By Ali Moosavi.

This year, the controversy was on a bigger scale….”

It seems that the San Sebastian International Film Festival cannot go ahead without having some controversy. Last year it was the inclusion of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s Sparta, about a pedophile who travels from Austria to Romania and takes semi-nude photos of young boys. It was thrown out of Toronto International Film Festival when it emerged that Seidl did not tell the parents of the boys the subject of the film and paid them just 30 Euros per day to use their children. Despite this, SSIFF decided to keep the film in their Official Selection section.

This year, the controversy was on a bigger scale. The inclusion of the documentary No me llame Ternera (Jordi Évole and Màrius Sánchez), which contained an interview with Josu Urrutikoetxea, who had held a very high position within the terrorist group, ETA, led to almost daily demonstrations outside the festival HQ. José Luis Rebordinos, Director of the San Sebastian Festival, issued a statement in defence of the festival’s decision, which contained the following section: The cinema is, among many other things, a source of history and has often endeavored to take to the big screen protagonists, perpetrators of episodes of unjustifiable violence, but at whom it has wanted to take a closer look. Here, well known cases are those of Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1988), S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Rithy Panh, 2003) and The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, 2012). 

Perhaps aptly, the festival started for me with Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes. Glazer is a director whose career I have followed closely. His films leave an indelible mark in the memory, be it Ben Kingsley’s totally wicked Don Logan in Sexy Beast (2000) or the Scottish streets that Scarlett Johansson’s alien cruises searching for victims in Under the Skin (2013). In The Zone of Interest, adapted from Martin Amis’s novel, we are taken into the house and life of the Hoss family, where the husband Rudolf (Christian Friedel) is the commander of the camp next door and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) runs the house, overseeing the maids and the children. If we don’t know already, it will soon dawn on us that the camp next door is Auschwitz. Glazer never takes us inside the camp, instead conveying the horror through images of the smoke rising daily from the gas chambers and the undying cries and screams of the prisoners as they were being tortured or exterminated. The Hoss family though carry on regardless with their daily chores and house parties, during which Hedwig proudly shows the items she has been given, which were taken from Jews who were exterminated.  Glazer has been compared to Kubrick in some quarters. I remember that when I watched Barry Lyndon in the cinema, when the lights went down, and before the film started, the music from the film was played which transferred the audience from the auditorium to another time and place. Glazer does the same thing before the start of this film. Glazer has taken only the premise of the story being set in the Auschwitz commander’s house from Amis’s novel and has wisely ditched the love triangle in the book. The result is another haunting film from one of the leading filmmakers of the 21st Century.

Perfect Days by Wim Wenders was the film that I enjoyed most at the festival. We spend a few days in the life of a Japanese toilet cleaner (Koji Yakusho). He drives around Tokyo in his van, going to carry out his daily routine while listening to cassettes of The Animals, Kinks, Patti Smith, Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Nina Simone, making the soundtrack one of the best in recent years (a totally subjective viewpoint as these were all my favourite artists!). Another one of his routine chores is a visit to a bookshop, picking up a new book every time. The bookshop sales lady recommends Patricia Highsmith because she says, she made me realize the difference between fear and anxiety.

Photography is another one of his hobbies, he stores the photos in carefully marked boxes. He is always happy and smiling, despite his lazy colleague causing him problems. The arrival of a young girl at his door one day makes him reflect on his past. The structure and feel of Perfect Days is somewhat reminiscent of Wenders’ Paris Texas (1984). I felt that not a single minute was wasted spent in the company of Koji Yakusho, who was awarded the Best Actor prize at Cannes for this film.

Fans of the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki will not be disappointed with his latest deadpan comedy-drama, Fallen Leaves. It follows two lonely people, Ansa (Alma Poysti), a checkout girl at a supermarket who is fired because she was taking home food which was past its sell-by date and would have been thrown away and Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) who is continuously being fired from various manual jobs for being drunk. Both the protagonists go through ups and downs, which are both funny and tragic and the film’s brisk 81 minutes fly by. There is a LOL moment when two “cinephiles” come out of a cinema showing Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die (2019). One comments that the film reminded him of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest while the other says for him it was reminiscent of Godard’s Band A Part!

The festival officially opened with Hayao Miyazaki’s latest, and by his own words, his last film, The Boy and the Heron. Miyazaki had sent a video message, saying that he was sorry not to be in San Sebastian. The film continuous the unique form and content that Miyazaki has developed, which sets his film apart from a flurry of animated films.

A Silence starts by the attempted murder of a man by his adopted son. The man is a high profile lawyer, portrayed by Daniel Auteuil, who is taking up the case of a couple who had been sexually abused long ago. The film examines what has made the young boy attempt to murder his father and, more importantly, what is the family secret that the wife (Emmanuelle Devos) has kept silence about for many years, and for which their daughter has abandoned them. The dark secret in the father’s life is both shocking and ironic. Both Auteuil and Devos are in top form and it is particularly brave of Auteuil to take up this role. A Silence’s director, Joachim Lafosse told me that five other prominent French actors turned down the role before it was offered to Auteuil.

One of the great animations of the past twenty years was Chico & Rita (2010). It’s mixture of imaginative animation, great storytelling and a superb jazz soundtrack made it stand out above other animated films. Now, two of its three directors, Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba have returned with another animation with a musical theme, They Shot the Piano Player. This animation however has a political documentary feel to it. An American music journalist (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), while researching for a book about Bossa Nova music, comes across the real-life Brazilian musician Francisco Tenerio Junior, a brilliant jazz pianist who mysteriously disappeared in Argentina in the Seventies during the military dictatorship. By talking to all those who knew him, the writer, and the audience, find out about both Tenerio and the atrocities committed by the military junta.

The San Sebastian festival this year had a distinctly Japanese flavour. Along with Miyazaki, two other leading Japanese filmmakers of current era, Hirokazu Koreeda and Ryusuke Hamaguchi had films at the festival while there was also a major retrospective of the late Japanese director, Hiroshi Teshigahara. Koreeda’s film, Monster, which had bagged the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes for Yuji Sakamoto, examines the roots of some social problems and by focusing on the relationship between teachers and students, parents and children, school heads and teachers, between students, and asks the question; who is the social monster and how is he/she created?  Hamaguchi’s film, Evil Does Not Exist, which received the Grand Jury Prize at Venice, is an equally thought-provoking and disturbing film.  A company wants to build a “glamping” (luxury camping) site in the Japan countryside and its representatives hold a meeting with the locals to listen to any concerns. The locals, represented by a handyman, have genuine grievances which the company cannot dismiss by empty promises and hogwash. Thereafter follows events which are unexpected, leading to an ending which is baffling and thought-provoking in equal measures.

Evil Does Not Exist

This year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, Anatomy of a Fall examines the elements that can break the bond between a couple: sexual tension, mistrust, jealousy; all this set within a riveting 150-minute courtroom drama. It is full of twists and turns and has an exceptional performance by Sandra Huller. The way it deals with truths, untold truths, doubts and guilt reminded me of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011).  If there was a prize for Best Animal Performance, then surely Snoop, the dog in the film, would be a prime candidate!

The Promised Land is an old fashioned, solid epic from Denmark. It is based on the true story of Ludvig Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen), a working class man who rose to the rank of captain in the Danish army and was given the rights by the king to a barren heath to cultivate. Kahlen’s aspiration to achieve this is akin to mission impossible, but he has determination, patience, and a plan. Standing in his way is the vicious, sadistic landowner, De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg). It is a gripping story, well directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Mikkelsen has both the presence and the voice to make Kahlen a memorable character.

Memory, written and directed by Michel Franco, has the feel and structure of a play. It is basically a two hander, a man is suffering from dementia and a nurse who decides to care for him. Peter Sarsgaard as the man received the Best Actor prize at Venice but the film really belongs to Jessica Chastain as the nurse. She carries the film by giving one of her best performances.

Sweet Country (2017) is one of my favourite movies to come out of Australia. Its indigenous Australian director, Warwick Thornton was in San Sebastian with his new film, The New Boy. A monastery run by nuns is used as a place to educate aboriginal boys in Christian values, so that upon “graduation” they can be used as slave labour by white Australians. The head of the monastery is Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett), who has a particularly tough time with a new boy (Aswan Reid) that arrives and is not easy to tame. Thornton, who also wrote the script, has infused it with some autobiographical elements from his life, growing up as an aboriginal and, as he told me, racial discriminations in his personal life and at work.

The impact of the SAG strike on this festival was difficult to gauge. Thornton told me that Blanchett, who is one of the film’s producers, was very anxious to come, but due to SAG strike couldn’t come. An even bigger absentee due to SAG strike was Javier Bardem, whose face adorned the festival poster and was due to receive the festival’s Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award. On the other hand, Jessica Chastain attended San Sebastian to promote Memory, and also attending were Gabriel Byrne, Aidan Gillen, Dominic West, Juliette Binoche, Sandrine Bonnaire, and a host of others.

Todd Haynes’s May December is loosely based on the American teacher Mary Letourneau incident. She was jailed in 1997 for having a having sexual relation with one of her students, when he was 12 and she was 36, and bearing his child when he was 15. She passed away in 2020. The film takes place many years after the incident when their son is college student. The Mary Letourneau character, here named Grace (Julianne Moore) and her young husband are living with their family in a small town. Their life appears relatively normal and uneventful until the arrival of the famous actress, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) who is due to play the Grace character in a new movie. Trouble is that Elizabeth is a method actor and wants to experience what Grace experienced in every facet of her life. Though this may help Elizabeth’s acting, its impact on those being portrayed in the new movie could be shattering. Terrific acting by Moore and Portman make May December another laudable entry in Todd Haynes’s oeuvre. Haynes told me that some of the films that he drew inspiration from for May December included Sunset Boulevard, The Graduate, Persona, Manhattan, and Le Femme Infidele.

Watching Me Captain by Matteo Garrone (see top image) should be made required viewing in all the European countries dealing with the influx of refugees. The extremely arduous, hazardous, for many fatal, that the two Senegalese boys in the film make from Darkar towards Italy, so that they can achieve their dream of becoming famous hip hop singers, is truly heartbreaking. Garrone has mixed, to great effect, scenes of physical pain and torture with surrealistic images of salvation. The film collected the audience award for the Best European Film, which was picked up by the two young Senegalese boys who play the main protagonists in the film.

The sole Iranian film at the festival was Achilles. A young filmmaker, fed up with censorship and not being able to make the films that he wants to make, takes a temporary job at a hospital. One night he is called to provide bandage for a female patient who is being kept in a section of the hospital secluded from the rest of the patients. When he finds out that she is a political prisoner, he decides, on the spur of moment, to help her escape, fully realizing that the consequences are likely to be very unpleasant for him. Acilles is both a tense thriller and a politically charged road movie. The film’s writer-director, Farhad Delaram told me that the script was inspired by his own experiences of taking a temporary at a hospital, after being frustrated by the many obstacles he faced when trying to make a movie, and encountering a political prisoner there.

The Australian writer-director Kitty Green caught the attention of the film world with her 2019 feature debut, the MeToo drama, The Assistant. It was a quiet but powerful film, which was inspired by the experiences of female staff in Harvey Weinstein’s office. She is back with The Royal Hotel, which re-unites her with The Assistant’s Julia Garner. The film is set in the eponymous pub in outback Australia. Two young US backpackers, Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) get a summer job there as barmaids for a bit of adventure and some cash. What they didn’t bargain for is the rowdy, and often violent behaviour of the Australian men there, after they’ve had a few drinks. The film works on many levels, both as a very tense thriller and also as a strong feminist movie.

One of the sections in the San Sebastian Film Festival is Culinary Cinema, dedicated to films with a food theme. San Sebastian city is considered to be one of the gastronomical centers in Europe, with several Michelin star restaurants. You can also have excellent food and wine at a multitude of restaurants and diners in the city at very affordable prices. A unique event organized by the festival is a joint film-dinner package. After watching one of the Culinary Cinema movies, you will eat with a group of people at the world renowned Basque Culinary Center. The menu will feature dishes from the movie and sometimes the chefs who prepared the food in the film will prepare the dinner. Tickets for this package are like gold dust and vanish very quickly. Alas, I was not successful, maybe next year! The star feature in this section was The Taste of Things, with Benoit Magimel and Juliette Binoche, who was present, with the film’s director Anh Hung Tran, to present he film. Having won the Best Director Prize at Cannes, it was an easy winner of the Best Film in the Culinary Cinema section. This film has also been selected as France’s entry for the International Film category of next year’s Oscars, ahead of the more fancied Anatomy of a Fall.

The chief virtue and pleasure of Ex-Husbands was seeing the re-uniting of Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette, 38 years on from After Hours. Here they play a recently divorced couple. Dunne’s character gets a surprise when visiting his father, played by 84-year-old Richard Benjamin, who I always associate as the young main in love in Goodbye Columbus (1969), and finds out that he has also just divorced Dunne’s mother because he has “another 20 years or so to enjoy life”! Completing the trio is Dunne’s son, played by James Norton, who on the eve of his bachelor party in Tulum, has broken up with the bride to be, but goes ahead with the party so as not to let his friends down, who have travelled to Tulum. When Dunne also coincidentally comes to Tulum, we have the setting for a series of whimsical, funny, sad, and altogether entertaining encounters. Ex-Husbands has been re-titled Men of Divorce for US & some other markets!

The leading member of the Berlin School movement in Germany, and one of the most interesting filmmakers working today is Christian Petzold. With films like Barbara (2012), Phoenix (2014) and Transit (2018), he has developed a large following. At San Sebastian this year he had multiple duties. He was a member of the main jury, which was headed by Claire Denis, gave a public talk and also was there to talk about his latest movie, Afire, which was being shown at the festival.

In Afire Petzold continues his method of looking beyond the surface appearance and behaviour of characters and showing that people should not be judged by their appearances. He delves deep into the characters and reveals traits that are often unexpected. Here a young writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) has taken up the offer of a friend to go for a short vacation to a secluded villa belonging to his parents, hoping that he can finish the novel he is working on. An unwelcome surprise waiting for him at the villa is a young woman, Nadja (Petzold regular Paula Beer), whose loud shrieks, apparently from lovemaking with a nightly male visitor, keep Leon awake at nights and disturb his writing. Nadja is selling ice creams on the beach in daytime and Leon, who sees her intellectually vastly inferior to himself, is giving her the cold treatment. The visit of Leon’s publisher is the key event in the movie and where Petzold masterfully reveals what is beneath the outside appearance of the characters.

It was very easy to guess the identity of the Surprise Film at this year’s festival. Last year Blonde, which was shown at the Venice Film Festival and was produced by Netflix was the surprise film. This year, the only film that ticked both Venice and Netflix boxes was David Fincher’s The Killer. It seems to have been inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967). Similar to Melville’s masterwork, Fincher delves into the psyche and routine of a professional hitman. However, whereas Melville used Alain Delon’s actions, relationships and facial expressions to paint a portrait of a contract killer, Fincher has Michael Fassbender voicing his inner thoughts throughout the film. The Killer is a very well-made thriller but falls short of the standards we have come to expect from Fincher.

One of the outstanding cinemas of this century has been that of Romania. Filmmakers such as Cristian Mungiu and Radu Jude have put Romania at the higher echelons of world cinema. Another notable figure in this group is Cristi Puiu. He came into prominence with the dark comedy, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and further cemented his reputation with Sieranevada (2016). His films are quite lengthy and an acquired taste. I confess not being a fan, having failed to acquire the taste required for his movies. His latest film MMXX was in the official competition at SSIFF. The screening that I went to was also attended by Puiu and his cast in a packed theatre. The film is composed of four separate segments totaling 160 minutes. To say that not much happens in these segments is an understatement. Again I found it hard going. But I was not alone. About 20 minutes into the movie, a few people started to leave the auditorium. The number steady increased and soon became a deluge. I kept going till the bitter end but felt bad and felt embarrassed for Puiu and his cast, as when the lights came on, the theatre was more than half empty.

Red Island, is inspired by director Robin Campillo’s own childhood living in the French colony Madagascar as it gains independence in the 1970’s. We see his parents, their friends, the locals, from a child’s viewpoint. The boy tries to fathom the adults’ behaviour; why some enjoy being in that environment and some cannot get used to it and long to go back to France. An event which makes a particular impression him is seeing the love between a French soldier and a local girl. This is something that the senior officer will not allow to progress any further and breaks the lovers’ hearts. The politics and history become background to the personal relationships.

The premise for Fingernails by Greek director Christos Nikou is that a specialist clinic by extracting one fingernail each from a couple can do tests to determine how they match up: 100%, 50% or 0%. It is difficult to accept this premise that couples would submit themselves to something that was considered one of the most brutal torture methods in dictatorships for the sake of finding whether they are a good fit together. Despite having actors of the caliber of Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Luke Wilson and Jeremy Allen White, the film never catches fire.

I have long been a fan of Argentinian cinema. Puan, co-written and directed by Maria Alche and Benjamin Naishtat is a wonderful comedy drama. Marcelo Subiotto plays a philosophy professor who, after the sudden death of the head of philosophy department, who was both a mentor and a close friend, is seen as his natural successor. However, the arrival of Rafael (Leonardo Sbarglia), an old adversary and a philosophy professor, provides an obstacle as he is also interested in the position. Rafael boasts a much higher profile, is more extrovert, is a better speaker and even dates a famous actress! Puan is full of both poignant and LOL moments. It deservedly won best actor for Subiotto and also best screenplay in the official competition.

The 83-year-old Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice came to San Sebastian for two purposes. One was to accept the festival’s Donostia Award, a sort of life achievement award. Secondly was to present his new film Close Your Eyes, his third feature film in 50 years, though he has made documentaries and short films in this time. History decides when a film is a masterpiece. Close Your Eyes was the nearest thing in this festival to what may qualify as a masterpiece in future. Erice’s film is about the power of cinema. It starts with a film within a film. It then transpires that the leading actor in that unfinished film has gone missing for many years. His friend and fellow actor starts the search to locate him. Close Your Eyes starts with a film and ends with a film in a way that is totally original and wholly captivating.

The closing film of the festival was Dance First, based on the life of the Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett. Fion O’Shea plays the young Beckett while Gabriel Byrne has a double role as the older Backet and his inner conscience. Aidan Gillen plays the Irish writer, James Joyce. As both Byrne and director James Marsh admitted, when I talked to them, making a visually interesting film about the life of a writer is quite a challenge. Writers sit in one room writing most of the time! Marsh and screenwriter Neil Forsyth have found enough events in Beckett’s life, from Joyce’s young and unstable daughter falling in love with the young Samuel, to Beckett being unfaithful to his French wife (Sandrine Bonnaire) to sustain the interest in the story.

One of the things that makes San Sebastian such a popular film festival with the public is the efforts the festival makes to being artists and the audiences closer together. The public can purchase tickets for all films and all events, including opening and closing ceremonies. Also, the festival had arranged a series of talks by some of the filmmakers who had films in the festival, including Christian Petzold, Kitty Green and Raven Jackson. There is a buzz created in the city during the festival and the only gripe one can have is that there is never enough time to take in all the events that one wishes to attend.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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