Arrival in Donostia - Warm Welcome at the San Sebastián Film Festival
by Alex Billington
September 20, 2019
The sun shines brightly over the city as I arrive into San Sebastian, warming it up to a nice 86 degrees at the peak of the day. The summer may just about be over (according to the calendar), but here it still feels like it's far from done. Kicking off today is the San Sebastián Film Festival (known officially as the Festival de San Sebastián or Donostia Zinemaldia) now in its 67th year. The town of San Sebastian is located on the northern coast of Spain, in Basque Country, not too far from the French border and not too far from the city Bilboa. There's a stunning curved beach that runs through the center of town, crowded with many people enjoying the sand and waves while it's still warm. The festival's logo is a sea shell, of course, along with the top prize being the Golden Shell - which couldn't be more fitting. I'm just here to keep watching more films.
Ever since moving to Europe, I've heard many of my colleagues mention this festival. After going to both the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals last year back-to-back, it was just too rough, so this year I decided to try something different. After finishing up Venice in early September, instead of going to Toronto, I went back home for a few weeks then flew down to San Sebastian in Spain to catch more films here. So that's what I'm doing this year - trying out San Sebastian for my first time and stopping by this lovely festival on the beach. It's a bit different than Cannes (also on the beach) but still has the same glamour and glory as that festival. They're both all about the red carpet, but they both have exceptional films from all over the world. Many of the heavy-hitters at San Sebastian this year are the best films from other fests: Parasite, Les Miserables, The Lighthouse, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sorry We Missed You, The Laundromat, and more.
The opening film at the festival is Blackbird, directed by Roger Michell. This family drama is a remake of a Danish film titled Silent Heart, which also premiered at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 2014. I haven't seen the original, but this new one didn't really impress me much. It's intensely melodramatic, about a family gathering one last time before the mother's euthanasia. However, this film feels way too much like a stage play not enough like a film. It also tries way too hard to evoke and pull out emotions rather than be genuine, rather than earn them. It's alright but not that memorable. Though I will say I adore Sam Neill and it made me happy to see him in this. He also made an appearance at the festival with the director to introduce the film. Over the next 7 days, I'm looking forward to catching up with films including Proxima, Weathering With You, The Moneychanger, The Sharks, and whatever else might grab my attention.
Anyone that has been following this site for a while knows that I absolutely love film festivals. I'm addicted to them, I can't help going back to them and exploring more of them year after year. And I'm always looking forward to discovering new festivals, going to different ones than the usual four big ones (Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice/Telluride) each year. I'm honored and I'm very lucky to find myself in San Sebastian, it's not exactly the easiest place to get to (fly into Bilbao, then take the bus over). I'm excited to be here and excited to explore a new festival and excited to see more films, and to hopefully discover something worth raving about. Nothing like the first time. And if you've never heard of this festival before, now you have. It's worth keeping an eye on, and maybe visiting one day if you're looking for a warm, friendly film festival experience.
As usual, you can follow my updates from SSIFF directly on Twitter @firstshowing while I'm here. I'll be posting reviews and other notes about my experiences on the site. You can also find my photos on Instagram @abillington. I also now list all the films I watch (every single one) on my Letterboxd @firstshowing, if you want more thoughts on what I'm seeing. And now - to get some sleep before the first morning screening.