The 50th San Sebastian Film Festival
feature by Elias Savada, 11 October 2002

In the Beginning

I, the Jury.

On any given day you'd think I was joking about an old Mickey Spillane novel/film, the latest headline-grabbing court case, or a re-run of an old Perry Mason episode. Yet, having survived half a century in my obscure corner of the film business (movie researcher, copyright searcher, rights tracker, archivist liaison, film archive & festival logistician, film critic, and, yes, I even mow my own lawn) and actually making a living at AND enjoying it, I now have an extra bullet on my resume: Film juror.


It came as an enjoyable and totally unexpected surprise this spring that the illustrious San Sebastian Film Festival (celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year), nestled away in the Basque country of Northern Spain, invited me to participate as one of seven jurors in its New Directors selection of films. When Festival director Mikel Olaciregui emailed me that the honor was mine to be had, who am I to say no to a nearly two-week all-expenses-paid "working" vacation in this great seaside town and former pirate sanctuary?

Arriving a day early to help fight off any evidence of jet lag, my wife and I have settled in at the lovely Hotel de Londres for ten days of work (for me) and play (my spouse). Sure, you're wondering; work? Seven judges, twenty films (thirty-one hours, twenty-two minutes), ten days. Sharing the jury box with me are: local writer Ramon Saizarbitoria, Spanish cinema professor Alberto Elena, Toronto International Film Festival director Piers Handling, Italian film critic Angela Prudenzi, British Film Institute archival booking officer Bryony Dixon [the only other member I've actually met before], and Peter Scarlet, recently with the Cinématèque Française.

It's not that I'm a stranger to this part of the world. I've shipped thousands of American films to the Cinemateca Portuguesa (Lisbon) and Filmoteca Española (Madrid) over the last two decades. These are generally older repertory titles, selected to supplement the vast programming efforts that thrive at these two Iberian archives. I also helped program an extensive salute to American horror icon Tod Browning a half dozen years ago at San Sebastian, a sidebar event coupled with the publication of the Spanish translation of the Browning biography, Dark Carnival, I had co-written with noted horror author David J. Skal.

(A sidebar on the sidebars. Aside from the Official Section, Made in Spain, and Zabaltegi (a forty-three-film parallel official section with looser parameters and housing eighteen of my must-see features), there are retrospectives this year celebrating Francis Ford Coppola (nine films), Michael Powell (forty-three), Volker Schlöndorf (twenty-three), and 50 from the 50s (a salute commemorating a decade's connection to the Festival)

An obvious conundrum arises: scheduling conflicts. On any given day you must select from tens of films which handful of titles you actually view. After a shorter opening day schedule (thirty-six screenings), the second day more than doubles that! Plus, only a handful get pre-noon start times, and everyone (viewers, projectionists, the entire town) always take time off for lunch (2-4 pm). It's not unusual to see full houses for the numerous late night screenings. Aside from the demands I have as a juror, I desperately want to see at least nearly a dozen other films including Neil Jordan's The Good Thief, François Ozon's 8 Women, Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise, Dai Sijie's adaptation of his own book, Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, Roman Polanski's The Pianist, and the collected parts of Ten Minutes Older, a film project involving fifteen directors telling ten-minute stories. The Zabaltegi and Official Section titles generally screen four or five times over a three-day period, the repertory prints even less. If I'm lucky I might catch one (A Matter of Life and Death hopefully) of the Powell titles, and probably none of from the Schlöndorff and other sidebars.

My key responsibility is watching all twenty entries (including two U.S. titles—Todd Louiso's Love Liza and Patricia Cardoso's Real Women Have Curves (the only film I was able to pre-screen back home)—and commiserating with my fellow panelists on which of these films receives the New Directors Award. Unlike the two other festival juries, our award has quite a financial heft to it. The Official Section Jury, chaired by Wim Wenders, hands out the Shell awards (Golden for best film; Silvers for best director, actress, and actor; Jurys for best photography, screenplay; and an optional Special Award) as bestowed by its seven members. They have twenty films to watch; two, New Zealand's Whale Rider and Hafid (The Sea), from Iceland, overlap with the New Directors series. The Made in Spanish Award Jury (of three) will select from thirteen titles the best feature produced in Latin America or focusing on the Latin community throughout the rest of the world. Cash prize: Euro 18,000. Not a bad chunk of change, although the Jazztel-sponsored New Directors Award is worth Euro 150,000.

As the festival begins, I must temporarily forego my writing chores to focus on the necessary jury duties. It will be an interesting, yet exhausting experience….

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