Championing Basque Cinema

in 63rd San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Amber Wilkinson

While part of the duty of a film festival – particularly the larger international players – is to bring the world’s cinema to their country’s doorstep, the good ones also provide a fertile breeding ground for home-grown films by turning the spotlight on them. In this pursuit, San Sebastian Film Festival pulls double duty, celebrating the best of Spanish film – epitomised by the inclusion of many Spanish directors across the programme and their county-specific Made In Spain strand – and, more importantly for the region, Zinemira, a section dedicated to Basque language film.

Historically, under the regime of General Franco, the Basques – like the Catalans and Galicians – suffered a repression of their language. Since the dictator’s death in 1975, there has been a concerted effort to reinvest in these languages and film has been crucial as a medium for articulating and celebrating the unique cultural identity of Spain’s various regions.

And, just as San Sebastian has been slowly building towards its European Capital of Culture status in 2016, the films from its environs have been gradually growing in prominece. The Zinemira section of the festival – which had previously held a Basque Cinema Day – was inaugurated in 2009, along with a specific Zinemira Award for a prominent Basque movie personality. This year, the honour was bestowed on make-up artist Karmele Soler, who was born in the city, and who has worked on films as diverse Iciar Bollain’s Even The Rain (También la lluvia), Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her (Hable con ella) and Daniel Sánchez Arévalo’s Dark Blue Almost Black (Azuloscurocasinegro) as well as Basque language movies including Ana Díez’s Ander And Yul (Ander eta Yul).

Last year another milestone was reached when the melancholic and moving Basque language drama Flowers (Loreak) vyed for the Official Competition’s Golden Shell. The film, directed by Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga – who were both born in the Basque region and whose previous film For 80 Days featured in Zinemira – has gone on to travel the festival circuit and become the first Basque film to be nominated best film at the Goya Awards and the first in the language to be selected to represent Spain at the Oscars.

Proving the breakout wasn’t just a one-off, Asier Altuna’s even more melancholic Grandma (Amama) was included in the Official Competition this year. While the film occasionally flirts with pretension and takes a while to find its voice, its inclusion was clearly based on its artistry rather than being an act of mere tokenism. Altuna’s drama is steeped in the Basque region and features its evocative landscapes as the backdrop for a story of a family struggling with traditions. The grandma of the title represents generations of history with the film beginning with a rather lengthy digression into how land is passed along. When the eldest son (Manu Uranga) has his fill of being filial, it falls to middle daughter (Iraia Elias) to help on the home front. She is soon set for confrontation with her father and the rest of the film – using the generations as examples of type as much as characters in their own right – examines the tension of change.

Although wedded to the woods and fields of the area, Altuna takes an experimental and abstract approach to his ideas, recalling the similarly familial-oriented 2010 film Father (Aita), directed José María de Orbe. He draws on the primitive, both in terms of landscape and, later, in a moving funeral scene, sound, in order to garner emotional impact.

Not all Basque films gaze inwards, of course, with the likes of Jorge Fernández Mayoral, Pablo Tosco and Pablo Iraburu Allegue’s District Zero, which is set in a Jordanian refugee camp. Nor are they directed only by locals, with Edinburgh-based Ben Sharrock’s Basque romantic dramedy Pikadero – which competed in the New Directors section of the festival – showing that the culture and language have plenty of appeal for outsiders too.

The festival and the Basque region are certainly looking outwards, a stance underlined by the launch of a ‘Glocal cinemas, big stories, small countries’ manifesto at this year’s edition, signed by representatives of institutions in 15 countries and regions, with the aim of championing films away from the dominant languages.

Part of their statement reads: “We would like to reinforce the value of another cultural map of Europe, with the existence of filmographies in languages other than the louder European languages, and the need of public support to those filmographies.”

And so, the cinematic fight to make room for more voices – and the cultures they represent – continues, with San Sebastian forming part of the vanguard.

Amber Wilkinson