The Year of Women

in 71st San Sebastian Film Festival

by Thomas Abeltshauser

A Illa de Arousa is an island in a saline estuary of Galicia in northwestern Spain. In the early 1970s, life is dominated by fishing and farming, far away from the mainland, which is not yet connected by a bridge as it is today. To get away, Maria needs a boat. She is the village midwife, supporting women with stoic patience to deliver their babies at home; there is no doctor. At the same time, she discreetly helps with unwanted pregnancies, is the last resort at a time when abortions are forbidden and a social taboo in Spain, which is dominated by the Franco regime and the Catholic Church. When a desperate schoolgirl turns to her, she initially hesitates to brew her the potion with which the risky abortion is induced. A short time later, the girl dies from the complications of the procedure and Maria comes under suspicion. She is forced to flee to neighbouring Portugal, and on her way she repeatedly finds help from other women on the fringes of society, such as a tavern owner and an African prostitute.

In her second feature film The Rye Horn (O Corno), director Jaione Camborda tells the story of this woman who is forced to flee in order to save her life and her freedom. With this film, the 40-year-old Basque was awarded the Golden Shell at the film festival in San Sebastián. Camborda, who studied film in Prague and Munich, is the first Spanish director in festival history to receive the main prize in the International Competition. Her drama, deeply rooted in the Galician landscape and culture, is renewed proof of the vitality of contemporary Spanish cinema. And it is mainly young female directors and their very personal, regionally located films that are causing a stir internationally. Like Carla Simón’s Alcarràs about a family of peach orchard farmers in Catalonia, which won the Golden Bear at the 2022 Berlinale.

The 71st edition of San Sebastián was the year of women. The Jury Prize, chaired by French filmmaker Claire Denis, went to the intense drama Kalak by Swedish director Isabella Eklöf, which revolves around a man who was abused by his father in his youth. With his wife and young son, he has moved to a remote village in Greenland, where he takes refuge in affairs with other women to avoid facing his own trauma. The Taiwanese Tzu-Hui Peng and Ping-Wen Wang won the award for best director. Their feature film A Journey in Spring (Chung Xing), shot on 16 mm, tells the story of an old man who has relied on his wife for years and tries to suppress her sudden death. Their feature film debut is an intimate family drama that subtly negotiates gender roles in Taiwan’s society.

Other notable contributions by women directors included the animated film Sultana’s Dream (La sueño de la sultana) by San Sebastian-born artist Isabel Herguera, which won the Irizar Award for Best Basque Film. Herguera uses the 1905 fable by the Indian Rokeya Hussein about a fantasy realm ruled by women for a complex examination of feminism, women’s rights and self-realisation. And with Un amor, Isabel Coixet adapts the bestselling homonymous novel by the Spanish writer Sara Mesa as a portrait of a young translator who tries to make a new start in a village in the middle of nowhere and throws herself into an obsessive affair with a craftsman. Hovik Keuchkerian embodies this recluse as a brooding colossus who threatens to erupt at any moment, and was rightly honoured for this as Best Supporting Actor.

As at the Berlinale, the acting awards are now gender-neutral. This year they all went to men. For best performance in a leading role, ex aequo awards went to Tatsuya Fuji as a demented father in the fragmentarily staged Competition entry Great Absence by the Japanese director Kei Chikaura, and to Marcelo Subiotto as a neurotic professor in the Argentine university comedy Puan. The directing duo María Alché and Benjamín Nayshat also received the Screenplay Award for their multi-layered, humorous examination of academic structures, male vanity and the country’s socio-political problems.

Thomas Abeltshauser