ZINEBI 50: Festival of Nonfiction and Tapa-sized Films

The Bilbao International Festival of Documentary and Short Film (ZINEBI) jubilates its 50th birthday November 23-29, making it one of the world’s oldest showcases of the seventh art. Who knew?

ZINEBI

A mere hour from San Sebastián—home to Spain’s premier fest–this year’s juried meet in the heart of Basque country drew 2,849 contenders from 85 countries for its coveted Mikeldi Award. Eighty of these survived Selection Committee scrutiny, which includes the criterion that films and video productions come in at 45 minutes max. Twenty-six countries are represented in the final slate.

For makers of the documentary, fiction and animation shorts in ZINEBI’s international contest, the stakes are mightier than at most short film and documentary festivals: winners go on to vie for an Academy Award. But just being invited to the party can be trophy enough for today’s expanding galaxy of young filmmakers eager to flag industry attention.

“The festival is the ideal platform for emerging directors to present their work to producers, television outlets and other funding sources,” said ZINEBI director Ernesto Del Río. “Two or three shorts are considered the basic calling card to get money for a feature-length film.”

With eight Basque shorts included in the 2008 lineup, the festival helps to nurture local cinema, noted Del Río. The region’s depressed economy of the 80s and early 90s sent home-grown talent in search of more fertile markets like Madrid and Barcelona, a trend this multiple prize-giving forum has since tried to reverse. Among the hot ticket items of this year’s edition is a preview of Pagafantas, the first feature-length work by Basque filmmaker Borja Cobeaga. The premiere of Historia de un grupo de rock (Story of a Rock Band) by compatriot Juanma Bajo Ulloa is also generating flint.

That the firepower now takes place on screen is a welcome change from the region’s transition years when advocates of film grants for the emerging Basque cinema brought handguns to official sessions.

For a glimpse into global issues and trends, ZINEBI 50 offers a broader panorama than in past editions. According to Del Río, the low costs of digital filmmaking have coaxed works from countries that are new to the festival. Take Thailand, Singapore and Costa Rica, for example, or outposts of Africa where media technology is lowering more than merely financial bars to production.

Yet, whether rich or poor, Eastern or Western, submissions in recent years have manifested a distinct and for Del Río regrettable tendency towards bleakness. “Since about 2003, the films reflect a negative view of the reality these young emerging filmmakers are living in,” he said. “There are very few comedies, and it’s not like the 70’s, when love and sex were popular topics.” Today’s roster of shorts is heavy with dramas about “family hell” or, at best, with “escapist fantasies about childhood.” On the bright side, Del Río noted that today’s 20-30-something auteurs are more daring in their “search for an aesthetic language.”

To get the 50th revelries off to a bright start, ZINEBI and Bilbao 700 are throwing a concert featuring Serbian helmer Emir Kusturica and his band, The No Smoking Orchestra. Festivalgoers can look ahead to masterclasses with German documentarian Philip Gröning (Die Grosse Stille, Into Great Silence) and French auteur Jean-Claude Rousseau (L’Appel de la forêt, The Call of the Forest). The program also includes a documentary selection curated by Jean-Pierre Rehm, director of the Marseille International Festival of Documentary Film; a retrospective of Venezuelan non-fiction and short films; the ZINELAB workshop; a debut competition called Internaciónal Ex IS (Experimental Image and Sound International); and remastered films about Bilbao.

A special sidebar serves up films by or with judges of the official competition, from US-American Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself to Mexican Enrique Rivero’s Parque Vía. Oscar-winner Mediterraneo is part of the mix; its creator, Italian Gabrielle Salvatore, chairs this year’s jury.

As in previous years, the Arriaga Theater serves as festival headquarters. The Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts, which also fetes a milestone anniversary in 2008–its centenary—and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao are among other venues playing host.

ZINEBI 50 ends with a nod to its beginnings. In 1960, one year after the festival’s birth, a young American named Richard Lester showed his short, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film. A decade later the by then celebrated director of Help! and other Beatles romps came back to Bilbao to head the international jury. At the 2008 closing ceremony, Lester will be garlanded with the Mikeldi Honor Prize. Del Río may get some smiles in after all.

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