The San Sebastian Film Festival came into being through the initiative of a group of well-known local figures from the world of culture and, above all, tradesmen and people from the catering industry with the aim of prolonging the summer season until well into September.
The festival started out as just another film week, and then little by little, it began to gain prestige until attaining the highly prized category ?A? classification, a privilege which until then could only be boasted by Venice, Cannes, and Berlin. After that, the San Sebastian festival experienced a golden age. All the great celebrities walked down its red carpet and descended the majestic staircase of the Victoria Eugenia theatre. Then, unexpectedly, the Festival then went into decline, even losing its ?A? classification. The public and the big film names turned their backs on it. Only thanks to the determination and efforts of Pilar Olazcoaga, heart and soul of the festival for many years, Diego Galán, director of the film gathering from 1986 to 1989 and 1995 to 2000, and Pilar Miró
, at the Spanish Ministry of Culture, did the event regain its ?A? category and the past glory it still retains today. The main festival venues are the Victoria Eugenia Theatre
and the Kursaal
complex where the in-competition films are shown and some parallel events held.
Mel Gibson in the Maria Cristina
The Donostiarra contest, in addition to the films in competition, sections, retrospective cycles and important guests, is supported by two other pillars, namely accommodation and gastronomy, with two top class hotels, several five-star restaurants, and a great many excellent taverns, sidrerías (cider bars) and casas de comidas.
The María Cristina is a splendid belle époque hotel in which members of the Spanish aristocracy and nobility used to spend the summer. Showing signs of neglect a few years ago, it was renovated and modernised and is now a top-quality international establishment. During the festival the stars and directors of the in-competition films stay here. In the corridors, lounges and bars everyone who is anyone, or wants to be someone in the world of film meet up, drink, gossip, and tear each other to shreds. Its terraces are always full of TV cameras interviewing any available VIPs. At the doors to the building, dozens of paparazzi and autograph hunters gather and in its immense lounges cocktail parties and receptions are held, which fans try to gatecrash.
The other big festival hotel is the Londres, with a great location on the fantastic La Concha Beach. Here the filmmakers participating in the parallel sections and other people connected with the festival lodge.
Hitchcook in the Victoria Eugenia
The Victoria Eugenia theatre
, the official main venue of the competition since its inauguration, is a marvellous building, dating from the same period as the María Cristina hotel. All the most important figures from the film world have paraded down its staircase, from Alfred Hitchcock, who asked to visit a cemetery, to Pedro Almodóvar, not forgetting divas like Elizabeth Taylor and Bette Davis, to name but two film legends of the intervening years.
Miss Taylor?s visit was controversial: she was to open that year?s festival with her presence on stage and arrived at the event an hour late. The door of the María Cristina hotel and the entire route to the Victoria Eugenia theatre, about 200 metres, were blocked by hundreds of her admirers, waiting patiently to get a glimpse of the legendary beauty. Despite her bodyguards, she arrived in the entrance hall of the theatre only with great difficulty. Hordes of photographers were waiting, for whom she posed for a considerable time. When she arrived on the stage, the audience, tired of waiting and suffering in the intense heat, threatened to greet her by booing, which turned into a warm round of applause when Miss Taylor smiled at them and, with her special charm, said in a near-whisper, ?Excuse me.?
Later on, a dinner was held at the town hall. Two days previously, Franco had scheduled a visit to the city, but this was cancelled at the last minute. The catering, including a lavish buffet, was all prepared and ready to be consumed. Rumour has it that this feast was preserved, and finally served, somewhat dried up and wilted, at the inauguration dinner in
Elizabeth Taylor?s honour.
Hopkins, Banderas y Zeta- Jones
Bette Davis? presence and stay at San Sebastian was marked by death, as Miss Davis was terminally ill, consumed with cancer when she arrived. She stayed in her room, preparing for the gala evening on which she would be presented with the Donostia Prize. That night, fabulously dressed, with perfect hair and makeup, supporting herself on a lectern, she made her last public appearance, with an illusion of strength she no longer possessed, like the great professional she always was. The immortal diva gave the audience what they were expecting; she smoked with her usual panache, told stories, showed off her indomitable character and bewitched the hundreds of people who applauded constantly. Leaving San Sebastian, Miss Davis continued to Paris in a private plane, was admitted to a clinic and died shortly afterwards.
There are hundreds of strange stories and anecdotes about San Sebastian. Victoria Abril once borrowed a pair of cushions from the María Cristina Hotel, which she was obliged to return a few days later. At a gala dinner Helmut Berger brazenly touched up Pilar Miró, a scene ensued, and the actor was asked to leave. On another occasion Fernando Trueba, annoyed by a critical remark made by Diego Galán about one of his films, waited for the journalist at the hotel door and emptied a bucket of cold water over him when he came out.
Orson Wells and Fernando Rey
We cannot neglect mentioning four world-class gastronomic temples, the Arzak
, Martín Berasategui
and Nicolasa restaurants
, where all the famous and non-famous people who love good food lunch and dine. Other ?must-dos? are visiting the picturesque old town and trying the famous pinchos donostiarras (San Sebastian-style hors d?oevres) in its many taverns, and having lunch looking out at the sea at one of the simple port restaurants. After dark the nocturnal festival-goers flirt, dance, and drink till dawn in the clubs overlooking La Concha Beach
, forgetting their film careers for a few brief hours.
For all these reasons, going to a San Sebastian festival is a pilgrimage that not only film lovers but everyone should make, because it really is a unique and unforgettable experience.