San Sebastian Stories: Movie Stars in Make Their Own Beds Shock

By Matheou, Demetrios | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), September 28, 2003 | Go to article overview
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San Sebastian Stories: Movie Stars in Make Their Own Beds Shock


Matheou, Demetrios, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


Much as they need cinemas and screening rooms and red carpets, international film festivals really do depend on hotels. In Cannes, Berlin and Venice, the hotel is the hub of activity, the place where directors and producers, actors and journalists meet, drink and network. Thus it was a bit of a shock when I walked into the Maria Cristina on the opening day of the San Sebastian Film Festival, and found it completely empty. There wasn't a soul around. The usually packed bar was closed. It was a festival-goers' version of the Marie Celeste.

Back in the bright sunshine of northern Spain, I discovered why: the staff of the hotel, an elegant belle epoque building on the edge of the Rio Urumea, which bisects this city, had chosen one of the busiest times in the city's calendar to go on strike. For a day or two there was panic. Rumours were rife of film stars having to change their own sheets themselves and do without room service. How on earth were we going to cope?

In fact the festival has coped very well indeed. The strike and its eventual anti-climax, has spoken volumes about the location of one of the world's most laidback and enjoyable film events. San Sebastian has been a popular resort since the middle of the 18th century, when Queen Isabel II came here to recover from a skin complaint. The old city is draped around a bay and the Playa de la Concha, one of more beautiful beaches in Spain. From Monte Urgell, on the peninsular, a huge statue of Jesus looks over the city and at night gives off a glow matched by that of the startlingly modern opaque box, the Kursall, which houses the festival.

It is a prosperous and conservative city. A local friend summed it up when she recalled her father's old complaint, that "getting laid in San Sebastian is not a sin, it's a miracle". But like Cannes, another sleepy, coastal venue, the city wakes up in a big way for its special events - the Carnival during the winter, a popular jazz festival and the film festival.

This is an event aimed not at critics but at the Spanish public, and is at its best when showing Spanish and Latin American films, and retrospectives. Film-makers such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Harvey Keitel and Sean Penn come here and are seduced by the place. Indeed Penn, who received a life achievement award, was prompted to comment that "it's an incredibly civilised place to see films.

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