for this week’s Tribune : San Sebastian Film Festival report

"By their extraterritorial nature, film festivals the world over have always permitted works to be shown and for filmmakers to present them freely and safely, even when certain states opposed this."
   Thus spake Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen, Wim Wenders – among many other luminaries – as signatories to a petition calling for the release of Roman Polanski. The Oscar-winning director, detained on September 26th after arriving in Zurich to receive a Lifetime Achievement award at the city's film festival, thus was reminded that such events, while they may indeed be culturally and intellectually "extraterritorial," are certainly not beyond the reach of national or international law.
   Almost exactly a thousand kilometres away on the very same day, a somewhat less contentious film festival was winding down in the coastal city of San Sebastian – the latter an ideal location to illustrate how these cinematic jamborees can function as types of temporary 'Interzone' (William Burroughs' term for the legendarily louche and bohemian 'international city' of Tangier as it existed from 1945-1956).
   Part of Spain, but also very much regarded as being one of the main towns of the Basque Country, this attractive, quite fancy seaside resort of 200,000 well-heeled souls is known as 'Donostia' in the Basque language (or 'Euskadi'). And its film-festival which has taken place annually at the end of the summer season since 1953, is very carefully bilingual: full title 57 Festival de San Sebastian / Donostia Zinemaldia.
   Adding to the cosmopolitan feel, the French border – and that classic aristo retreat of Biarritz – is only a few miles away. Napoleon's forces actually conquered this breezy settlement of rugged hills and sandy coves during the Peninsular War in 1808, and ruled the roost until repelled by the British and Portuguese in 1813. The victorious troops got carried away with their success and burned the town to the ground – forgetting, in their excitement, that the residents were almost all staunchly anti-French.
   Only one original street remains from before the conflagration, but the city's "old town" exudes an appealing antiquity – countless characterful bars and restaurants, in what's regarded as Spain's capital of gastronomy, certainly help in that regard. And any lingering resentment towards the Brits has clearly long since been extinguished: spotted promenading around the parte viejo during this year's festival (and even pouring the excellent local cider behind the bar of one cosy establishment) was Burnley's very own Sir Ian McKellen, who managed to pick up his Lifetime Achievement gong without attracting Interpol's attentions.
   He did so before a screening of one of the most noteworthy movies at the 57th 'SanSe' festival, Me, Too (Yo, tambien), an offbeat romance by the writing-directing team of Alvaro Pastor and Antonio Naharro. The choice of film was fortuitous: back in 1982, McKellen made headlines with his performance in the title role of Stephen Frears' TV film Walter, which broke new ground in its presentation of what was at the time referred to as "mental handicap."
  27 years on, Me, Too (an engaging, rough-edged, moving crowd-pleaser set in the cinematically unfamiliar surroundings of Seville) saw an performer with Down's Syndrome, big-screen newcomer Pablo Pineda, earning San Sebastian's Best Actor Award – it's the first time that such a prize has gone to an actor with the chromosomal disorder. Though this prize attracted some mutterings that Pineda was simply "playing himself" – like Pineda, his character Daniel is, in his mid-thirties, the first person with Down's Syndrome to earn a university degree – the accolade was in fact very well-deserved.
   Pineda is touching, funny and sharp as he traces Daniel's progress through a 'nervous romance' with a dysfunctional work-colleague – the latter a "normal" woman appealingly played by Lola Duenas, who herself collected the Best Actress gong.
   Duenas's chief competition was surely her compatriot Carmen Machi, a 46-year-old Madrilena who, like her, appeared in Almodovar's Talk To Her and Volver. Machi is best known in Spain for her TV role as chatterbox cleaning-lady Aida in the smash hit show of the same name – which explains why her casting as the protagonist of Woman Without Piano (La mujer sin piano) came as such a surprise to local critics.
   An austere, meticulously crafted example of the slow-paced modern art-movie, Woman Without Piano presents Machi as a dissatisfied, childless middle-aged woman who escapes from her drab flat into the night-world of the Spanish capital. Her 'adventures' in bus stations and Edward Hopper-ish cafes are decidedly low-key and her dialogue is minimal, but Machi speaks volumes through the smallest of facial expressions and gestures. Though too rigorously unyielding for some, the film – which won best director for Javier Rebollo – has sufficiently intelligent maturity and, crucially, just enough deadpan humour, to ensure that viewers are amply rewarded for their patience.
   It was a similar story with Turkish competition entry 10 to 11 (11'e 10 kala) by Pelin Esmer – which, to the surprise of many, went away empty-handed at the prizegiving. Taking its tone and pace from its 'unhurried' protagonist, this is the lightly fictionalised tale of the director's fiercely independent octogenarian grandfather – an educated, old-fashioned gent whose Istanbul flat is crammed floor to ceiling with 'collections' accumulated over the course of the decades. In its best moments a Bosphorus twist on Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, the picture exudes a beguilingly unusual atmosphere – one can almost smell the dusty piles of yellowing newspapers and magazines – that sustains what is, objectively speaking, a relatively slender storyline.
   Istanbul, of course is the city that spans two continents – a comment that also applies to a pair of very fine films that were shown outside the main competition section. A co-production of Portugal and Chile, Optical Illusions (Illusiones opticas) is the strikingly promising feature debut from director Cristian Jimenez – who co-wrote the script of this ambitious satirical comedy-drama with the more established Alicia Scherson (Play; Tourists). Though set in the southern part of Chile, the gloomy humour in this tale of suburban intersections is unexpectedly Nordic – the influence of Sweden's Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor) and Finland's Aki Kaurismaki (The Man Without A Past) is evident, but Jimenez's intricate, textured patchwork is very much its own idiosyncratic creation.
   Among the many co-productions on show in San Sebastian this year, the 'Mexico/Canada' provenance of Nicolas Pereda's Perpetuum Mobile raised some wry smiles – given the cultural and economic behemoth which nestles between those two nations. The film itself – chronicling the misadventures of a hangdog Mexico City removal-man at home (nagging mother) and at work (troublesome customers) – also proved unexpectedly hilarious to many, though some were left bemused, baffled or bored by the quotidian verisimilitude of Pereda's approach. Every film festival has no shortage of these 33 1/3 r.p.m. enterprises among its selections these days, but the lo-fi, video-shot Perpetuum Mobile is executed with an unfussy panache that proves weirdly compelling – and, after the credits have rolled, hauntingly resonant.

Neil Young
13th October, 2009
written for the 21st October issue of Tribune magazine

ME, TOO : [7/10] : Yo, también : Spain 2009 : ílvaro PASTOR & Antonio NAHARRO : 105m : seen at Kursaal cinema (press show), 23rd September [20/28]
OPTICAL ILLUSIONS : [7/10] : Illusiones ópticas : Chile (/Por/Fr) 2009 : Cristian JIMENEZ : 105m : Principe cinema (paid  ‚¬6), 23rd September [19/28]
PERPETUUM MOBILE : [7/10] : Mexico(/Can) 2009 : Nicolás PEREDA : 87m (timed) : Principal (press show), 25th September [20/28]
10 TO 11 : [7/10] : 11'e 10 kala : Turkey (/Fr/Ger) 2009 : Pelin ESMER : 110m : Teatro Victoria Eugenia (press), 24th September [19/28]
WOMAN WITHOUT PIANO : [7/10] : La mujer sin piano : Spain (/Fr) 2009 : Javier REBOLLO : 95m : Principal (press), 23rd September [18/28]

more on the San Sebastian Film Festival, particularly Optical Illusions and Perpetuum Mobile : The South Will Rise Again (article for The Auteurs Notebook website)

film-by-film commentary