happened. What struck me more than anything was their genuinely excited reaction to their own film – Dexter and Charlie in particular were happily quoting their favourite lines at each other like they’d just seen it for the first time and couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it. I’ve never seen that before.

10. Salma Hayek’s striptease in Americano

This is presumably self-explanatory, although, sadly, there’s no YouTube clip as yet, so Salma fans will have to try and see it at the London Film Festival instead. I hadn’t read up on Americano beforehand so I didn’t know anything at all about it except that it was directed by Mathieu Demy (son of Jacques Demy, who was the subject of a retrospective at San Sebastian this year) and that it was at the LFF. There’s no list of credits at the beginning of the film either, so it was quite the shock when Salma Hayek showed up at around the 55 minute mark and performed a smoking hot striptease while singing Rufus Wainwright’s I’m Going To A Town. Needless to say, the film never quite tops that scene and the rest of the film is merely so-so.

And finally, here’s my festival top ten, complete with links to my reviews, where they exist. Note that I haven’t included films I saw in the UK beforehand, such as Tyrannosaur, or films that I didn’t manage to see while I was there, like The Artist.

1. Arrugas

2. Wild Bill

3. Martha Marcy May Marlene

4. Where Do We Go Now?

5. Shame

6. La Voz Dormida

7. Either Way

8. Miss Bala

9. The Deep Blue Sea

10. George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Oh, and did I mention I sat next to Frances McDormand?

Matthew Turner (@FilmFan1971) is the film reviewer for ViewLondon.co.uk. His tweets from the 2011 San Sebastian Film Festival have been archived here.

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About Matthew Turner

Matthew Turner (@FilmFan1971 on Twitter) is a freelance film journalist. His favourite film is Vertigo and he hasn't missed an episode of EastEnders since 1998.

3 thoughts on “Ten Highlights of the 2011 San Sebastian Film Festival

  1. Great summary of the festival, and nice pictures, too!
    I am a fan of San Sebastian’s film festival myself, I went for the first time when I was 25 and now I try to go every year. I always end up doing basically the same things you describe (watching movies, eating pintxos and walking by the beach). It’s a pity I miss Arrugas, but I am waiting for the Spanish release. I did not see Fassbender’s arrival either, but here’s a nice video of his arrival to the Kursaal (not very glamorous, though) http://www.sansebastianfestival.com/es/tv_video.php?v=2097&d=2011-09-20
    Thank you for your review! I’ve become fan of your page.
    Mila

  2. Hurrah! Someone else who thinks Wild Bill is an impressive debut and worth seeking out. I hope people go to see this, it’s not an obvious friday night cinema ticket, but it’s a lovely warm hearted film and it would be nice to see Dexter direct more.

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