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San Sebastian’s Tabakalera: From Tobacco Factory to World-Class Cultural Hub

·3 min read

Standing tall by the Urumea river, the imposing Tabakalera International Contemporary Cultural Center dominates the skyline of San Sebastian. It is home to the Spanish-speaking world’s most prominent film festival, now celebrating its 69th year, and to other key cultural institutions, including the post-graduate film school Elias Querejeta Zine Eskola (EQZE) and the Filmoteca Vasca (Basque Film Archives). Built in 1913, the former tobacco factory is one of many that were raised across the country when Spain monopolized its domestic tobacco trade. For 90 years, it was a state-owned factory where more than a thousand people toiled, most of them women.

Since the refurbished Tabakalera opened in 2015, it has become a cultural hub for the Basque region, with an increasingly international profile as its festival and the film school, founded in 2017, attract a host of filmmakers, film students and professionals from around the world. Since Sept. 13, 30 women and 15 men from more than a dozen countries including Spain, Argentina, Chile, Croatia, France, the U.S. and Japan have begun their bi-lingual courses for the 2021-2022 academic year, which includes a deep involvement with the festival that encompasses screenings, workshops, master classes and observing the inner workings of the world-class event. According to EQZE director, Carlos Muguiro, the school offers three post-graduate programs: Film Preservation, Film Curating and Filmmaking. “In effect, we cover three tenses: the past, the present and the future,” he says.

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“The fact that we are all under one roof allows us to better coordinate our activities and work in tandem towards our common objectives,” says San Sebastian Film Festival director, Jose Luis Rebordinos, adding that some festival activities like the competitive sidebar open to all formats, the Zabaltegi-Tabakalera, the NEST shorts competition, master classes and other events take place at the center. “The Zine Eskola is now on its fourth academic year and we expect it to spawn a new generation of filmmakers, particularly a new Basque cinema,” he added.

As a public space, the center’s year-round program of exhibits and cultural events lure thousands of local and international visitors. This year alone, the center has attracted half a million visitors since January.

Measuring 431,000 sq. ft. (40,000 sq. m.), it is so massive that there is still ample room to expand. “We’re still figuring out how to explore its many spaces but they are open to a slew of projects,” said Tabakalera cultural director, Clara Montero.

Its Filmoteca Vasca, run by Joxean Fernandez, is a precious resource for film students and researchers alike. In it are the original prints of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” which world premiered in San Sebastian in 1958 where it won the Silver Shell and, rumor has it, a non-commercial print of John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” as well as Luis Buñuel’s letters, among many other cinematic treasures.

Aside from featuring a restaurant and a digital gastronomy lab, LABe, run by the Basque Culinary Center, and a hotel which also houses the film students enrolled in the Ikusmira Berriak Residency Program, the Tabakalera boasts three screens, one especially equipped to project films in timeworn formats like 16mm or Super 8. Its Medialab is both a technology and digital culture lab that offer offers a wealth of resources, including equipment that is loaned out.

Since January 2020, the center launched its Spoken Cinema focus, open to the public, where filmmakers share and discuss the intricate process behind the making of their films, from its development to post.

“We have three fundamental objectives: to create a grand public space open to everyone, to champion creativity and to create an ecosystem where we all work together in the service of creativity and to bring art closer to the people,” says Montero.

Tabakalera building
Tabakalera building

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