San Sebastian Film Festival 2015 – Rural Icelandic Drama Takes the Top Prize

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San Sebastian Film Festival may not be as high on the A list of film festivals as Cannes is, but its vast city centre beaches beat Cannes' into a cocked hat. It's only normal then that their prizes are called shells, or Concha, as in seashells, in shades of gold for best film and three silver for runner up categories.

This year's gold, the Concha de Oro, went to Sparrows, written and directed by Runar Runarsson. Sparrows is an intricate coming of age story that takes place in rural Iceland. 16-year-old Ari is shunted to remote Westfjords from Reykjavik by his mother. She's off to save Africa, and he now has to contend with his dead-beat dad, country life and sexual awakenings in a place where there's not much to do. So far, so thematically predictable, but, by all accounts, the quality of the filmmaking and its narrative finesse turned it to gold in Donostia (the Basque name for the town). It's worth observing for a country as small as Iceland that this is the second rural drama with zoological title to get a major award this year. Rams took the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes 2015.

Silver Shell for Best Director went to Belgian Joachim Lafosse for Les Chevaliers Blancs (The White Knights). This Franco-Belgian coproduction is loosely based on the real renegade humanitarian operation called Zoe's Ark that hit the news in 2007. In the film, a group of medical, teaching and other volunteers go to Chad to bring to France 300 orphans for adoption. The impulsive leader of the group is played by Cannes 2015 actor winner Vincent Lindon. They find themselves breaking all the rules, be they moral, legal or simply of good sense, venturing into battle zones and fudging the fact that some of the kids are not actually orphans. By the end it is hard to have sympathy with any of these well-intentioned idiots. Still, the tale is compelling and worth telling, echoing as it does in some small way our present difficulty in comprehending the current refugee crisis.

Though the official programme is genuinely eclectic, San Sebastian's niche specialty is of course Hispanic cinema, an opportunity for Latin America to bring its movies to Europe via the Spanish mother ship. Coproduction meetings and pitches are organised by Creative Europe, works in progress are screened for professionals, and prizes for the best and most promising projects in both categories are handed out at a special ceremony.

Two diametrically opposed Spanish films captured attention, both of them ideal festival fare for quite different reasons. In competition, Imanol Uribe's Lejos del Mar (Far from the Sea) is a darkly philosophical drama involving Santi, a Basque separatist, who is released from prison after serving a lengthy sentence for the murder of a police officer. He moves to Valencia in the south to hook up with a younger prison colleague who is dying of a lingering disease. As chance would have it, he meets Marina, his friend's doctor who it turns out was the eight-year-old daughter that witnessed the murder of her police officer father, an event which has, like for Santi, defined her life ever since. She gets a gun...Very worthy and quite grim, like many, if not most, films found on the festival circuit.

So it is often with relief that we get a film like Isla Bonita, a cinematic sitcom that starts off in a light-hearted Rohmer-ish way, where conversations takes the place of concise dialogue and characters intellectualise about such heady subjects as whether commercials can also be art. We arrive on the sunny island of Menorca with our bespectacled Woody Allen-like hero, Fer, a burned out commercials director who is turning his hand to documentary film. He's come to shoot interview footage and visit his old ad industry buddy, Miguel Angel, who introduces him to an odd mix of ordinary people, all with their own issues. Between shopping, sculpture and Spanish cuisine, people fall in and out of love in this microcosm of savoury seaside banality. The loose script tightens like a feisty operetta as the Woody Allen style ("the funny ones") confirms itself while tossing in a delicious twist of Almodovarian gender politics towards the end. Great art? Probably not. Good fun. Ciertamente.

Séamas McSwiney has decades of experience in film journalism, and work published in top international publications. Read more of his posts here.

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