“A wonderful ghetto”. Discovering the section Cinema Made by Women at the San Sebastian International Film Festival (1978) through the press
Historiak, 4 
Round table in the section "Cinema made by women". From left to right: Herta Álvarez, Giuliana Berlinguer, Mirentxu Loyarte, Pilar Miró, Cecilia Bartolomé, Márta Mészáros, Larisa Shepitko and her interpreter. (Foto Gallego, 1978). Kutxateka

The Transition to Democracy in Spain was a period of major changes in the political, social and cultural areas. Not surprisingly, the San Sebastian Festival, which was born in 1953, also underwent some transformations at the time. This wave of renewal reached the Festival in 1976 and took the form of new sections, activities and proposals.  

In 1978, as a result of these changes, the section “Ciclo de Cine Dirigido por Mujeres” (Film Series Directed by Women) was set up. The members of the Women’s Assembly of San Sebastian proposed and organised the section.[1] Although most of its members were not specialists in feminist cinema, they had a great interest in disseminating their ideals, seeing them reflected in films that they only knew about sometimes through specialised magazines. With the aim of organising a section that would make it possible to disseminate their feminist agenda, they stared to contact women who were active in the film world in other countries and set up a network that helped them create a programme based on their interests and concerns. The San Sebastian Festival picked up the gauntlet and offered them its support. The section consisted of 25 films made in the 1960s and 1970s by filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman, Cecilia Bartolomé, Giuliana Berlinguer, Anja Breien, Liliana Cavani, Věra Chytilová, Liliane de Kermadec, Paula Delsol, Marguerite Duras, Giovanna Gagliardo, Nelly Kaplan, Gunnel Lindblom, Mirentxu Loyarte, Márta Mészáros, Pilar Miró, Yuli Raizman, Marie-Geneviève Ripeau, Helke Sander, Coline Serreau, Larisa Shepitko, Helena Solberg-Ladd and Agnès Varda, some of whom were present in Donostia during the Festival. As well as the film series screenings there were other activities such as talks, encounters and debates. Some of these propositions that accompanied the feminist cinema section, together with others such as the creation of a crèche, were novelties for the Festival. Most of the screenings took place in the old Savoy cinema in the neighbourhood of Gros.

Round table in the section "Cinema made by women". From left to right: Herta Álvarez, Giuliana Berlinguer, Mirentxu Loyarte, Pilar Miró, Cecilia Bartolomé, Márta Mészáros, Larisa Shepitko and her interpreter. (Foto Gallego, 1978). Kutxateka

Seeing the reception given to the Film Series Directed by Women in the press in 1978 allows us to contextualise the reactions it created.[2] In an in-depth examination of the press archives of the San Sebastian Festival, we looked at the local media and the Basque editions of national papers that reported on this new section, such as DeiaEginEl Diario VascoLa Gaceta del NorteLa voz de España and Unidad. At the national level we found articles by AjoblancoAvuiBlanco y negroBoletín del Secretariado Nacional de la Comisión Episcopal de Medios de Comunicación SocialCambio 16ChissCinema 2002, Diario 16El AlcázarEl Diario de LeónFotogramasLa CalleLa Hoja del LunesLa VanguardiaLa voz de GaliciaNuevo LPPantallas y EspectáculosReseñaSábado GráficoTriunfoVida nuevaYa and Yes. The Festival archive also features reviews by international media such as ANSA (Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata)ClarínCorriere della SeraDer TagesspiegelFilm FrançaisFilmFrankfurt Aligemeine ZeitungIl MattinoIl tempoJeune CinemaLa Depeche du MidiL’unitàPese SeraScreen InternationalThe Sunday Times and Variety, which have also been examined. True, the series was covered more extensively at the local level, but the follow-up it received in national and international newspapers and magazines was considerable. Both the specialised and the general press reported on the section through articles on the section’s programme, news items, interviews, opinion columns and photographs.

The 1978 edition of the San Sebastian Festival was strongly criticised by the accredited media. They did not like the selection of films, although the feminist cinema programme generally received positive reviews. Indeed, within the framework of articles that were very critical of other sections of the Festival, there are a few lines dedicated to this section, with a special mention of its good organization. When assessing the Festival the specialised press mainly focused on technical faults that occurred during screenings, and it also criticised the programming of some films because they had been seen in other festivals that same year, as well as an excessive number of parallel sections. This is the case of Pantallas y Espectáculos, in which Pascual Cebollada, a well-known critic close to Franco’s regime, said:

A majority of bad films in the main sections, too many titles on the programme, which was not well structured; deficient organisation, a lack of public relations, a market without transactions, discrimination against the press, which participated much less than in other years; a scarcity of famous figures… even in what seems to have gone off well, the ‘films directed by women’ section, there were faults.[3]

Other specialised publications, such as Fotogramas, praised the organisation of Films Directed by Women. Maruja Torres, one of the journalists who covered the section for this magazine, pointed out that:

The best section in the Festival, at least the best organised, was Cine Realizado por Mujeres. It was not organised by the ‘infernal trio’ but by feminists, who did everything they could to try and please people, and they certainly did that.[4]

Press dossier P.1978.ESP.A-Z, San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive
Press dossier P.1978.ESP.A-Z, San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive

Some media challenged the idea of creating a feminist cinema section and questioned the existence of other women’s sections in international festivals, and the public debate focused on the pros and contras of the existence of a specific series of films directed by women. Some of the criticisms aimed at the section were particularly insolent, such as the one published in the monthly magazine Cinema 2002

One, who is more feminine than feminist, does not really understand these films very well, in which a women emerges as the navel of the world, in which she is both a source and an object at the same time. Feminist cinema is a label, a kind of chastity belt that will relegate her status to cinematographic pre-history that will be difficult to escape from as the years go by. One, who prefers Howard Hawks’ women to those who take over power, does not really understand this inferiority complex that characterises most of the films made by women. This translates into a Manicheanism in which men are bad and they are the wretches, where the man is a wolf and they are Little Riding Hood. But no, they don’t want to go to bed with the wolves from the steppes, just those with big biceps, hard pectorals and enormous tails.[5]

This is an example that highlights the power of male critics, whose discourse is authorised by its dissemination in the media of a society that supported this kind of thinking. Feminism was clearly seen as a threat to a series of acquired privileges, so it was a movement that should be discredited and even made to appear ridiculous, as happens in other publications that refer to this kind of activism.[6] Then there is the sexual rhetoric that is used in cases like this, which offers a very specific vision of the relationship between the sexes.

Many of the texts published in the press expressed an androcentric perspective, i.e. a vision focused on the male point of view. One of the most common manifestations of this was accompanying the names of the women filmmakers with those of their partners, inferring that the importance of their careers as filmmakers was linked to the recognition they obtained through their relationship with their partner, taking credit away from the women directors. There were many forms: from mentioning a women director as “the wife of” to asking them in interviews if “their husbands” had influenced them. We can see this reflected in the same article, which also picks up on words by María Mészáros in the presentation of her films.[7] In the press conference the Hungarian director was asked about the weight “her husband” [Miklós Jancsó] had in her career, to which Mészáros responded: “[…] he is interested in the symbolic, political style, while men and their attitudes are, above all, at the heart of my stories”.[8]

Furthermore, if we briefly explore the editorial tendences of some of the media that covered the Women’s Film Series —and bearing in mind that it is not always easy to place newspapers and their journalists in one or other ideological tendency due to the confluences that were typical of the Transition to Democracy— we see that conservative newspapers refer to the feminist cinema section without going into too much detail.  

Surprisingly, however, media such as La Voz de España, of Francoist origin, interviewed some of the women filmmakers in the series such as Cecilia Bartolomé, one of the first three women to officially qualify as a film director in Spain.[9] The interview, by the journalist Almudena Santos, included questions on the role of women as film directors and the celebration of spaces to exhibit feminism such as a series of this kind: 

Almudena Santos [AS]: How many women in Spain work as film directors?  

Cecilia Bartolomé [CB]: I don’t know, because there are films made by women that do not get distributed through the usual channels. That is where the  multinationals who show them commercially come in: in other marginal channels many are not known and their work is only distributed by neighbourhood or residents associations, etc. That is why it is not possible to give a figure, not even an approximate one.

AS: What do you think of the Films by Women section? 

CB: On one hand it seems very interesting, but on the other I think it represents a certain marginalisation because, for example, Vámonos, Bárbara should be shown in the New Creators section, as it is my first feature film. I also think that New Creators, Expression of Culture of Nationalities -together with Cinema  by Women- are rather marginalised by the media. As for what it represents, in terms of getting to know what women directors are doing in both Spain and abroad, it seems very positive to me.[10]

Press dossier P.1978.DSS-E-L, San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive

The intention of this article to praise the feminist cinema section is clear, both by creating a space in which filmmakers can find and get to know each other and by being the only place where some of these directors could exhibit their work. 

Other conservative media such as El Diario Vasco published information that could be considered contrary to the newspaper’s editorial line. On 10 September 1978 it published a news item that described, in a detailed manner and using neutral journalistic language, the press conference in which the Women’s Assembly of Donostia-San Sebastián presented the series.[11] Nevertheless, five days later the paper made fun of the directors and tried to tell them how to do their job in article titled “A la rueda, rueda”[12] by the film critic Alfonso Sánchez: 

Bla, bla, bla… goodness me, these women talk so much. Women should not do one or another type of film, but just good films. […] Cecilia Bartolomé, naïve young thing, says: “In Spain it is still something exotic for a women to direct a film”. Well, they have had time to get used to it. Back in 1931 a woman, Rosario Pí, made a film called El gato montés.[13]  

There were also progressive media that covered the feminist section in the San Sebastian Festival. A good example is Diario 16, a symbol of the Transition to Democracy, in which the journalist Sol Fuertes covered the series with a section titled “a wonderful ghetto”, as a response to some the accusations made about the series mentioned above.[14]  

In contrast, media such as Triunfo, a weekly opposed to the regime, did not have good words for the section. In one of the articles on it, Diego Galán said that “any classification in series always means pressure on the films”.[15] While the majority of the progressive media were not against the ideals of feminism, they did criticise the organisation of the section as a ‘space for segregation’, without bearing in mind that the women directors in the series would not have been able to present their work in the San Sebastian Festival otherwise. 

In the case of the pro-independence Left newspaper Egin, as in the conservative press, some articles portrayed the feminist cinema section from both a positive and negative angle. On most of the occasions in which it referred to the series, Egin was favourable and did make too many negative statements about the feminist movement. This newspaper also published the Festival’s reply to the criticism mentioned above:  

The Films Directed by Women series was a prime target for many people this year. A large majority used terms like ‘separatist’, ‘ghetto’, ‘closed circle’ and ‘completely absurd’. For others, the decision to have a section of Films by Women was perfectly understandable and was not surprising at all; indeed, if they accepted other kinds of sections without any misgivings, it was quite normal that one dedicated to women directors should exist. [El Ciclo de Cine Dirigido por Mujeres] aroused interest and the public saw the feature films and the press conferences […] women working in the film world explained their views on filmmaking in general and presented a series of approaches that could address women’s specific problems. Therefore, the series, which seemed to bother a lot of people initially, ended up being a worthy section like any other, with a few specific features and problems.[16]

 As for the criticisms, Egin also agreed with the defence of the section by the Festival. In a press conference,  Mariano Larrandia explained that it was “precisely requested by a group of women from San Sebastian […] and [one that] many international festivals included in their programming”.[17]

To finish, we could say that the Ciclo de Cine Dirigido por Mujeres was a ground-breaking initiative, a consequence of the social and political changes of the time. Understanding the reactions in the press also helps us to interpret the society of the time and the turbulent period through which it was living. The opinions of the media about the feminist series were of three types: those against the section, those that considered films made by women to be interesting but considered the series as a discriminatory space, and those that defended it as something necessary and gave it their full support. Perhaps surprisingly, both conservative and progressive newspapers expressed themselves along these three lines. There was not, as could be expected, a clear ideological stance based on the tendency of each medium, rather a combination of ideas as a result of the progressive atmosphere and the rupture we mentioned above

The following year, 1979, the Women’s Assembly of Donostia proposed continuing with the series, but the San Sebastian Festival said it did not have the funds. It is likely that not giving continuity to this section led to people forgetting about it, despite it being the first public feminist expression of an institutional nature after the dictatorship, both in Euskadi and in Spain in general, and its considerable coverage by the media.

Through the Ciclo de Cine Dirigido por Mujeres, the Women’s Assembly of Donostia helped to popularise feminism through films and reached out to an audience that had not been able to access this kind of cultural expression of a feminist nature. It is an example of the role that culture plays as a political force, as the series raised a number of themes that started to be debated in society such as the right to abortion, divorce or work and, obviously, the role that women should play both on and off the screen. 

Putting this little-known experience back in the limelight is a way of countering the ‘invisibilization’ that this and other feminist artistic practices have suffered for a long time in the field of culture, and cinema in particular. We hope that this will be another step forwards in the recovery of this pioneering project. 

[1] The feminist activists who founded the Women’s Assembly of Donostia in 1977 were linked to the anti-Franco Left and also took part in other groups such as local resident associations, which were important political spaces during the Transition to Democracy. The book by Carmen Diez Mintegui, Miren Garmendia Etchenique and Begoña Gorospe Pascual on their participation in the feminist movement is a must-read: Crónica de los primeros años del movimiento feminista en Donostia (1976-1982) (Donostia: Auto-ed., 2022).

[2] This study started in 2018, when the author was studying the Master’s course in Film and Audiovisual Curation in Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola (EQZE) and joined the first team in the research group Zinemaldia 70: All Possible Histories. As a result of the study of the press archive of the Festival, the researcher made an initial approach to the ‘Directed by Women’ Film Series in her Master’s thesis in Social Communication at the University of the Basque Country: Neus Sabaté-Barrieras, “De la asamblea a la pantalla: un acercamiento al primer Ciclo de Cine Dirigido por Mujeres del Festival de San Sebastián de 1978″ (Trabajo de fin de máster, Universidad del País Vasco/ Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, 2021). The author continues to work on this study, funded by AGAUR (2022 FI_B 00131), in the Communication Studies Department of Universitat Rovira i Virgili.

[3] Pascual Cebollada, “La concha de oro, para la película norteamericana ‘El Alambrista’ de Robert Young”, Pantallas y Espectáculos, August-September-October 1978.

[4] Maruja Torres, “San Sebastián 78: Un sabor a ceniza”, Fotogramas, 29 September 1978. The journalist refers to the ‘infernal trio’, i.e. the three directors on the Selection Committee of the Festival: Néstor Basterretxea, Rafael Modrego and Mariano Larrandia.

[5] Manuel Hidalgo & Juan Hernández Les, “El segundo año de la Transición”, Cinema 2002, November 1978.

[6] Ainara Larrondo, “La representación pública del movimiento de liberación de la mujer en la prensa diaria española (1975-1979)”. Historia Contemporánea, no. 39 (2010): 627-655.

[7] As well as showing two feature films in the Ciclo de Cine Dirigido por Mujeres, Márta Mészáros also competed in the Official Section with the film Olyan mint otthon/Como en casa (1978), with which she won the Silver Shell.

[8] Cit. in Manuel Hidalgo and Juan Hernández Les, “El segundo año”, Cinema 2002, November 1978. 

[9] Cecilia Bartolomé, Pilar Miró and Josefina Molina were the first three women who graduated in film direction from the Official Cinematography School. For more information on this institution, we recommend the article by Sonia García López titled “Miradas invisibles: mujeres en la Escuela Oficial de Cinematografía, 1947-1976”. Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, 22.3 (2021): 311-329, and the publication by Luis Deltell Escolar titled  “La mujer como sujeto: Josefina Molina en la escuela oficial de cine”. UNED Revista Signa, no. 24 (2015): 293-306.

[10] Almudena Santos, “Cecilia Bartolomé: ‘En España todavía es exótico que una mujer dirija cine'”, La voz de España, 14 September 1978.

[11] “Cine realizado por mujeres. Se desea ofrecer traducción simultánea”, El Diario Vasco, 10 September 1978.

[12] Translator’s note: A play on words that cannot be directly translated into Spanish. The meaning is “Be bold, get out there and make your film”.

[13] Alfonso Sánchez, “A la rueda, rueda”, El Diario Vasco, 15 September 1978.

[14] Sol Fuertes, “Cecilia Bartolomé: ‘Tengo obsesión por la lógica'”, Diario 16, 31 October 1978.

[15] Diego Galán, “Un festival discutido”, Triunfo, 23 September 1978. Diego Galán was later Director of the San Sebastian Festival in two periods: 1986-1989 and 1995-2000.

[16] Asun Idoate & Iosu Sanz, “Preocupa el próximo Festival de San Sebastián”, Egin, 22 September 1978.

[17] “Ayer tuvo lugar una rueda de prensa del Comité Rector del Festival de Cine”, Egin, 7 September 1978. As mentioned above, at the time Mariano Larrandia was one of the three directors on the Selection Committee of the San Sebastian Festival. Analysing these declarations, it is clear that the Festival was aware of other spaces of feminist film programming at the international level.