Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Donostia/San Sebastian Film Festival, Spain
19th - 28th September 2002
Report on the Festival: by Steve Crook
I was first contacted by Alfonso C. López who told me that they were planning a Michael Powell retrospective at the Donostia/San Sebastian Film Festival, Spain in September 2002. He wanted some help in getting clearance to screen the films and some other background information, which I willingly supplied. When he told me that they were planning on showing over 40 films by Michael Powell I knew that I just had to attend.
Alfonso had given me the full timetable of all the films that they planned to show and I saw that it included some that I'd never seen before. I'd missed Something Always Happens (1934) and Her Last Affaire (1936) when they were shown at the NFT in March 2000. I had also never seen The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1955) or The Queen's Guards (1961).
Then I heard from Charles Doble that he was working on a full restoration of Luna de Miel (1959) and planned to show it at the festival along with a nice new print of Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955). Charles also told me that Ludmilla Tchérina and Rosita Segovia were expected to attend (but that I wasn't to tell anyone). That settled it, I was definitely going!
But the fates sometimes try to conspire against us. I was just beginning to get everything sorted out, looking for accommodation in San Sebastian, getting a new passport (it had been a while since I'd been abroad, my old passport had expired in 1988) etc. Then my appendix burst!!
I was laid up in hospital for a couple of weeks while the poisons cleared from my bloodstream and then had to convalesce at home, getting the unstitched wound dressed every day. But I was determined to go. I showed the doctors I could dress the wound myself (half of one of my bags was filled with medical dressings, iodine, tape etc) and rushed around to get my passport, flight & accommodation sorted out.
So on Wednesday, September 18th 2002 I headed to Heathrow to board the Iberia flight to Bilbao. The computers were down at the Ibria check in desks and they had to check us in by hand, which added to the confusion, but everyone managed. We boarded the plane and were then told there would be a 25 min delay due to some other computer problems.
The plane coughed and spluttered its way into the air. By now it was getting dark and as we turned and climbed I could see the lights of Kingston upon Thames where I had been the day before buying all the things I would need for the trip. I settled down to read my book (The Small Back Room) and I happened to glance out of the window at one point to see through a gap in the clouds that we were crossing the coast - over Chesil Bank (the location of the bomb disposal scene in the film of SBR). A good omen :)
During the flight I struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me. He asked if I was going on holiday so I told him I was going to the festival. He said that he lives in San Sebastian and offered me a lift from Bilbao. What a nice man, Javier Eguren. We landed at Bilbao and picked up our luggage quite quickly. Because of the delays at Heathrow it was now dark as we drove to San Sebastian. Javier is a Basque and he was telling me about the area (very hilly & lush green) and we spoke about many other things from the films I was to see via mobile phone technologies to life in general.
Javier dropped me off at the Hotel Codina in San Sebastian where I was to stay. It was now about 11pm so I just checked in & settled down for the night.
One thing I thought might be a problem was that I didn't have a word of Spanish so I had brought along a Spanish/English dictionary. San Sebastian is a nice town on the coast, a fishing port in a big bay. Although they get some tourists there it is nowhere near as "touristy" as the resorts in the South. So I couldn't expect everyone to speak English - and they didn't. But by using the few words of Spanish I had picked up, the few words of English that most of them had plus lots of gestures, pointing, smiling and a few references to the dictionary, we managed very well. The people at the reception at the hotel and the main information centres at the festival had very good English so that was no trouble.
On the morning of the 19th I showered and dressed my appendix wound (as I had to every day) I had breakfast and then caught the bus into the centre of San Sebastian. As I said, it's on a bay and the hotel I was at (booked at the last minute) was around the other side of the bay from the town centre & the main festival sites. I went into the main Kursaal Center which where the main offices for the festival were (as well as the main theatres) and got my press pass. This had been organised for me by Alfonso, for which I thank him. As well as meaning I could see all the films for free (they only charged 4 Euros per screening, but for 40+ screenings that adds up) it also gave me access to special "press only" events and screenings. I found I could also get a locker at the Kursaal centre, which was useful for storage and to act as a postbox.
Then out to explore San Sebastian a bit. It wasn't too hot, about 23 oC, but that was plenty hot enough for me. I had prepared for some heat and brought my factor 30 sunscreen. I also had a panama hat (to protect the bald spot). Because of the appendix wound I found a belt too uncomfortable so I was wearing braces (suspenders for our American readers), red ones. With that lot and the sunglasses I was aiming vaguely for the "Lermontov in Monte Carlo" look but I don't have Anton's panache so I just looked like an Englishman abroad :)
Map of San Sebastian
At the press centre I had picked up my catalogue listing all the films being shown and a copy of Ian Christie's bilingual (Spanish / English) version of "Arrows of Desire". I saw that every day the films mainly started at about 4pm and went on until past midnight. That gave lots of time for meeting people, eating & drinking, exploring and other things, during the day and then settling down to watch the 4-6 films per day.
San Sebastian is a nice town on a large bay with an island in the bay. The main town seems to be centred around the "Almeda del Boulevard" and the "Centro" area. The main Kursaal centre where the press offices, main screening rooms and other facilities were was across the bridge (how often we crossed that bridge) over the Rio Urumea. The Principe theatre was up towards Monte Urgull at the eastern end of the bay. There was a very nice church & nunnery just opposite the cinema. There was a smaller bay the other side of the Rio Urumea where I went for a paddle in the Atlantic. Hardier souls (& those without recent operations) went sunbathing & swimming.
All of the people of San Sebastian seemed very friendly and quite willing to wait until I had explained what I wanted in my faltering Spanish (with lots of gestures). I did notice that the red hair colouring sales team had been out in force. At least 1 in 10 of the ladies had their hair dyed in various shades of red. It looked good on most of them :)
I will give all the details of the films seen in another document that will detail which print was shown, quality of print, audience size & reaction to it etc. Here I will just give my overall impressions of events & describe some of the more special things that happened.
On the first day I saw that in the "Michael Powell Retrospective" part of the program they were due to screen Rynox, Hotel Splendide, His Lordship, The Fire Raisers & The Night of the Party. Remember that the "Michael Powell Retrospective" was just a small part of the overall festival. There were many hundreds of films being screened all together, about 70-80 per day for the 10 days. They were shown in different theatres all over San Sebastian, most of which were multi-screen complexes. I noticed that the Powell films were being shown one day at the Cines Principe and the same films would be shown the next day at the Salas Astoria. But the Astoria was a bus ride away from the main town centre so I thought it would be better to stick to the Principe.
So at about 4pm I headed off to start my viewing marathon. I settled down to watch the film, quite pleased at the large attendance - BUT there was something wrong! That wasn't Rynox they were showing, but John Malkovich's The Dancer Upstairs (2002). I was in the wrong place!! I had gone to the Teatro Principal, not to the Cines Principe. In the words of that great philosopher, Homer Simpson "Doh!".
I quickly left & found the right cinema. But by then they had already started the screening and didn't let me in. Even worst, it was a double screening where they were showing Rynox & Hotel Splendide back to back. Still, not too disastrous. I had seen Hotel Splendide at the NFT & I had Rynox on tape. So I wandered off for a drink for an hour or two. By the end of the festival we got to know the people at the Principe so well they would have let me in even though the film had started. But this was just the first day.
When I returned to the Principe I saw His Lordship & The Fire Raisers. There was an hour's wait before they showed the last film of the day, The Night of the Party, and by then I was feeling tired. More from all the rushing around I'd been doing to get everything sorted out on that first day. I can't really claim jet lag (there's an hour's time difference between England and Spain) but the traveling had probably added to the tiredness & I hadn't slept much because of the excitement. So I headed back to the hotel and so to bed.
On my third day there (Thursday 20th September), I thought it would be nice to see Rynox on the big screen so I planned to see that at the Astoria and then come back into town to see the other films at the Pincipe. That meant missing Red Ensign at the Principe but I'd seen that on a big screen at the NFT.
I also got a phone call from Charles Doble and arranged to go & see him at his hotel during the day. We'd emailed & spoken on the phone but we'd never met before. Charles is a Devon farmer and breeder of Highland cattle (shaggy coats & long horns). He had met Michael Powell a few times and is good friends with Ludmilla Tchérina. He has also met quite a few other people that worked with P&P, especially those involved in his favourite films, Oh... Rosalinda!! and Luna de Miel.
When we met he had some bad news for me - he confirmed that Ludmilla would NOT be coming. I had known that she was in two minds about this. She had wanted to come and they were screening 4 films that she was in (TRS, ToH, OR! & LdM) but the festival organisers had been messing her about, changing the days they wanted her to come and changing the hotel they were willing to put her up at. She didn't like or need that sort of treatment, so she said "up yours" (or words to that effect) and stayed in Paris. I don't blame her, she deserves better treatment than that. For a long time she was a bit dismissive of her work in films, regarding it as just a way of earning some easy money. She thought that it distracted from her real art, ballet and later her sculpting. But Charles had persuaded her to take another look at the films and consider that if it wasn't for those films then she wouldn't be known & admired by as many people as she now is. It's a shame she couldn't come, but I hope to meet her some time in the near future.
As he had brought over so many cans of film, Charles had come on the ferry & driven to San Sebastian. He could only stay a few days, as he had to get back to his farm to look after his beasts. Ludmilla had been due to come on the 26th & Charles would have flown back just to be there with her. But now that she wasn't coming that meant it wasn't worth his flying back.
Rosita Segovia, the second female lead in Luna de Miel and our old friend, Professor Ian Christie were coming on the 25th and Jack Cardiff was invited but as he was only just back from Hollywood he wasn't sure if he could make it.
With that news and a lot of things to show & ask Rosita, Charles and I talked about various other things, getting to know each other and exchanging information. I left Charles, having agreed to meet him later at the Astoria to see Rynox and went into town to do some shopping & have something to eat.
I took the bus down to the Astoria. It's some way from the town centre, in a more residential district. A lovely old theatre. Their screen 5 has quite a large screen (about 10ft high) and seats about 100 people. Some of the other Powell films were shown in their screen 6 which I presume is larger but I never went in there. Charles & his wife Susan arrived just before the film started. Rynox is an interesting film. A clever story quite well told. Why nobody realises that Boswell Marsh is really F.X. Benedik must be considered to be part of the mystery. His makeup & behaviour is so over the top as to be unreal.
They were screening Hotel Splendide immediately after Rynox in a double bill (as they had done yesterday at the Principe), but I had to dash out as soon as Rynox finished and catch the bus back into town to see Something Always Happens at the Principe. This was essential as it was one of the films I'd missed seeing when they showed it at the NFT.
As I was settling down at the Principe, Natacha Thiery came in. I had met Natacha before, first at the screening of AMOLAD in the presence of Jack Cardiff that she had organised (as part of a larger event) in Oxford, and then at the NFT in London and at Warwick University where she was presenting a paper. Natacha is writing her PhD thesis on Powell & Pressburger. She started it at Oxford and is finishing it at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Natacha had managed to get a press pass as well as she was reporting on the festival for Positif magazine. We spent a lot of time together during the rest of the festival, which was a pleasure with such a delightful companion.
As I said, I have made detailed reports about each film seen in another document. I just want to finish up this report with some overall impressions and a few special events.
The festival staff and facilities were wonderful. As it's the first film festival I've attended I can't really compare it to anything but we were very well looked after (when we needed it). Because there were so many films being screened and so many people there it was impossible to see and do everything. Careful planning was needed. Lots of the people attending were interesting but had no P&P connection, so we didn't bother with them. People like Wim Wenders, Jessica Lange, Mike Leigh, Willem Dafoe, Dennis Hopper etc. Some did have a P&P connection: We would have liked to have met Bertrand Travernier but he was only there for a while & was kept quite busy. Natacha has interviewed him before so that is some sort of contact.
Jack Cardiff did get there. There was a "press only" screening of Black Narcissus that I went to where Jack, Ian Christie & Rosita Segovia were introduced as guests of honour. There weren't too many people there and as it was in the main Kursaal theatre it looked emptier than it probably was. Jack received a standing ovation and another round of applause when his name appeared on the credits. But they couldn't stay until the end of the film, which was a shame or they'd have heard another round of applause at the end. It was a very good print (despite it having the dreaded "blue out" mistake).
It was a better print than the one we had seen a few days before at the Principe. We arrived a bit late for that one and it was already quite full. Natacha spotted some seats & I asked the man at the end of the row if we could get past. It was only as he stood that I realised it was Francis Ford Coppola! He is a known admirer of the Archers and gave Powell a job at his Zoetrope studio. As we left I gave him a card & I hope to get in touch with him to talk about Powell & Pressburger.
A few words about other people we met there: Llorenç Esteve, the man who has written the first book on P&P in Spanish. A couple of German gentlemen, Günther Berbalk and Bodo Schönfelder, who apparently make a habit of attending retrospectives like this one. Bodo is a film journalist & critic - but they both seemed to enjoy themselves and were interested to hear more about the films.
Natacha & I had both met Jack Cardiff a few times before but we also managed to have a word with him at his hotel.
Charles Doble said a few words at the first screening of Luna de Miel, which were then translated into Spanish by Idoia, the very friendly and helpful lady who was managing the Powell screenings at the Principe. When Luna de Miel was shown for the second time, Ian Christie and Rosita Segovia were present (Charles had gone home). Rosita loved it and gave squeals of delight to see all her old friends in their prime. Natacha & I took Ian & Rosita out to lunch the next day. We had found a very nice fish restaurant a few days before, but when we got there - they were closed for lunch! Or rather, they didn't start serving until 2pm & Ian and Rosita both had to be elsewhere by then. So we just had some Tapas (Pinchos in Basque country) and chatted away merrily. Rosita is a lovely lady, very open and complimentary about the people she used to dance and act with. She had some lovely stories to tell us, a few of which are repeatable (but not here).
So, to summarise, it was a lovely festival. A very tiring time but a wonderful time. The weather was great (not too hot and it even cooled down as the festival progressed), the people were lovely, the food (& drink) was wonderful. We were quite sad as we said our goodbyes to everyone.
On the plane home I spotted Bob Hoskins who had been awarded a prize at the festival. While we were waiting for our luggage at Heathrow I congratulated him on that, thanked him for all the wonderful films he's made and then asked if I could shake the hand that throttled Roger Rabbit. He laughed at that, a very nice man.
So a big thank you to everyone who helped organise the retrospective (except for those who messed Ludmilla about). A big thank you to all the festival personnel at the Kursall centre and at the Principe (especially Idoia) and a big thank you to all the people of San Sebastian who kept us fed, watered and entertained and put up with that strange Englishman with the beard, red braces & panama hat. But most of all, a big hug and a kiss for Natacha, a lovely lady who is due to become the first French Professor of P&P'ology.
People at the festival
Pictures from around San Sebastián
The San Sebastian Festival