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

A Good Time Was Had By All

OK, now you're wondering how can any of the seven New Directors Jury members keep track of 1) the films we have to see, 2) the films we want to see, and 3) making sure you're at the right theater at the right time.

Unfortunately we had very little guidance from our supervisors, other than providing us the Festival catalog (348 glossy pages), the official carry bag, the handy day-planner, and two young professional volunteers (Ana Londaiz and Amaia Cag) to assist with ironing out any scheduling conflicts, tourist agendas, and festival demands. Priorities commanded we cordon off at least one of the only three or four screenings of the contending titles, although for the few jurors (myself, Bryony Dixon) who spoke preciously little Spanish, we had to make sure the prints we viewed had either English sub-titles or that nasty spoken dialogue (translated on the fly) piped in via wireless headphones. Parameters were set at an introductory dinner the evening before the festival began (a meeting missed only by Peter Scarlet, who was house-hunting with his wife back in my adopted town, Bethesda, Maryland).

Heading back to the hotel that evening, several of us were determined to sidestep the logistical minefield that lay ahead. My approach was to pop open my portable PowerBook, fire up Microsoft Excel, and enter both the Official Section and Zabaltegi titles, plus any supplemental films I would like to catch in my spare time (fat chance), with all screening times and locations (most located within a ten to fifteen minute walk from each other) shown on one table. The most obvious problem was that two of the required features would not even be presented until after we were scheduled to hold our final vote. Wherein we demanded previews of some of the features during the only open time frame available -- lunch. The best laid plan was that we meet at 1:30 on the 21st and head off for lunch and a movie. Unfortunately, you can't cram a leisurely lunch and a movie into a two-hour time slot. After ordering appetizers and entrees, the jury collectively decided to devour the former and skip out on the latter, instead dining on Mina ja Morrison. The ensuing mid-day siesta sessions, presented in the screening room at the nearby Cinemateca Vasca, were accompanied by finger sandwiches and bottled water.

The daily tug-of-war often began sometime between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m. After a marvelous buffet breakfast at our hotel, I often found myself not dining again until well into the evening hours. Fast food was out (although there is a McDonald's in town), so I'd opt for a cup or two of coffee in the Festival Sales Office. Aside from the screening commitments, there were several night time programs that required my attendance, and others (special awards to Dennis Hopper, Jessica Lange, and Bob Hoskins) which I wanted to catch. I ended up only finding time for Jessica, where my wife hoped to ogle a glimpse of Sam Shepard, her significant other. Jessica lashed out against American imperialism and President Bush's war-mongering agenda; Sam never made the trip.

OK. So much for the logistical nightmare. We made it work, although it took a really large shoehorn. How about the films?

Let's start with the bottom-dwellers. The definite clunker (well one of the judges mounted a failed, unofficial effort to make the rest of us think otherwise) was Rodrigue Jean's Canadian film Yellowknife, a tedious, poorly paced road trip about two siblings' journey into Northern exposed depravity and badly written dialogue. Our bad luck -- it was the longest (at 116 minutes) of the eligible films. The audience was breaking out in bouts of unintentional guffaws as the film dragged on. This was also one of the few entries that didn't sport English subtitles; the Festival-hired translator who did simultaneous translations from the Spanish subtitles, a seriously-toned woman giving us the English lines, also found herself struggling to contain her laughter.

Next up the ladder was director-writer-star Marina de Van's Dans Ma Peau, a French entry opening this December in Paris about a young office worker's deranged obsession in literally getting to know her inner self. She cannibalizes herself with an array of metal objects, peeling away her skin as her mental condition spirals downward. With each shocking, blood-filled surgically disgusting sequence the audience's stomach turned and left with an ever-increasing number of bodies streaming for the safety of daylight. "You are what you eat," "Eat Me," and "Things go better with Coca-Cola" (there's a can of Diet Coke in one scene) are three absurdist poster taglines that come to mind.

Best Bets?

Aside from the three films (Vylet, Jibeuro, and Hukkle) the New Directors Jury honored, kudos to Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, his most accomplished and disturbing work (winning the Pearl of the Audience Award), and the equally powerful Bloody Sunday, Paul Greengrass' Cops-style damning of the 30-year-old British Army massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland. Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things is an absorbing underworld thriller featuring Amelie's Audrey Tautou and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Carlos Sorin's Patagonian Historias Minimas was one of the few lighter-hearted features, recounting three interconnected stories about a man and his dog, a woman and her quiz show, and a traveling salesman. This feature received a Special Jury Award from the Official Jury. Lugares Comunes, another Spanish-Argentine entry, garnered Best Screenplay honors for Adolfo Arisarain and Katy Saavedra's tale of an aging college professor (Federico Luppi) prematurely retired because of his political affiliation. Mercedes Sampietro received a Silver Shell prize as best actress for her role as the teacher's respectful, devoted wife.

Niki Caro's Whale Rider, which copped the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, will be opening here in the U.S. soon. This charming, well crafted interpretation of a Maori legend was extremely well received at its premiere screening. Chinese director-writer Chen Kaige's feature Han Ni Zai Yiki (Together), which earned him the Best Director award, follows the life of a 13-year-old child prodigy whose uneducated but doting father takes him to Beijing and maneuvers a prominent teacher to take on the lad as a protégé.

Also very worthwhile were Neil Jordan's The Good Thief, his gritty remake of Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur; Aki Kaurismäki's energetic Helsinki-based love story Mies Vailla Menneisyyttä (The Man Without a Past), a Cannes festival winner featuring Markku Peltola and Kati Outinen as a displaced amnesiac and his shy Salvation Army savior; Roman Polanski's The Pianist, a color desaturated Warsaw Ghetto drama about well-known Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman's miraculous survival; and Lost in La Mancha, the latest documentary from Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, an enthusiastic diary of the un-making of Terry Gilliam's ill-fated adaptation of Don Quixote. The Youth Jury, comprising 350 youngsters, gave its nod to American entry Real Women Have Curves from director Patricia Cardoso. Raising Victor Vargas, a coming-of-age tale about New York City Lower East Side Latinos, from Brooklyn-born director Peter Sollett, amazingly won the Made in Spanish award.

As for old favorites, I regret not having more time for the Michael Powell's or "50 from the 50s," a selection of some of cinema's best classics. Having promised myself I would catch a single Powell, I again fell in love with his stunning Technicolor romantic fantasy A Matter of Life and Death, in which David Niven misses an appointment with death (thanks to a dense British fog), falls in love with Kim Hunter, and then presses his case against reclamation of his life before a heavenly court presided over by Raymond Massey. A true gem.

What did I miss? A new restoration of Lola Montes. The Russia feature Lubovnik (The Lover), which won the best photography award and shared the screenwriting prize. The Spanish-French-Italian co-production Los Lunes al Sol with Javier Bardem (but I did catch his The Dancer Upstairs, John Malkovich's feature directorial debut). That adaptation of Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise. Hey, there are only so many hours in the day.

Final question. Would I do it again? Sign me up NOW.

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