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2008 San Sebastian Film Festival

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The San Sebastian Film Festival takes place in a very beautiful Basque city on the Atlantic coast of northern Spain. Nearly everyone assured me that the festival, now in its 56th year, has it “worked out” with ETA – the Basque separatist group – that no violence will be committed in San Sebastian during the film festival. Nevertheless, over the weekend, a bomb which killed one policeman and injured a dozen other people, went off not far away.

The Euro, as the common currency, implies a united Europe. But in San Sebastian, it paradoxically underscored unresolved nationalist issues. The Basques, who occupy both Spain and France, have a culture and a language which is uniquely their own. Basque, or Euskara, is the oldest language in Europe and has nothing in common with any other Indo-European language. Theories of where the Basques came from range from descendants of the Neanderthals to being swept into northern Spain from the lost continent of Atlantis.

On the second day of the San Sebastian Film Festival, a silent procession of more than 100 marched through the streets, holding up photographs of Basque prisoners who are in Spanish jails. Some are Basque journalists. Improvised signs hastily attached to buildings called for the release of prisoners and for Basque independence.

The underlying tension about Basque terrorism is a factor in the highly anticipated premiere of Bullet in the Head, a film by Catalan filmmaker Jaime Rosales. Its plot, whatever there is of it, centers on a bearded middle-aged man played by Ion Arrebe. We follow him throughout the day. In the evening he meets an older woman and has sex with her in her apartment. The next morning, he gets into a car with two other associates, and they drive across the border to France. There, they meet two off-duty policemen, and Ion shoots one of them in the head.

The screening of the film was preceded by an audio announcement that the management of the San Sebastian Film Festival “wishes to express their rejection of the terrorist violence of ETA and display their solidarity with the relatives of the victims of the recent car bombings.” The film which followed the announcement was without audible dialogue. It is filmed entirely in long shot. We see action through what is a virtual wall, separating us from the characters and the action. Rosales sets up a voyeuristic relationship between the audience and the subjects of the film. We are witness to ordinary, mundane, boring actions. Ion, the middle-aged man, buys a newspaper and meets a woman and a young boy in a park. He has breakfast, takes a meeting with his lawyers, then has a long conversation with another bearded man on the side of the road. We see people talking, but we can't hear what they say. There is no music. Rosales said that his intent was to shoot the film “like a wildlife documentary”, in long shot, only occasionally zooming in on the action.

The silence of the terrorists and the film's concentration on their daily routine is intended to focus us on our commonality: The terrorists are no different than us. They are just like you and me. The film is stylistically original but very tough going for an audience, and you invariably have to wonder if the lesson it imparts was worth the struggle.

A minimalist film which offers more connectedness won the Horrizontes Latinos section of the film festival, which surveys Latin American film production. Gasolina is a first feature from Guatemala, directed by Julio Hernandez Cordon. It is made on a very small budget. The subject is a group of aimless adolescents, living in a suburban subdivision. In the opening scene, one of the adolescents steals gasoline by siphoning it from a neighbor's car. Gasoline – its scarcity, and its power to enable characters to escape gasoline's potential as a liberating force – is both the title and the central metaphor of the film. In the anonymous suburban enclave, there is nothing for the adolescents to do. They spend their time trying to guess at the type of jet aircraft that flies overhead. The father of one of the youth comes home from work and verbally and physically abuses his son, accusing him of having made a 14-year old pregnant. Later that night, three of the adolescents take off into the darkness in a car, speeding down empty country roads, zooming into a seeming infinity. As they look up at the darkness of the sky, they hit something on the road. It's a man who was walking on the road with a woman companion. The adolescents dismiss him as “an Indian,”pour gasoline over his body, set it on fire and take off. The random act of violence erupts into a defining political act. We realize we have been watching a concealed social dynamics.

The obsession of the adolescents with gasoline underscores that they HAVE cars in the first place. They may be bored and aimless, but they belong to a privileged class. The lives of the Indian couple walking on the road have no meaning or value for them. In their boredom, their lives are reduced to a quest for gasoline and a desire to escape, to a total disconnect from the rest of humanity...

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or Chicago Public Radio

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