Movie stars in make their own beds shock

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The Independent Online

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. I'm almost hungering for someone to be a prick."

But San Sebastian is also the capital of one of the three Basque provinces, Gipuzkoa. And it transpired that the strike at the Maria Cristina was the last vestige of national, multi-union pay negotiations - with universal agreement from all except a small, militant union, sympathetic to the Basque separatist organisation ETA. The protest was regarded as being more for the sake of mischief than pay and conditions.

This perhaps explains why the strikers have been so happy, camped on the grass outside the hotel, eating and playing Basque songs at full volume. A loudspeaker was wheeled around in a supermarket trolley, continuously, to ensure no guest was spared the racket.

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The biggest commotion caused by a film has also had a Basque hue. Julio Medem, himself from San Sebastian, is one of Spain's most acclaimed directors, a specialist in sexy and metaphysical melodramas such as Vacas, Tierra and Lovers of the Arctic Circle. His documentary La Pelota vasca, la piel contra la piedra (The Basque Game, Skin Against the Stone), a serious attempt to debate Basque separatism, has had the country frothing at the mouth. The film was sparking controversy before anyone had even seen it, with commentators on both sides condemning it and the government leaning on the festival not to show it. In five years of coming here, it was the first time I had seen San Sebastian truly agitated.

But, typically, the tension evaporated as soon as the film was shown. Political opinion has remained partisan, but the critics have generally acknowledged it as a sincere film that offers a tapestry of opinions in which neither ETA terrorism (800 people have been killed in 30 years) nor nationalist atrocities have been spared.

Just as with the hotel dispute, the festival's way of handling the furore was to keep silent and go about its business. Medem has come and gone. The usually bustling social life of the Marie Cristina has, like water, trickled out and found its way to other venues. And everyone has got on with watching films and basking - or should that be Basqueing - in as chilled a place as anywhere in Europe. This is not Cannes. And thank goodness for that.