San Sebastian Film Festival 2015: Charlie Kaufman Masterclass

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A highlight for many at this year's San Sebastian-Donostia film festival was the presence of screenwriting ace Charlie Kaufman who notably wrote such idiosyncratic gems as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

More recently he's forayed into direction and carried his originality a stage further. Synecdoche, New York, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, was his first directorial outing, which garnered more respect than acclaim. He then went on to write an experimental theatre piece called Anomalisa, now turned into a feature film that, after its Venice and Telluride screenings last month, has thus far maintained a 100% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Anomalisa is an odd, dark, dredging of the human soul. That it should do this with such probingly uncomfortable insight - and be made in stop-motion animation - is testimony to Kaufman and to animation specialist Duke Johnson, who co-directed. In the San Sebastian catalogue, Anomalisa is simply described in one sentence (in Basque, Spanish and English): "A man struggles with his inability to connect with others". This belies the fact that our hero is a British inspirational speaker in Cincinnati to give a talk to about his book to adoring fans.

Kaufman and Johnson were also in San Sebastian to give a masterclass to the International Film Student Meeting that takes place over four days every year at the festival. Happily Kaufman's shyness and penchant for self-deprecation did not get in the way of his excellent ability to communicate with others. Polite, insightful, frank and sincere, he recounted his career, from the desert years after film school, including the nagging desire to abandon it all, on to the lucky breaks writing for television, and answering questions from a rapt audience of film student's from all over Europe and farther. He talks as good a show as he writes. He is inspirational.

He and Johnson also got into the nitty-gritty of producing Anomalisa, starting with a crowd-funding campaign before persuading private capital to invest, thus escaping the interference of studio and industry funding.

The 14th International Film Students Meeting of course also included a film competition, with a total of 193 applications, and short films from 89 schools in 35 countries. A jury consisting of students from centres in Argentina, Belgium, Cuba, Germany, Israel, Mexico, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and United Kingdom; chaired by Benedikt Erlingsson, gave the first prize, the Panavision award, to Nueva Vida, by Kiro Russo from Universidad del Cine (Argentina).

Other prizes were awarded to student films from Cuba, Germany and the Netherlands (see the full list here), but the real prizes went to the diverse attendees who got to meet kindred spirits from around the world.

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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