Cannes is a duty for cineastes but, at San Sebastián, Spain’s premier film festival offers the movies, the stars, and the high life – without the hype
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION San Sebastián is in the Basque region, on Spain’s northern coast, 280 miles (450 km) northeast of the Spanish capital, Madrid
WHEN The festival runs for ten days from mid- to late September
VISITORS PER YEAR Over 175,000
“Oh, I don’t come here to see films.” Overheard in a bar on Cannes’ Boulevard de la Croisette, this throwaway line sums up the frustrations of the world’s number one festival for the true cineaste.
Cannes is full of people who are here to buy, to sell, to schmooze, to party; sometimes one gets the distinct impression that the films screening in and out of competition are just a sideshow.
San Sebastián, on the other hand, is very much a movie buff’s festival. It may not have the number of weighty world premieres offered by its French cousin, but it has a good eye for new directors – many of them Spanish or Latin American – and has developed strong links with Scandinavian and Asian filmmakers over the past few years. It also has great retrospectives, with recent subjects ranging from Japanese noir to director Terence Davies, to films dealing with migration.
Crucially, there’s time to see such classics, as this is a much more laid-back festival than manic, sleep-deprived Cannes. It’s also more democratic: in San Sebastián, with a little forward planning, you can buy tickets for any movie on the schedule, whereas in Cannes, only films in the parallel Quinzaine section and Cinéma de la Plage beach screenings are accessible to the general public.
The Spanish festival, which runs for nine days at the end of September, is not without its glamorous side, either. Talent attending the 2008 event included Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, Woody Allen, Javier Bardem, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr.,
and John Malkovich – and San Sebastián manages a similar roster most years, regularly outpunching other European festivals such as Rotterdam or Locarno. Even better, because things are on a more human scale here, and everyone tends to stay in the same hotels, you’re much more likely to find yourself elbow to elbow with Penélope Cruz at the bar than you ever would in Cannes.
The festival’s relaxed schedule also allows time to explore San Sebastián (Donostia in the local Euskara language) itself. It’s an elegant, hedonistic, and good-looking seaside resort with a vibrant eating and drinking scene, mostly concentrated in the old town. The walk from the Kursaal Center (the futuristic skewed cube that is the festival hub) to the belle époque Cinema Principal, where many press screenings take place, should take 5 minutes but the gauntlet of tempting pintxos (the Basque version of tapas) bars on the way can turn it into an hour-long gourmet ramble.
There’s no denying that Cannes is the world’s most important film festival. Founded in 1946 as a small event on France’s beautiful Côte d’Azur, it has grown to become a glamorous 10-day celebration of film, with everybody who’s anybody in the industry in attendance, and a solid program of world premieres in the official selection.
All-singing, all-dancing Cannes sometimes gets all too much to bear. Brash and cynical, the marketing and fashionista side of the festival can torpedo its claims to art. And the pressure of numbers is such that getting into screenings – or even just securing a table in a restaurant – is a major feat.
If you’re still set on Cannes, plan your visit like a military campaign. Hotel rooms need to be booked at least six months in advance and, if you’re planning to see any competition films, you’ll need to apply for accreditation – the general public are not admitted to most of the festival’s screenings.
4 MORE FILM FESTIVALS TO RIVAL CANNES
Berlin is not the warmest place in February, but this festival generates plenty of energy with an eclectic mix of low-budget world cinema and quality commercial films.
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL
Opening the fall awards season at the beginning of September, Venice has given Cannes a run for its money in recent years, with world premieres of Oscar contenders such as Brokeback Mountain and The Queen.
FILM FESTIVAL LOCARNO
This Swiss festival, held in August, is perhaps the closest to San Sebastián in its mix of great setting, small-but-interesting competition line-up, and enthusiastic local participation. The open-air gala screenings are justly famous.
MOTOVUN FILM FESTIVAL
Of Europe’s scattering of “village film festivals,” this one, held each July in a pretty Croatian hill town, is among the most enjoyable. Intelligent indie programming and a loyal following of tent-dwelling young film fans has led to it being called “a cross between Glastonbury and Sundance.”
Getting There and Around
San Sebastián’s small airport, 10 miles (16 km) east of town, is served by internal flights from Madrid and Barcelona. The closest international and low- cost hub is Bilbao, 65 miles (105 km) west. Central San Sebastián is easily explored on foot, but there is also an efficient local bus network.
Where to Eat
San Sebastián is one of Spain’s top gastronomic centers. Even bar snacks, or pintxos, tend to be bite-sized gourmet treats. The town has its fair share of award- winning restaurants but, to sample creative Basque cuisine without breaking the bank, head for Bodegón Alejandro in the old town, the most affordable of celebrity chef Martín Berasategui’s group of superb restaurants.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Londres is a beautiful belle époque building facing the main La Concha beach. Rooms are spacious, classic, and comfortable.
Daytime Temperature 66°F (19°C) in September, when the festival takes place.
Budget per Day for Two
Allow US$300 for accommodations, meals, and tickets for screenings.