San Sebastian at age 70: a brief history

San Sebastian at age 70: a brief history

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The dream child of 10 Basque businessmen who hoped to extend the summer season of San Sebastián until the end of September, the San Sebastian Film Festival was born on September 21, 1953.

Presented by bullfighter Mario Cabré, who was in love with Ava Gardner, and consisting of only 19 films, won by “La guerra de Dios”, directed by Rafael Gil., saved not long ago from a potential Republican firing squad by Luis Buñuel. Fireworks, bullfights and quay parties formed the film week.

From that first edition, the beauty and gastronomy of San Sebastian remains, a Belle Epoque resort with the spectacular white-sanded Concha Bay, steep hills, an old quarter with grandiloquent streets and three Michelin three-star restaurants. 70 years later, San Sebastián still amazes.

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However, for the first 20 years, held under dictator Francisco Franco, San Sebastián proved a window to a freer world for a privileged elite, a window to a freer world graced by Federico Fellini, with the presentation of “Nights of Cabiria” (1957) , Alfred Hitchcock who came for “Vertigo” (1958) and a still young Francis Ford Coppola, whose “Rain People” won his 1969 Golden Shell.

The foundations of the modern festival were first laid during Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s. “Previously banned filmed are shown. The festival is starting to align with new times,” said Jose Luis Rebordinos, the current director of San Sebastian.

Victor Erice’s “Spirit of the Beehive” and José Luis Borau’s “Furtivos”, two great Spanish films that condemn the society that Franco created, won the Golden Shell of San Sebastian in 1973 and 1975, as the festival becomes a platform for protest, by both Democrats and Basque separatists.

Those turbulent times are over. Top-notch Spanish arthouse for social issues that pushes the boundaries of inclusion, justice and now reconciliation still draws to San Sebastian. Far apart, this year’s Prison 77 and Isabel Coixet’s The Yellow Ceiling, a gender abuse documentary, are heirs to that protest tradition.

Another before-and-after was the appointment in 1986 of El País film critic Diego Galán as the festival’s artistic director. Galán inaugurates the Donostia Award for Hollywood Stars, big screen sessions at San Sebastian’s nearly 3,000-seat Velodrome,

including one for “Salvador,” which marveled a young Oliver Stone, and slogans such as “Everyone to the cinema.”

“Such expressions may seem simplistic, but at the time they were mind-boggling: someone who told the residents of San Sebastian that the festival was ours, when we thought it was only for a wealthy elite, Diego popularized the festival,” recalls Rebordinos himself.

Encouraged by Manuel Pérez Estremera, a future festival director and then TVE exec, Galán San Sebastian turns into Europe’s first major festival to boldly reach out to Latin America, showing five films from the region in the main Zabaltegi sidebar in 1987.

Galan’s greatest achievement, at least in his own estimation, was perhaps convincing Bette Davis to come to San Sebastian to receive a Donostia Award. At a press conference, she answered the question with an almost royal goodness. It was Davis’ last major performance: she died four days later in Paris.

Mikel Olaciregui, former director of an EiTB Basque pub, worked quieter behind the scenes, forging many more of the hallmarks of today’s festival in 2001-10. “It’s Mikel who goes to Los Angeles every year, connects with the entire industry and really puts the festival on the international map,” Rebordinos notes.

Olaciregui also persuades Spanish producers to show films en masse in San Sebastian. For three decades, drawn in the FIAPF A” category in 1956, 1963 and 1980-84, San Sebastian wavered between its status as a general festival and becoming a specialized event. The strong emphasis on Latin America and Spain makes it possible to do both.

As of 2011, Rebordinos has doubled the industry and launched a Europe-Latin America Co-Production Forum and now a Creative Investors’ Conference. Industry attendance has more than tripled to 1,800 delegates since 2011, he notes.

Once a 10-day event, San Sebastian is now part of a prolific film TV axis in the city that includes the Tabakalera Cultural Center and the Basque Film Archive, which launched the Ikusmira Berriak incubator in 2015 and Elias Querejeta Zine Eskola two years later. Cannes Directors Fortnight title ‘The Water’ and ‘Suro’ and ‘Pornomelancholy’, both in the San Sebastian 2022 competition, were all developed at Ikusimira Berriak.

Celebrating its 70th edition, San Sebastian now stands in a spectacular place, and not just for its surroundings: an ally of Cannes during the pandemic and in Ventana Sur; the most important film festival in the Spanish-speaking world; Spain’s most important cultural event, according to annual polls; part of a lively year-round movie TV axis in San Sebastian; and one of the pillars of Spain’s $1.6 billion AVS plan.

The big question, as Rebordinos acknowledges, is not, as under Franco, whether San Sebastian will survive, but how it can grow even more in the future.

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