- War-related movies were the clear favorites at this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival: Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly was named Best Film; Ulrich Thomsen and Connie Nielsen received acting honors for Brothers; Xu Jinglei was the Best Director winner for Letter from an Unknown Woman; and Midwinter Night’s Dream was given the Special Jury Award.
- Woody Allen, Annette Bening, and Jeff Bridges were the recipients of the Donostia (Lifetime Achievement) Award.
Three disparate war-related movies were the key winners at this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival, held Sept. 17–25 in the picturesque coastal city in Spain’s Basque Country.
Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi’s Iranian/French-financed Iraq War drama Turtles Can Fly, shot a mere month after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, was handed the Golden Shell for Best Film.
Susanne Bier’s Danish-made psychological drama Brothers / Brødre, featuring the Afghanistan War as its raison d’être, topped the acting categories.
And Chinese filmmaker Xu Jinglei was named Best Director for the romantic drama Letter from an Unknown Woman, largely set during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.
‘Humanity’-filled Best Foreign Language Film Oscar entry
According to Reuters, Peruvian author and Chairman of the Jury Mario Vargas Llosa stated that even though the Golden Shell decision was not unanimous, Turtles Can Fly had “moved us all, not only because of the terrible conditions in which it was filmed, but also because … despite the tragedy which it recounts, it is filled with humanity, poetry and even humor.”
Set in Iraq’s Kurdistan around the time of the U.S.-led invasion of that country in spring 2003, Turtles Can Fly chronicles the travails of a group of refugee-camp dwellers as they scramble to set up a satellite dish while waiting to hear news about Saddam Hussein’s imminent fall.
Like several of Vittorio De Sica’s and Roberto Rossellini’s post-World War II films, Turtles Can Fly features a cast of non-professionals – including four war-scarred children, one of which is armless and another blind. (The blind kid has since undergone an operation and reportedly is now able to see.)
Turtles Can Fly is Iran’s submission for the 2005 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.
War & misery
“I filmed my third feature film [Turtles Can Fly] after a journey to Iraq,” Bahman Ghobadi was quoted as saying in the El Mundo website, “with the people and sites I found there. My script consisted of three pages of keywords: ‘refugee camp,’ ‘misery,’ ‘war,’ ‘abuse.’”
Ghobadi’s previous narrative feature, Marooned in Iraq (2002), was screened at the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar; his first was Cannes’ Golden Camera winner A Time for Drunken Horses (2000), which features disturbing scenes of animal abuse.
Both films focus on Kurdish characters: the former is set during the Iran-Iraq War, the latter has as its center an economically challenged Kurdish-Iranian family.
As for that other ongoing U.S.-led military conflagration, the War in Afghanistan is at the core of Susanne Bier’s Brothers, starring San Sebastian’s Best Actor winner Ulrich Thomsen as an emotionally unstable former prisoner of war believed dead by his family.
Thomsen’s female co-star, Connie Nielsen, was chosen Best Actress for her portrayal of the ex-POW’s wife, who has become emotionally involved with her husband’s younger brother (Nikolaj Lie Kaas).
Brothers is Ulrich Thomsen and Susanne Bier’s second collaboration; they had previously worked together on the 1997 thriller Credo / Sekten, in which Thomsen has a supporting role.
Chinese Letter from an Unknown Woman
Set in 1930s–1940s Beijing, Best Director winner Xu Jinglei’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, even if indirectly, can be added to the list of San Sebastian’s war-related movies.
This latest big-screen adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s 1922 Vienna-set novella follows a renowned author who, in 1948, learns he is the father of a recently deceased child whose mother – with whom he had had a brief fling – he has trouble remembering.
Jinglei also co-produced Letter from an Unknown Woman and, alongside Jiang Wen, stars in the film.
In 1948, Max Ophüls shot Letter from an Unknown Woman in Hollywood, starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan as the two leads. Fifteen years earlier, John M. Stahl’s Only Yesterday starred Margaret Sullavan and John Boles in a modernized, U.S.-set version of the tale.
Lastly, the Special Jury Award went to Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic for Midwinter Night’s Dream / San zimske noci, another of the San Sebastian Film Festival’s series of war-related movies.
In the story, a Bosnian War refugee (Jasna Zalica) and her autistic daughter (Jovana Mitic, who is autistic in real life) take over the vacant apartment of a Serbian man (Lazar Ristovski) serving a ten-year prison sentence. Problems ensue when the by now ex-convict returns home to resume his life.
March 2005 update: Goran Paskaljevic has told BBC News that Jovana’s autism is supposed to serve as a metaphor for Serbia during the Bosnian War.
“I think my country somehow became autistic,” he explained. “People were forgetting everything and I had a feeling that we were living in a world that was completely closed.”
San Sebastian Film Festival jury
Besides Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2004 San Sebastian Film Festival jury consisted of the following:
- Screenwriter-director Yamina Benguigui (Inch’Allah dimanche).
- Writer-director Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion).
- Producer Marta Esteban (Nico and Dani).
- Actress Laura Morante (Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man).
- Cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Girl with a Pearl Earring).
- Director Dito Tsintsadze (Lost Killers).
More San Sebastian movies
Although war-related movies easily dominated this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival awards, there were numerous other offerings as well. One notable example was the festival’s opening night gala presentation: The world premiere of Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, starring Radha Mitchell and Will Ferrell.
In the Manhattan-set tale, a quartet of writers is unable to decide whether life is comedy or tragedy. What to do? As a possible solution, a couple of them come up with – interwoven – stories about a distraught woman, Melinda (Radha Mitchell, instead of Allen’s original choice, Winona Ryder), who arrives unannounced at a dinner party. In one story, humorous situations ensue; in the other, tragedy is the result.
Allen himself was one of a trio of U.S. cinema celebrities honored with the Donostia Award for the bulk of their career – Jeff Bridges and Annette Bening were the other two. The latter is a potential Best Actress Oscar contender for her work in István Szabó’s London-set period comedy Being Julia, which was screened out of competition.
Previous recipients of the (clearly Hollywood-centered) Donostia Award include Claudette Colbert, Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Lana Turner, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenn Ford, Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, Isabelle Huppert, Julie Andrews, Jeanne Moreau, Jessica Lange, Francisco Rabal, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Fernando Fernán Gómez, and Annette Bening’s husband, Warren Beatty.
“War-Related Movies: San Sebastian” endnotes
San Sebastian Film Festival website.
Turtles Can Fly image: IFC Films.
Ulrich Thomsen and Connie Nielsen Brothers image: Zentropa.
“War-Related Movies + Woody Allen: San Sebastian Awards” last updated in March 2023.