San Sebastian Film Festival
The Jury Deliberates
Now I can say it.
"Been there, done that."
Ten glorious days, thirty-eight new and one not-so-new (God bless Michael Powell) features, sixty-four-plus hours spent in the darkened theaters of San Sebastian, and a few less than that sleeping. Look at it this way: some of these movies are going to be once-in-a-lifetime experiences, doomed to distribution hell never to surface on American shores. I can sleep later.
Heavenly weather of sunny skies, , temperatures in the low seventies, an occasional cloud, and barely a drop of rain. A room with a great beach view of the Bay of Biscay, but not enough time to share the gentle waves with some of the partly topless crowd (some should, most shouldn't). Some of the best tapas in the world, but never more than a few minutes between screenings to sit down, exhale, and enjoy these marvelous, tasty treats. Everyone should be so lucky to have such an exhausting, all-expenses-paid vacation. Just be sure to stock up on your vitamin pills before departure.
In as much I didn't deliver the verdict on behalf of our New Directors Jury at the press conference or on stage during the star-studded, televised spectacular closing celebration of the 50th San Sebastian International Film Festival, I want my moment in the limelight now, so…"And the winner is…"
This dramatic Czech family road trip covers a lot of asphalt and several generations of pent-up angst as a mother, her two daughters, and their grandmother pack up the ashes of the family patriarch and set off on a potholed journey of self discovery. Relational and political barriers melt on the way to a burial in Slovakia, where any inadvertent stop along the highway is likely to reveal a festering secret or two. Told with darkly comic undertones, this second feature from director Alice Nellis (after her Eeny Meeny of two years ago) and the first (as producer) for Pavel Solc, featured some of the best acting, directing, and writing the jury saw during its brief seating. During our closing balloting it won over five of the seven judges in basically a contest we had whittled down to less than a handful of titles. Regrettably the prize cannot be shared among pictures -- Nellis and Solc thus split the 150,000 Euro (about $148,000) prize, a nice chunk of change to help pay down their debt. The other finalist had to settle for honorable mention and a nice diploma, suitable for framing. That was the South Korean entry Jibeuro (The Way Home) a simple tale of a city-bred boy thrust into the backwoods, way-off-the-beaten-path homestead (read shack) of a grandmother fully entrenched in the 19th century. A box-office hit back home, this entry by second-time director-writer Lee Jung-Hyang won over most of the jurors' hearts, but also had one detractor flustered by the acting of Yoo Seung-Hoo as the spoiled youngster.
You may be wondering why we handed out a New Director award to a sophomore filmmaker. Hey, we didn't make the rules; the festival's eligibility standards allow for any entry in this competition to be the director's first or second feature. The prize, sponsored by Jazztel, was handed out on the last night of the Festival, with Nellis and Solc barely making it onstage after a day-long excursion from Prague, a trip saddled with missed flights, a tour of Paris identical to mine on the way over to Spain, and a detour to Bordeaux, where one of the Festival's official Mercedes Benz vehicles raced the winners 250 kilometers back to San Sebastian, arriving just an hour before show time.
A third film, the Hungarian entry Hukkle, also received a special mention "for the particular conception and use of image and sound." This amusing and altogether different entry was definitely in a class by itself -- an apple in a basket of oranges. Director György Pálfi's seventy-five minute film is told without dialogue, a rhythmic audiovisual smorgasbord of images surrounding a small, intriguing mystery within a close-knit community. It's as much a cinematic experiment as it is an absorbing comic symphony. Pálfi and his cinematographer Gergely Pohárnok spent a year in pre-production, shot the script on 16mm stock, reevaluated that footage for another six months, rewrote the story, and then shot the actual film in 35mm. It's quite an accomplished piece of entertainment.
The jury's initial balloting actually began on September 25th during a lunch time meeting to eliminate the films we felt need not be considered during the ensuing discussions two days later. During that first meeting all seven jurors identified three films, in no particular order, which they believed would be worthy of the award. This balloting reduced the number of features to be considered to seven, without eliminating the remaining handful of films we had not yet screened. This early tally broke down as follows: Jibuero (5 votes); Niki Caro's New Zealand entry and Toronto festival winner Whale Rider (4); Vylet (3); Les Diables (2). a disturbing tale of an ever-deepening brother-sister relationship from director Christophe Ruggia; and single votes for Icelandic entry Hafid (The Sea), another dysfunctional family tale by Baltasar Kormákur; Uruguayan Aldo Garay Dutrey's La Espera (The Wait), a claustrophobic look at an invalid mother, her frustrated daughter, and a misguided neighbor; and Todd Louiso's American entry Love Liza starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and a depressed, gasoline-sniffing widower.
Which brings me to Friday's deliberations. The setting: Arzak, the internationally renown restaurant located just outside of town. A truly divine 5-star gastronomical treat. The jury, fully realizing what an enjoyable meal lay in store for us, tried to prolong our important meeting so we could get dinner thrown in as well. Our plot, sadly, was unsuccessful. Peter Scarlet, who earlier had enchanted us with tales of some previous (non-San Sebastian) jury shenanigans, in which members nearly came to blows, was assured no ambulance was necessary this day. We also learned that the Festival have whittled down the number of entries to be judged through the years. At one point over fifty films were considered! Twenty was plenty enough.
Anyway, after a week of occasional dining, watching, and drinking together, all the jurors had become aware of and actually quite friendly with one other. No blood would be flowing this year, although I jokingly suggested that we dress up in bloodied bandages, slings, and crutches during the award presentation. My absurdist sense of humor was not shared with the more seriously-minded Festival planners.
So, after the crayfish salad, poached egg with truffle oil, monkfish with pistachio sauce, and other edible delights, we got down to the nitty gritty. Reverted to the same three-film selection (again, no particular order), Whale Rider, Vylet, and Jibuero garnered five votes, Hukkle received four, and one each for Les Diables and the French shock drama Dans Ma Peau, a disturbing film about a woman's self-cannibalizing mood swings.
Our next step was selecting which two films we felt might best embodied the winning entry: Hukkle (6), Vylet (4), Jibeuro (3), and Dans Ma Peau (1).
You already know the final outcome, which we arrived at by going around the table and stating our main choice and providing a few sentences in support of that decision. As Hukkle had an extremely strong showing in the preliminary round, at this point someone (it might have been me) suggested it receive an honorable mention.
Sadly, of our winners only Jibeuro is headed for U.S. theaters, having been picked up by Paramount for November release.
As our jury was being shuttled into the Kursaal Auditorium for the final ceremony, all spouses were separated from us and we were funneled down to the backstage area. Piers Handling and Alberto Elena had been selected to present our awards tonight; they joined the senior jury (Wim Wenders, et al) and other luminaries (Bob Hoskins, Jean Reno, Juliette Binoche, Jack Cardiff, all the winners) on stage right. Four of us (myself, Peter Scarlet, Bryony Dixon, and Angela Prudenzi) were cordoned off, alone with the production staff, on stage left. Local juror Ramon Saizarbitoria was a no show. Although we had no involvement in the evening program, we were told we HAD to stay there for the entire show as we were needed for a group photograph at the tribute's end. Damn, we wanted to watch from the audience and were about to mutiny before learning that we were to join EVERYONE on stage for a final curtain call. We were figuratively shackled offstage, marooned for a sidelong glance at the presenters instead of a full court press from the audience (and special jury seats).
Anyway, we suffered through the awkwardness of the situation and, sure enough, got pushed out onto the stage for the final photo op, with tons of silvery confetti snowing down upon us. An unfortunate postscript (and showcasing why we called ourselves the junior varsity jury), was the photo that appeared in the Festival's final daily newspaper the next day. The entire New Directors Jury, Alice Nellis, and Pavel Solc were all unceremoniously cut off from the group shot.
The celebration did continue however, and we partied well into the wee hours of the night.
And now that I'm back home, I'm catching up on my sleep.
San Sebastian Film Festival: