San Sebastian International Film Festival is unknown to many, despite belonging to the same Category ‘A’ to which the 14 most competitive festivals belongTWITTER/@SANSEBASTIANFES

Starting my Year Abroad absurdly early was full of pros, chief of which was being able to be in San Sebastian during the 69th edition of the International Film Festival. Despite being mildly ignorant about the world of cinema, I had a brilliant time at several screenings, watching the red carpet and generally absorbing the fantastic atmosphere that permeated every corner of the city. This article is the first in a series of three that will appear in Varsity. It explains a bit about the festival and this year’s event and will be followed by a set of (non-expert) reviews of some contenders and a round-up of this year’s winners.

Utterly overshadowed by Venice, Cannes, Berlin and company, the San Sebastian International Film Festival is unknown to many, despite belonging to the same Category ‘A’ to which the 14 most competitive festivals belong.

It began in 1953 by honouring Spanish-language films but quickly gained a more international scope, considering foreign films from 1955 and this year dedicating an entire section of the festival to Korean cinema.

Although many readers may not have even heard of San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque), the city is well-practiced in managing enormous cultural events, and arguably perfectly suited to hosting a celebration of this calibre.

“This is not an exclusive, glitzy event for the stars, but one that is shared by local people, tourists and creatives alike”

Its cultural offering is staggering for a place of its size (comparative with St Albans): the San Telmo Museum once received a Special Mention in the European Museum Contest; Tabakalera, a cultural space renovated out of an enormous tobacco factory, sees local artists and creators showcased; eight cultural centres are dotted across the various neighbourhoods; there are numerous well-equipped libraries, the Victoria Eugenia Theatre, and the imposing Kursaal conference centre; an annual Jazz Festival sponsored by Heineken; a fortnightly celebration of classical music; four other film festivals covering everything from horror to human rights; theatre festivals — it’s hardly surprising they were made European Capital of Culture in 2016.

Beyond that, San Sebastian is an international reference point for culinary excellence. Not only is it crammed with ‘pintxos’ bars (Basque tapas), it has 23 Michelin-starred restaurants, which, considering its size, is jaw-dropping. It is also home to the Basque Culinary Centre, attached to the University of Mondragon with a faculty of gastronomic sciences as well as a hub for research and innovation, and over 100 ‘gastronomic societies’ which form an integral part of San Sebastian’s historical and social fabric.

Considering the number of luxury hotels, range of high-end restaurants, and general elegance of the city, it’s slightly surprising that the SSIFF actually has one of the smallest budgets of any of the Category A festivals. Nonetheless, it is by no means a low-key event; from my office in the centre I can hear the theme music being played intermittently as screenings take place in different locations all over the city, while large (masked) crowds gather in the evenings to see the likes of Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas walk the red carpet. Its low cost but far reach is a testament to it being very much connected with the local population — yes the stars are here, but the fact that I’ve managed to secure tickets for five (utterly random) screenings for nine euros as a commoner without a press accreditation is something unheard of at other festivals.

The competition has faced a little controversy this year as the committee has decided to award the ‘Donostia Prize’ {....} to Johnny Dep@TWITTER/SANSEBASTIANFES

Now, a quick guide to the categories. The Official Selection is exactly what you think it is, no explanation needed, but then there are a plethora of other categories, including Horizontes Latinos, Nest (an open competition for students), and Culinary Zinema, a non-competitive section organised with the Basque Culinary for films about gastronomy. There are also retrospectives, this year celebrating Korean cinema to coincide with the festival focusing on that country that is being held in San Sebastian throughout October.

The competition has faced a little controversy this year as the committee has decided to award the ‘Donostia Prize’, which recognises the extraordinary contribution to the world of cinema, to Johnny Depp, as well as Marion Cotillard. He appeared on Wednesday 22nd of September to receive his prize, decrying cancel culture as several female directors have criticised the choice to recognise him in light of the claims of Amber Heard.


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Other issues faced by the organisers are the various protests taking place outside the main venues; on the 23rd of September, a strike was held by state care-home workers demanding solutions from the regional government, as well as members of the local police and other services calling for security and pay rises outside the Kursaal. Over the 24th and 25th, San Sebastian saw more protestors take to the streets as they call for Basque prisoners held in jails in Spain to be brought back to their homeland.

Despite these controversies, the atmosphere of the festival is as lively and ambient as it could be with reduced capacity theatres and masked celebrities. Although covered by mainly Spanish press, I think this serves as a reminder that this is not an exclusive, glitzy event for the stars, but one that is shared by local people, tourists and creatives alike.