Vive le Cinéma: How Tabakalera is Helping to Broaden the San Sebastian Festival

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“Vive le cinéma!” goes the call from Tabakalera, International Centre of Contemporary Culture, at this year’s San Sebastián International Film Festival (SSIFF). 

The Centre’s exhibition hall plays host to four cinematographic installations made by leading global filmmakers, a project which sees them transform their usual cinema-based practice into a more expansive and experimental gallery space. 

The exhibition at Tabakalera marks a continuation of the series which began at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam last year in collaboration with the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Two works from the 2021 exhibition by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese and Jia Zhang-ke will be on display again in San Sebastián, alongside two new productions from Georgian filmmaker Dea Kulumbegashvili (“Beginning”) and Spanish director Isaki Lacuesta (“One Year, One Night”). 

“Our main mission is to promote artistic production and to act as a platform to connect a wide audience to the arts of our time,” says Tabakalera’s Cultural Director Clara Montero. 

“For Vive le Cinéma, we offered the filmmakers a space for experimentation and invited them to go beyond the boundaries of the cinema screen and play in a different way with space, time, and interactions with the audience.” 

For the arts centre, Montero adds that “supporting artists and giving a broad audience the opportunity to have access to contemporary creation and to see how artists deal with crucial matters, are essential to us and representative of Tabakalera’s aims throughout the year.”

Lemohang JeremiahMosese: ‘Bodies of Negroes. I Will Sculpture God, Grim and Benevolent’

For Mosese, working with installation and adapting his practice to the medium has not been a new challenge. Video installation is always at the back of his directorial mind and much of his previous work has been tailored for both theatrical and gallery spaces. “Sometimes when I’m shooting certain film sequences, I know that they are going to end up as an installation so I make them very long. I’m always in between—my work can exist in both spaces, I think.” 

‘Bodies of Negroes’ – Mosese Courtesy of Tabakalera

In his piece “Bodies of Negroes. I Will Sculpture God, Grim and Benevolent,”a seven-channel installation that follows a series of work presented in 2021 at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, Mosese explores an “African consciousness, or what we call botho in Sesotho. Nietzsche has his ubermensch, the ultimate man, and for me botho is the ultimate human being, or state of being, that is devoid of suffering.” The work depicts the ritualistic cleansing of a dying mother by her daughters through which, Mosese says, “I am sewing the skins of mothers and fathers into the skins of sons and daughters. My main focus and my main interest is the imagery of this ultimate human, this spirit of the African consciousness.”

Isaki Lacuesta: ‘Prohibimos en España’

Lacuesta, similarly, has worked with the medium several times. His installation practice goes back to 2003 and has existed comfortably alongside his cinematic filmmaking. His Tabakalera piece,“Prohibimos en España”, confronts a climate of censorship in Spain where he says “for the last five years, we have all had the feeling that there are more and more cases of censorship and more attacks against freedom of expression.” He adds, “the most important newspapers in Spain are very angry about censorship in Iran, for example, but they forget that people here are in jail for speaking against the king.” 

‘Prohibimos en España’ – Isaki Lacuesta Courtesy of Tabakalera

Lacuesta’s installation takes the form of a mirrored cube within which specially-developed sensors track viewers’ eye movements and hide images from prohibited books, films, theatre works, songs, and even tweets from their gaze. The only way to see the images is through a mirror or a phone camera lens, to “fight the machine” as Lacuesta explains. It’s a novel concept that offers a powerful, immersive look at what it means to demand the right to visibility. Elsewhere at the festival, Lacuesta presents in Official Selection “Offworld,” a Movistar Plus+ series which he co-wrote and co-directed, plus his latest feature “One Year, One Night” in the Perlak section and an accompanying installation piece also on display at Tabakalera. 

Dea Kulumbegashvili: ‘Captives’

The idea for Kulumbegashvili’s installation piece “Captives” came to the filmmaker before Tabakalera offered her a commission. “It was a really great coincidence in a way because I was already looking for a place to present the work and of course I have a very special relationship with San Sebastián and I thought it would make perfect sense for this installation to start its life there,” she says. Having been curious about the form for a while, Kulumbegashvili adds that she was “questioning the limits of cinema” and looking for a way to make “a viewer physically part of the work.” “I wanted the viewer to question their own physical existence,” she continues, “to strip away all the intellectual notions of our existence and being and to really question how much we feel our physical presence in any given moment?” 

‘Captives’ – Dea Kulumbegashvili Courtesy of Tabakalera

Sound plays a vital role in “Captives” which explores the mutual relationship between watching and being watched. A creature appears on a curved screen, sitting in a domestic space, while the viewer observes and contributes to the environment by creating heightened sounds through floor sensors. Similarly to Lacuesta’s work, the project hints at surveillance and the question of “who gives us permission to look at someone,” Kulumbegashvili says. It was an exciting chance to discover new territory for the filmmaker who relished the opportunity to “think about a physical space and how your work is experienced, to really work with something material,” a luxury that she feels is missing from cinematic pursuits.

Jia Zhang-ke: “Close-Up,”

Also working with themes of surveillance and watching is the world-renowned Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke who presents “Close-Up,” a five-channel piece that observes a man standing at a road crossing via four CCTV cameras and a fifth camera, the director’s own. “I had an experience of entering a control room once, and I was amazed at the world observed by multi-screen monitors,” Jia explains. “In China where streets are heavily monitored, surveillance cameras spring a new state of images. How do they relate to films? In these new imagery atmospheres, what is the uniqueness of film?” 

‘Close-Up’ – Jia Zhang-ke Courtesy of Tabakalera

“For this work, the significance of ‘Close-Up’ must be realised through multiple screens. The work requires multi-angle surveillance photography, which provides the visual environment where the close-up shot dwells,” he adds. Whereas the “eye in the sky” footage favours scale over detail, Jia’s own camera rests on the lone man and invites us to question what we pay attention to in an image and why. The director guides the audience to a focal point that is otherwise lost in a sea of footage as a means of rejecting the idea that individuals are “neglectable.” 

The Bigger Picture: San Sebastian’s Burgeoning Cultural Axis 

SSIFF’s director José Luis Rebordinos commented on the exhibition as “a new collaboration with Tabakalera which goes beyond the dates of the festival itself and is related to the festival’s intention to be not just a 9-day event, but a year-round festival. It also means broadening our traditional audiovisual framework by focusing on works by very interesting filmmakers which are related to the field of installations.” 

“It brought together four filmmakers we admire making work that went outside the traditional theatre,” Rebordinos added. “Jia Zhang-ke is one of the world’s most important and consolidated directors. Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese represents the hope of a quality African cinema that transcends its continent. Isaki Lacuesta has won the San Sebastian Gold Shell twice and is one of the Spanish directors whose work we follow with interest. Finally, Dea Kulumbegashvili, won the Gold Shell in 2020 with her first feature film “Beginning” and we hope to support the future of European cinema,” he concluded.