Travels with Preston Sturges, Michael Winterbottom and Through the Maghreb

in 51st San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Peter Hornung

Most colleagues probably come to San Sebastián for the competition films, more probably to see a lot more films in Spanish than they could anywhere else. And some may even come for the beach and the sun. Well, there wasn’t so much sun this year, for which I don’t care, because I, so I must confess, have been coming here for ten years now because of the retrospectives.

I don’t know any other festival that provides so many look backs (and sometimes even forwards) to the works of individual directors, or countries, or give an overview of a genre. In the ten last years at least there have always been three retrospectives. One on a long-dead director of classic status (which sometimes was only established by this retrospective), mostly from Hollywood – John M. Stahl, Gregory La Cava, Mitchell Leisen, Tod Browning, William Dieterle -, but also from Britain (Carol Reed, Michael Powell) and even from Japan (Mikio Naruse). These retrospectives – complete, or at least very comprehensive – gave new insight into the works of these directors. This years’ classic director was Preston Sturges, for a few years the most successful and most highly paid writer/director in Hollywood. His films are still hilariously funny, nothing in competition or Zabaltegi could compare with “Sullivan’s Travels”, Sturges’ “8 and a Half”, where a successful Hollywood director of comedies wants to become serious by living for a while like a tramp among tramps. This of course leads to tragedy, the director gets beaten up, almost killed and worst of all put in jail (in a chain gang) for his own murder. But there he learns by watching a Disney cartoon along with his fellow prisoners that comedy is as essential to the human mind as earnestness. Few movies have ever summed up this basic knowledge about how film works emotionally rather than intellectually, although Sturges was one of the most intellectual of Hollywood directors.

The second retrospective usually shows us the work of a contemporary director, one who already did some important work but probably will still go a long way. In the last years we could see most of the work of Volker Schloendorff, Bertrand Tavernier, Otar Iosseliani or Bernardo Bertolucci. Michael Winterbottom who was chosen this year is probably the youngest ever chosen for this retrospective. He’s just a little over forty and has, since he emerged as a film director only a few years ago with Butterfly Kiss, delivered an enormous output of very different films from literary adaptations like “Jude” and “The Claim” to contemporary problem pictures like “Welcome to Sarajevo” and “In this World” or films about intimate relationships either as tragedies (“I Want You”) or comedies (“With or Without You”). The most interesting part of this retrospective were his early films for TV (for instance the pilot for “Cracker”), which were mostly unseen outside of his native Britain.

The third retrospective is normally about a country or a genre (or both like a few years ago the season of Italian comedies). This year the retrospectives was aptly titled Our Friends and Neighbours, it was about the cinema in the three Maghreb-States: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco which are very close to Spain (the Moroccan coast is only a few miles from Spain) but which remain for cultural and political reasons to many as strange as East Asia. So this was a very welcome opportunity to see some of the best work done in the last 30 years from films made before the rise of Islam (Merzak Allouache’s “Omar Gatlato” from 1976, which just shows carefree youths who rebel against the world of their parents, who still talk about their successful revolution against the French, like in any other country. Other films show the harsh reality of societies which look still medieval to outsiders, like “Badis”, a Moroccan-Spanish coproduction (directed by Mohamed Abderrahman Tazi), which is set in 1974, when Franco still ruled Spain, on a little island divided by Morocco and Spain. The presence of the strangers makes two Arab women try to escape their daily suppression by their husbands by fleeing to Spain. But they are captured and literally stoned to death. Most of these films were French co-productions, but they show a great variety of themes and styles, made in countries where censorship still exists. So a film like “Rachida” which denounces Islamic terrorism by showing a courageous victim of a murder attempt is not only important for Algeria alone but for any country or situation where human rights are in danger.