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This year’s San Sebastian Film Festival is notable for able Australians and absent Americans, reports Australian journalist Helen Barlow from the gorgeous seaside town in Northern Spain.

After Christina Andreef's Soft Fruit took out the main prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival two years ago, the Festival has attracted more Australian films, vying for its prizes. This year Ray Lawrence's Lantana is part of the competition, while Robert Connolly's The Bank is in the Open Zone new directors' section which offers a lucrative prize for Best first film.

He looks forward to being mobbed

The Bank comes to San Sebastian hot on the heels of its Australian success, and hot on the heels of its wildly enthusiastic reception at the Toronto Festival; it has also been invited to the London Film festival. Connolly (who previously produced The Boys) calls it an anti-bank movie and he was relieved to discover that Canadians were feeling exactly the same disenchantment with their financial institutions. The international film buyers in Toronto, he says, were so eager to see, and hopefully buy the movie, that a second screening had to be arranged.

"I hoped at first it wasn't too sugar coated," Connolly says of his unashamedly commercial movie, which nonetheless has something to say. "The response in Toronto has exceeded all my expectations." The film features strong dramatic performances from Anthony LaPaglia and David Wenham – the blond Ozzie is one of the few handsome actors attending the San Sebastian event. He looks forward to being mobbed.

Baz Lurhmann may get here, too, to launch Moulin Rouge, in which Wenham also stars. The Oztravaganza should go down well in a country that adores wild, transvestive Almodovar-style parties.

Fred Schepisi's British film, Last Orders, starring Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings and Ray Winstone (fabulous in Sexy Beast) comes to San Sebastian with enthusiastic word-of-mouth. It tells of a group of London friends who attempt to carry out the last orders of their recently deceased buddy. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Britain, maybe?

career tribute

Unfortunately none of these geezers will be at the Fest, and the reverberations of the bombings of New York's World Trade Centre can still be felt in the northern Spanish seaside town, as the American actors who had once promised their presence have found they cannot attend Spain's premiere film event. Understandably, Glenn Close has family business in New York, Julie Andrews, who was to receive a special tribute, has cancelled, even if she will still receive the award, while Mira Sorvino, Barbara Hershey and the American-based Australian, Anthony LaPaglia (in both of the Australian movies) are not coming either. Francisco Rabal, who is to receive a career tribute together with Andrews, recently passed away.

It's not as if this smaller event on the world film calendar can attract famous American actors in any case. So this year audiences and critics will have to content themselves with an array of above-standard films. The films will make up for what the Festival lacks in star power, and instead of chasing those elusive celebrity interviews, journalists can compensate by
munching on delicious morsels of tapas.

In its 49th year, the San Sebastian Festival opened last night (Sept 21) with The Safety Of Objects directed by Rose Troche (Go Fish, Bedrooms and Hallways), starring Glenn Close. At the Festival's first press conference Troche apologised for her colleagues' absence and spoke of the New York events.

"This is a very big issue: I think the face of film, the face of art, that everything will change after this point in the United States. It's a huge deal what happened and I live in New York. To experience on a daily basis that fear, it's a thing which the rest of the world has already experienced, and there's probably a need for us to experience the same thing. Glenn Close had every intention of being here, Christine Vachon [the film's producer from Killer Films] was going to be here, but all of those people have children. They're not getting on a flight to go some place where there's a risk involved. It's one of the first times we as Americans truly feel a hatred against us. We've always sort of known that people hate us, but this is much bigger now. It's no longer a secret anymore."

The Safety of Objects, while still personal in its angst ridden suburban themes, was a new challenge for Troche because of the larger cast which encompasses all ages. It's not all about sex and gender. "My desire as a filmmaker is not to do the same film over and over, and yet this film talks just as much about things that I'm completely involved with in my life. Certainly daily activities are as important to me as anything else I've made movies about."

competition highlights

The Festival, which runs through till September 29, closes with Carlos Saura's highly anticipated Bunuel Y La Mesa Del Rey Salomon, which depicts the Spanish film-maker still alive in the 21st century and making a movie about the search for King Solomon's table, a magic object containing the future of humanity.

The Festival jury is headed by French director Claude Chabrol and competition highlights include: the highly cinematic Warriors, the discovery of the Edinburgh Film Festival, directed by Anglo-Indian Asif Kapadia, which is described as an epic voyage through the deserts of Rajasthan to the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas; the fantasy adventure Magonia, the most touted Dutch film in some time, directed by Ineke Smits; the historical epic, The Grey Zone, starring Mira Sorvino and directed by Tim Blake Nelson-best known as the actor who stole O, Brother Where Art Thou from George Clooney and John Turturro; and then of course there's Lantana, which stars Geoffrey Rush and a mysterious Barbara Hershey as a woman who disappears. Lantana's director Ray Lawrence and producer Jan Chapman will attend the Festival.

Frequent visitor to the San Sebastian event, Mike Figgis, will present his latest movie, Hotel, where he continues to experiment with the split screen, a technique he developed in his previous Timecode 2000. As part of the Julie Andrews tribute, there will be a screening of the US hit, The Princess Diaries, (already bound for a sequel) in which a frumpy schoolgirl discovers she is mid European royalty.

bound to be next year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film

The Open Zone section premieres with Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie of Montmartre, the French mega-hit that is bound to be next year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. After its huge success in France, the film took out the main prizes at the Edinburgh and Toronto festivals, which only put to shame the Cannes Festival which originally refused the film.

The Open Zone also features the Spanish sci-fi thriller, Stranded, directed by Maria Lidon from Spain and starring Lidon as well as Portugal's Joaquim de Almeida and Maria de Madeiros - it also features America's perennial eccentric, Vincent Gallo. If that combination seems interesting the film's premise only adds to the unusual mix. It tells of the first manned mission to Mars which crashes and then the five survivors must decide which two amongst them can live. Jafar Panahi's The Circle, as winner of the FIPRESCI (international critics) Grand Prix, will also be screened. The Festival will also host retrospectives of the films by Georgian-born Otar Iosseliani, who has lived in France since 1982, and US film-maker Frank Borsage, who specialised in making screen romances (most famously A Farewell to Arms with Gary Cooper) between 1915 and 1961.

Spanish-language cinema is in fine form this year, with the Festival presenting 25 Spanish and 8 Latin American features in its Made in Spanish section. Possibly most anticipated is Y Tu Mama Tambien, from Alfonso Cuarón, who truly shows his diversity as he returns to his Mexican roots after directing A Little Princess and Great Expectations starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Likewise Guillermo de Toro, who recently completed Blade 2 with Wesley Snipes, presents The Devil's Backbone, fresh from its success in Edinburgh and at London's burgeoning Frightfest. The Spanish Trueba brothers have films too: Fernando Trueba with Calle 54, David Trueba with Maestra, while the ever-eccentric Bigas Luna will present his latest movie, Mar.

Published 27/9/2001

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Last Orders

Julie Andrews; a special tribute

Glenn Close in Safety of Objects

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