Reinventing Film Festival Space: Notes on the Radical Geography of the Barrios y Pueblos Project at the San Sebastian Film Festival (1977–1985)

Antxon Eceiza at the Q&A after the screening of Mina, Wind of Freedom (San Sebastian, September 17, 1977). Photograph: Maite Berradre
Pablo La Parra-Pérez and Ekain Olaizola Lizarralde discuss new research initiatives to construct a historical cartography of the San Sebastian International Film Festival (SIFF). Archival traces of the Barrios y Pueblos project (1977-1985) reveal how it brought film screenings and discussions from luxury downtown venues to working-class neighborhoods and peripheral municipalities.

In 2018, the San Sebastian International Film Festival (SSIFF) and the graduate film school Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola (EQZE) launched the research project Zinemaldia 70: All Possible Histories. The main goal of the project is to recover and study the historical archive of the SSIFF, which includes administrative and press documents, photographs, films, and other materials compiled since the festival’s foundation in 1953. In the academic year 2018-2019, the project focused on the radical transformations the SSIFF underwent after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, during the so-called transition to democracy, an intense moment of social unrest and popular mobilization in the Basque Country. In particular, drawing on archival sources and oral interviews, the team paid attention to Barrios y Pueblos [Neighborhoods and Towns]: a project implemented by the SSIFF between 1977 and 1985 that brought film screenings and discussions from luxury downtown venues to working-class neighborhoods and peripheral municipalities in the Basque Country and Navarre.

This line of inquiry soon resonated with the goals and methodology of a new initiative launched by EQZE in 2020: Architecture of Cinema, a research project midway between film and archival studies on the one hand, and architectural theory and practice on the other. Drawing on the experience of the Observatory of Scenic Spaces and in line with recent concerns with mapping in the field of New Cinema History,1See, for instance, the online cartographies mapped as part of the Italian Cinema Audiences research project led by Daniela Treveri Gennari, Catherine O’Rawe, and Danielle Hipkins, and the digital library project Going to the Show about moviegoing in North Carolina between 1896 and 1930. On the latter, see Robert C. Allen, “Getting to Going to the Show,” New Review of Film and Television Studies 8, no. 3 (2010): 264–76. the Architecture of Cinema team is currently working on a historical cartography of “cinema spaces” in the San Sebastian region, with the aim to develop solutions and innovative proposals to deal with the ongoing crisis of theatrical exhibition.

The coexistence of both projects in the EQZE community has opened new forms of interdisciplinary cooperation between our research teams around the relationship between film culture and urban geographies. With a focus on the Barrios y Pueblos case, this essay introduces some early findings of our ongoing joint research.

Alternative Spaces, Alternative Festival Images

Literature in the field of festival studies has paid attention to the “spatial qualities” of the film festival circuit and, in particular, to its urban dimension.2Marijke de Valck, Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007), 38–41. Julian Stringer famously analyzed the spatial logic of contemporary film festivals since the 1980s, drawing on Saskia Sassen’s concept of the global city. Stringer underlined the uneven power relationships between festivals, which are marked by the operations of city branding and global competition for tourism and media attention. As he put it, “what many festivals actually now market and project are not just ‘narrative images,’ but a city’s own ‘festival image,’ its own self perception of the place it occupies within the global space economy, especially in relation to other cities and other festivals.”3Julian Stringer, “Global Cities and the International Film Festival Economy,” in Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 140. Our italics. This line of analysis was continued by Janet Harbord, who acknowledged that the trajectories of many great European film festivals were inextricably intertwined with complex urban histories, from the emergence of film festivals in Europe in the 1950s—amidst a “particular moment of urban regeneration” after World War II—to the more recent construction of “new architectural feats” in festival cities in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, such as the relocation of the Berlin Film Festival to Potsdamer Platz in 2000, the new development of Rotterdam’s waterfront in 2001 and, we must add, the opening of Rafael Moneo’s Kursaal Congress Center in San Sebastian in 1999.4Janet Harbord, Film Cultures (London: SAGE, 2002), 61 and 65. Although the latter developments are unmistakably intertwined with the aforementioned logic of competing global cities, Harbord concludes by proposing a larger framework to think about the spatial dimension of festivals: “The film festival is a particular manifestation of the way that space is produced as practice (as opposed to inert materiality) … Festivals are implicated in the structure, design and use of cities, are part of the fabric of city life and its annual calendar.” 5Harbord, 61. Our italics.

A lesser-known case such as Barrios y Pueblos can be seen as an alternative inflection in these dominant spatial histories of major film festivals: a radical experiment that aimed to democratize the SSIFF by reinventing its social production of space, to recall the Lefebvrian undertones of Harbord’s observation. But before we deal with the details of Barrios y Pueblos at any length, it is necessary to outline a very short history of the SSIFF until 1977.6As we have argued elsewhere, the SSIFF has been largely ignored by specialized literature in festival studies (with only few exceptions). One of the main goals of an archive-based research project such as Zinemaldia 70 is to open a process of critical inquiry on the history of the festival and participate in ongoing international scholarly dialogues. See Pablo La Parra-Pérez, “A Film Festival Thinking Itself: The 66th San Sebastian International Film Festival,” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media 16 (Winter 2018): 148.

Festival in Transition

Just as major European film festivals such as Cannes and Berlin became cultural agents in the international political arena, the establishment of SSIFF in 1953 and its subsequent development should also be considered in the context of the Cold War. In the case of Francoist Spain, the rapid international homologation of the SSIFF—which received in 1957 the highest category of the Federation of Film Producer Associations (FIAPF), the “non-specialist competitive festival”—is inseparable from the regime’s efforts to project an image of modernity and liberalization in the international arena. Thus, during almost three decades—particularly under the aegis of Miguel de Echarri, its longest-serving director, in office between 1967 and 1977—the SSIFF unmistakably became a useful tool of cultural diplomacy for the Franco regime.

It is hardly surprising that the first festival held after Franco’s death in 1976 became a highly contested turning point. A few days before the festival’s inauguration, amidst a heated climate of mobilization in the Basque Country, a police officer murdered Josu Zabala, a pro-democracy demonstrator, in the neighboring town of Fuenterrabía. Despite the popular claim calling for its cancellation, de Echarri decided to maintain all the festival’s activities, a decision that was responded to with riots and a boycott by leftist filmmakers and journalists.

The troubled 1976 festival made clear that the SSIFF faced uncontrollable criticism and it was followed by a series of crucial transformations. Later that year, the Spanish state devolved the festival’s management to the city of San Sebastian and a new interim steering committee was created. Along with the chairs traditionally occupied by representatives of the film industry and public administrators, the committee included members of popular associations such as film clubs, art collectives and, above all, neighborhood associations [asociaciones de vecinos], which we will discuss shortly. This new committee, and the ones that were formed in the subsequent years, effectively democratized the festival on many fronts. Transformations included a new curatorial line open to radical aesthetics and political languages; the homage of exiled anti-Franco filmmakers (from Luis Buñuel to José María Berzosa, among others); collaborations with activist movements (such as a local feminist assembly that organized a festival section entirely devoted to women filmmakers in 1978);7See Pablo La Parra-Pérez and María Palacios Cruz, “It Would Be Nice to Think that Their Paths Might Have Crossed,” in Hipotesi(s) 1: Transformazioa / Transformación / Transformation, ed. Garbiñe Ortega (Donostia-San Sebastián: Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola/Diputación de Gipuzkoa, 2020), 55–75. and the public support of ongoing democratic mobilizations, including official declarations demanding the amnesty of political prisoners and the defense of freedom of speech.

“A Giant, Nomadic, and Bohemian Film Forum”

Neighborhood activists secured a chair at the festival’s steering committee until 1985. A word is in order here on the “neighborhood movement” they represented: as Pamela Radcliff has studied in detail, it became one of the most important fronts of popular mobilization in Spain during the 1960s and 1970s. With an assembly-based practice, neighborhood associations not only articulated crucial struggles for the “right to the city,” but also became platforms of grassroots self-organization.8Pamela Beth Radcliff, Making Democratic Citizens in Spain: Civil Society and the Popular Origins of the Transition, 1960-78 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). From their position on the committee, neighborhood activists implemented Barrios y Pueblos, not unlike the parallel structures created around main festivals by other radical “breakaway groups” in the post-1968 years, such as the Quinzaine in Cannes, the Forum in Berlin, and the Giornate del cinema italiano in Venice.9Harbord, Film Cultures, 71.

As organizers of Barrios y Pueblos stated in a personal interview, they perceived the SSIFF as an elitist event detached from the struggles that agitated the Basque Country, but also from the active cultural and political activities that sprang up in working-class barrios.10Personal interview with Maddi Bengoetxea, Ramon Barragan, Maite Berradre, and Mikel Martin Conde (San Sebastian, September 17, 2019). To be sure, until 1977, the spatial politics of the SSIFF had an evident social bias.  


Architectural Interlude I: Decentering a Festival

The following map was published by the SSIFF’s official journal, Festival, on July 7, 1968. As it makes clear, the festival’s epicenter was the iconic Victoria Eugenia theater (known as the “Festival’s Palace,” the venue for gala film premieres, number 1) and the adjacent, luxury María Cristina hotel (hotspot for the social and media activity of celebrities, number 6).11Both buildings were simultaneously built in the early twentieth century at the height of San Sebastian’s aristocratic belle epoque and promotion as an exclusive resort town. This is not a minor fact to understand the longstanding tradition and strategic relevance of the city to host a glamorous international event such as a film festival. Other venues hosted “parallel” screenings and events allegedly addressed to wider audiences – for instance, cinemas such as the Astoria (where a cheaper screening of films in the official competition was held after the premiere at the Victoria Eugenia, number 4) or Rex-Avenida (that hosted screenings addressed to the industry and films premiered in other festivals, the so-called “Commercial” and “Informative” sections respectively, number 5).12José Luis Tuduri Calvo, San Sebastián: un Festival, una Historia (1967-1977), vol. 2 (Donostia-San Sebastián: Filmoteca Vasca/Euskadiko Filmategia, 1992), 194 and 226. All the festival’s activity, though, happened in a cluster of downtown theaters and hotels concentrated within a 1-km radius from the Festival’s Palace and was tinged with an atmosphere of glamour and exclusivity—safeguarded by a strict and prohibitively expensive system of credentials.

Fig. 1: Festival, July 7, 1968. SSIFF Archive

Barrios y Pueblos’ mission was clear: decentralize this narrow geography by organizing cheap screenings and discussions in working-class areas and smaller towns, a radical gesture that challenged the dominant festival image of San Sebastian, to recall Stringer’s term. Based on the information provided by the SSIFF annual reports preserved at the archive, this series of maps produced by the Architecture of Cinema research team illustrates how between 1977 and 1985 the number of participating locations in Barrios y Pueblos oscillated between 21 and 40. The result was an unprecedented territorial (and social) expansion of the festival’s reach.

Fig. 2: Locations involved in the Barrios y Pueblos project (1977-1985)


Following the assembly-based praxis of neighborhood associations, Barrios y Pueblos experimented with grassroots curating strategies as they expanded through the territory. A commission based in San Sebastian prepared a list of available films, and participating film clubs and associations voted for the titles they were interested in. After gathering this information, the commission prepared film rosters and coordinated the circulation of copies.13Personal interview with Maddi Bengoetxea, Ramon Barragan, Maite Berradre, and Mikel Martin Conde (San Sebastian, September 17, 2019). Such a participatory method soon collided with the traditional logic of an “A-list” festival such as the SSIFF. To protect commercial value after festival premieres, FIAPF regulations restricted the number of screenings in accredited festivals. Consequently, as one Barrios y Pueblos activist stated, by 1978 their main problem was “the limitation imposed by distributors that limit the exhibition of certain films to a fixed number of screenings.” In contrast, he added, “the Cuban cinematheque has not raised any objection to the exhibition of their works, which are being screened continually, as well as giving us additional materials.”14“El festival en pueblos y barrios,” Festival. XXVI Festival Internacional de Cine de San Sebastián, September 16, 1978, SSIFF Archive. Beyond the essentially militant collaboration with particular delegations and committed guests, Barrios y Pueblos endured by programming films preserved at the SSIFF’s cinematheque  (a collection of titles awarded in previous editions) as well as titles coming from so-called “parallel” sections, such as New Directors and “Cine de Arte y Ensayo” (devoted to art films).

Over the years, Barrios y Pueblos took the shape of a “giant, nomadic, and bohemian film forum,” as one of its participants put it.15Begoña Del Teso, “A giant, nomadic and bohemian film forum,” interview by Pablo La Parra-Pérez and Sara Hernández Askasibar, San Sebastian International Film Festival, accessed January 5, 2021, By expanding through the territory, the traditionally monolithic social experience of the SSIFF rapidly unfolded into an unprecedented diversity of audiences and film practices. To just mention a remarkable example of many non-synchronous simultaneities that sprang up, on the night of September 17, 1977, while the red-carpet premiere of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) was happening at the Victoria Eugenia, formerly exiled Basque filmmaker Antxon Eceiza was discussing his film Mina, viento de libertad/Mina, Wind of Freedom (1977) with the audience after a screening organized by Barrios y Pueblos in the working-class neighborhood of Intxaurrondo.


Fig. 3: Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher on the red carpet during the premiere of Star Wars (San Sebastian, September 17, 1977). SSIFF Archive


Fig. 4: Antxon Eceiza at the Q&A after the screening of Mina, Wind of Freedom (San Sebastian, September 17, 1977). Photograph: Maite Berradre


The interaction with the audience through colloquia—a practice imported from film club culture, unprecedented in the SSIFF until this point—became a flagship feature of Barrios y Pueblos. In fact, many filmmakers, activists, and intellectuals who collaborated with the project recognized in this initiative the possibility of creating a film structure able to transcend the spatial and temporal limits of a standard nine-day film festival. As Pierre-Henri Deleau—founder and director of the Quinzaine—put it after moderating a colloquium around Une femme douce (Robert Bresson, 1969) programmed by Barrios y Pueblos in Villabona:

The idea of decentralizing the Festival seems fantastic to me since it means an important cultural event on a large scale. In almost no festival, even less in small-town theaters, people—I mean people from the provinces—can see films by Bresson, Schlöndorff, the Taviani brothers, etc. (…) To see that the room was packed to attend a Bresson screening in a small town is unimaginable. Moreover, there is the interest of people to participate in the colloquium and keep learning about cinema. This shows they lack opportunities, and what the people from these neighborhoods and towns must do from now on is to press for the kind of films they want to see in their cinemas.16“Los coloquios en barrios y pueblos,” Festival. XXVII Festival Internacional de Cine de San Sebastián, September 18, 1979, SSIFF Archive. Our translation.

Back to Order (and the Archive of the Future)

Barrios y Pueblos was a transitional experience in at least two senses. First, it was a filmic-political experiment inextricably intertwined with the massive grassroots mobilizations that sprang up in the Basque Country during the democratic transition after Franco’s death. Second, from a wider point of view, this case can help us to reconsider well-established periodizations and narratives. If we take, for instance, Marijke de Valck’s classic three-phase historicization of film festivals, 17de Valck, Film Festivals. we realize that Barrios y Pueblos operated in disjointed time: it can be seen as an untimely irruption of a “second-phase logic” (closer to the radical transformation other festivals underwent through the post-1968 years) at a moment in which the “third phase” (linked to the professionalization and homogenization of the festival circuit in the early years of the neoliberal era) was already taking shape.

The overall radicalization of the SSIFF program over these years stands out as a disruptive dissonance in the coetaneous European circuit. Not by chance, the early concerns of the FIAPF about the number of screenings held in Barrios y Pueblos quickly escalated, with recurrent written notices warning the SSIFF about its “increasingly local character” and its declining commercial and media interest for the international film industry in the late 1970s.18Letter of Franco Cristaldi [FIAPF’s General Secretary] to Nestor Basterretxea, Rafael Modrego, and Mariano Larrandia [SSIFF’s directors], November 24, 1978, AG.1977-78.28, SSIFF Archive. Our italics.


Architectural Interlude II: Powers of Ten

To comprehend the unwonted reach of Barrios y Pueblos that made its territorial expansion intelligible for an international audience, we have applied a method that echoes the Eames’s classic film experiment on scale.19In 1977, the American architects Charles and Ray Eames published the short film Powers of Ten, a comparative exercise of visualization that used factors of ten to experiment with the representation of scales. See Kyle Stine, “Other Ends of Cinema: Powers of Ten, Exponential Data, and the Archive of Scientific Images,” JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies 59, no. 2 (2020): 114–37.

We took an easily recognizable territorial scale: a 100×100-kilometer square (approximately a 1-hour car distance by highway). We then superimposed on this surface a 10×10-kilometer grid (the distance a walker would cover in approximately two hours) and labeled all the locations that joined Barrios y Pueblos between 1977 and 1985. The result is a pattern through which we can glimpse the relationship between the locations and the territory. 

            [Figs. 5-6]

The following cartographic exercises, which must be considered a work in progress, are the result of superimposing this pattern over other coetaneous festival cities (Venice, Cannes, Berlin, Rotterdam). Rather than mechanically projecting the Barrios y Pueblos experiment to other locations, the goal is to propose a comparative exercise on territorial scales, one that might allow an international reader not necessarily familiar with San Sebastian and its region to understand the unique territorial expansion the SSIFF reached over these years—and underline its singularity within the European film circuit.

                [Figs. 7-10]


In a hardly surprising move, in 1980 the FIAPF withdrew the “A-list” credential for the SSIFF. San Sebastian only got back this distinction in 1985, after a major restructuring that included the appointment of Diego Galán as festival director and a series of reforms that restored a much more classic festival model. A great deal of further research is needed to examine this complex moment, but documents show that Barrios y Pueblos became a central problem in the negotiations to recover the FIAPF’s top credential. In 1985, when the credential was provisionally granted for a one-year period, the SSIFF annual report referred to Barrios y Pueblos as a problem to be solved, underlining that during the last FIAPF meeting “foreign producers declared that the San Sebastian Festival must take some measures in this regard.”20Festival de San Sebastián, “Memoria. XXXIII Festival Internacional de cine de San Sebastián,” 1985, SSIFF Archive. Our translation. Measures were expeditious indeed: in 1986, an extremely reduced version of Barrios y Pueblos happened a week after the official festival. It was its last edition.

Since, as Stuart Hall observed, an archive “is always ‘re-read’ in the light of the present and the future,”21Stuart Hall, “Constituting an Archive,” Third Text 15, no. 54 (2001): 92. our ongoing research on Barrios y Pueblos inevitably reverberates with contemporary concerns. Until the Zinemaldia 70 project brought this experience into focus, Barrios y Pueblos was a little-known, marginal episode in dominant histories of the SSIFF. And yet, many features of the contemporary “SSIFF success formula,” such as its audience-friendly approach with massive numbers of local spectators, are largely the result of the democratic transformations that happened in the late 1970s, with Barrios y Pueblos at its helm. Moreover, it is hardly deniable that today film festivals face a multilayered crisis, the origin of which largely precedes Covid-19, 22Over the last decade, critical accounts of the many crises and shortcomings of the contemporary festival circuit have taken different forms and accents, from Mark Cousins’s Festival Manifesto to rigorous academic endeavors such as the “Film Festival Dossier” edited by David Archibald and Mitchell Miller (Screen, 52.2), among many others. On the debate raised by the latter, see Roya Rastegar, “Difference, Aesthetics and the Curatorial Crisis of Film Festivals,” Screen 53, no. 3 (2012): 310–17. but that has been accelerated by the devastating effects of the ongoing pandemic. The closure of many commercial cinemas casts serious doubts on the continuity of traditional modes of film exhibition and calls for a serious reconsideration of both the “territorial rooting” of film festivals and how they could contribute to the preservation of the social experience of theatrical moviegoing. Furthermore, as climate change and ecological crises become inescapable facts, an in-depth reconsideration of the dominant configuration of the festival circuit as a series of major global events might lead to more sustainable articulations between festivals and local communities. While the responses to these challenges are yet to be written, tracing the archives in search of moments of dissent that deviated from the dominant course of history, such as Barrios y Pueblos, is perhaps another way to keep imagining alternative futures.


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