They shoot turkeys, don't they?

Struggling film-makers are the focus of the Gijon Film Festival. Richard Combs was a member of the jury...
Serving on the jury of an international film festival must seem an anomalous activity. How can anything so onerous, public-spirited and, well, judicial as jury duty be equated with the global circus of the movie business?

The 33rd Internacional Festival de Cine was staged at the Spanish seaside town of Gijon. The festival may not be as famous as Cannes, but it features a lively programme devoted to independent, first-time or just young, struggling film-makers.

In the film industry, juries as well as stars get press conferences. The three English-speaking members of this one are presented to the local press as a group: Ken Dancyger, undergraduate head of film at New York University; Paul Bartel, actor, satirist and independent Hollywood film- maker (Eating Raoul); and myself.Bartel, deadpan, announces how disappointed he is to find that, as well as awarding prizes to the winners, he can't sentence the losers to death. Duly translated, this puzzles rather than amuses the press. The other two jury members are Spanish, and had their own press conference. Julio Medem, our president, is the most exciting young film-maker in Spain today; his two features, Vacas (Cows) and Red Squirrel, have been released in Britain. Diana Penalver is an actress in film, theatre and television, and has ventured to New Zealand to play the heroine in Brain Dead, for the outlandish master of splatter, Peter Jackson. Viscera, exploitation and low budgets, of course, are the natural element of aspiring film-makers. There's a non-competition section called "Bad Taste", and it contains some alarmingly graphic body horror. The young audience gives a rapturous reception to the film-makers - local heroes, not just Spanish but Asturian - who shuffle across the stage like Tim Burton lookalikes.

We do seem to be a remarkably cohesive jury. Perhaps our sessions would have been more temperamental if a sixth member, Malcolm McDowell, hadn't dropped out due to an offer of paid employment, or if Paul Bartel hadn't been substituted - he thinks - for the brat star of yesteryear, Matt Dillon. But the jury doesn't even get together to deliberate until the very end, six days of seeing two competition films a day. Until then, what we mainly have in common is that we are members of a rare and indulged race, taken everywhere by car, treated to elaborate meals morning and night. Other film-makers briefly alight at the festival. Paul Schrader is here to inaugurate a retrospective of his films, but his mind is on an Elmore Leonard novel he's due to shoot soon, although the deals aren't yet set. He's the cinema's most famous Calvinist, trying to shuck the overcoat of his past in Tinseltown. But perhaps they're not so incompatible: there's a certain steel in his will to party all night.

The British director, Stephen Frears, is here to give his blessing to a retrospective of Ealing director Alexander Mackendrick (The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers). Frears's troubled Jekyll and Hyde film, Mary Riley, starring Julia Roberts, has yet to be released. He has finished another Roddy Doyle adaptation, The Van, and he hints at a Western to be made in New Mexico. I meet him belting along the promenade the morning after his arrival. He is as restless and challenging in casual conversation as he must be in work. We've barely reached the hotel when he spots a cab and confidently announces that it must be for him.

Immediately after the last competition screening on Friday, the jury meets over dinner to consider their verdicts. First we select the films we think might be eligible. It's not difficult - three American independent films and an Australian feature. The English-speaking jurors expect some resistance, some element of Euro-support, from Julio and Diana. But the evidence is overwhelming. The only problem now is how to allocate the awards to films whose virtues and subject matter are strikingly similar:harrowing tales of lives lived close to madness, or an unhappiness or poverty akin to madness. Best is Heavy, a quiet, naturalistic film with Shelley Winters still in domineering mom form; best director is Michael Rymer for the Australian film Angel Baby, about a couple leading each other into madness; best actress award goes to the two girls who star in Fun (soon to be shown on Channel 4 as Fun USA) about the friendship of two unstable teenagers which leads them to murder an old woman. When Peter Jackson turned from cartoon gore to real-life crime, he made something similar in Heavenly Creatures.

Best actor is Jason Andrews from Rhythm Thief, made for $11,000, about survival on the streets in New York (this has already been shown on Channel 4). Andrews is in Gijon with the film, the only actor present from the films we've chosen. When he accepts the award on stage, he wonders modestly if this is is the main reason he was chosen over the undoubtedly excellent lead actors in Heavy and Angel Baby. There's an element of truth in this, but it's also true that he was picked for something more than performance - call it star charisma, or the ability to hold a film together.

Soon after midnight the decisions are sealed, and two jury members, Bartel and myself, turn back into film buffs and head off to another screening, Confessions of an Opium Eater (or Souls for Sale), in a section called "Secret Cinema". We emerge from the cinema at 2am to find a car waiting for us. "Ah," says Bartel, whose real, working life is as parsimonious as the films he has been judging, "I'm going to miss this."