According to the RAE, honor is a moral quality. Therefore, it is understood that an honorary award is a way to give gifts to a brilliant professional career, but also a vital and personal one. The reality is that the three do not always coincide, as the controversial award to Johnny Depp at the San Sebastián festival has shown.
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The Donostia award is the most relevant in the contest that started this Friday. Before he was received by Bette Davis, Robert De Niro, Penelope Cruz, Glenn Close or Denzel Washington, faces known and admired by the general public. The American actor’s choice of Pirates of the Caribbean and Fantastic animals –Sagas from which he has been expelled– on the other hand, he has not been so applauded.
Depp was reported in 2016 by his ex-wife Amber Heard of physical abuse and sexual abuse. The actors reached a millionaire agreement in the divorce, but they still have a pending case in the United States after he denounced her for continuing to talk about the issue in the press.
The San Sebastián director’s justification is that “the function of a film festival is not to judge the conduct of members of the film industry” and that this award is the way to recognize the artist’s career. But what is true in that? Who decides who is awarded an honorary award, the highest distinction in the industry? What variables come into play in the selection? Did it have to be Johnny Depp?
The “perfect circle” (sometimes with checkbook)
“All programmers have a wish-list that we are leaving from year to year “, admits Mònica García Massagué, director of the Sitges fantastic film festival. It is tempting to think that all those who receive an honorary award were the first choice of the event committee and that the synergy is absolute. But the truth is that many factors influence the decision table, Massagué speaks of a kind of “perfect circle”.
“The brain of a programmer works in the following way: the more fame and presence, the more interviews, the more publicity of the event, more public, more budget and greater solvency in the face of the institutions that support you,” the director lists. Therefore, that the actor or director can attend the event is a condition sine qua non of all festivals.
“It makes no sense to reward someone who cannot go to collect the award, attend the media, be with the public or see the city where it is awarded”, shares Jaume Ripoll, director of Filmin and the Atlántida Film Fest festival , which is held in July in the city of Palma, in Mallorca.
It makes no sense to reward someone who cannot go to collect the award, attend the media, be with the public or see the city in which it is awarded.
– Director of Filmin and Atlántida Film Fest
This year, Atlántida has awarded the actress Judi Dench, but the British director Stephen Frears, a laureate in the last edition and who was prevented from catching a plane by Boris Johnson’s restrictions due to the pandemic, has also attended. Borja Crespo, artist and cultural critic who has participated in the organization of several film festivals, assumes that this factor has been key in the choice of Johnny Depp. The actor came to Donostia as a producer in 2020 with the documentary Crock of Gold: Drinking with Shane MacGowan. It would not be strange if failed the award already at that time.
“It is much more difficult to bring someone from the United States than from Europe. Sometimes it takes advantage of the fact that the person in question is doing promotion here to reserve a place for the festival,” reveals Crespo. Donosti will not be Johnny Depp’s first stop in our country or in a European neighbor this year, since in April he already went to the Barcelona Film Festival and in summer to Karlovy Vary, in the Czech Republic, both as a producer. “He gathers that he is not afraid to travel due to COVID, with which promotion is good for him,” summarizes the director of the Peñíscola International Film Festival.
We have talked about the cases in which the actor or director can go, not in which they want. And the latter does not always happen. “The criterion of who we like works, but much more of who accepts it,” says Crespo. In Peñíscola, the organizer recognizes that they had to pay the prize to make it more juicy. “We have come to pay many zeros to get the presence of an honorary award,” he reveals, and mentions Sophia Loren as an example. “I proposed some ideas and looked for someone who was powerful but who charged the minimum. I tried not to let all the money go out there, but deep down it is a market,” he says.
We have come to pay many zeros to get the presence of an honorary award. I was looking for someone who was powerful and charged the minimum, but at heart is a market.
– Director of the international film festival of Peñíscola
Crespo clarifies that the honorary award “with a check” is given more in small festivals. “One like Donosti or Sitges does not need it because the importance of the awards is enough,” he compares. In fact, Mónica Massagué guarantees that in Sitges “we don’t pay fee (fee) to anyone for ethical reasons. “But he also understands that,” the smaller the festival, the more economic barriers it has to achieve depending on what things. “There are festivals where movies ask for a few fees or an economic compensation to balance the part of the public that they lose by projecting it there, “he explains.
The trick of the red carpet
We see that there are many pieces to fit in addition to the brilliant career of the winner. With the honorary award, the festival plays “the trick of the red carpet”, as defined by Borja Crespo. “Honoring someone’s trajectory can offer the opportunity for an encounter between that person and their audience through a masterclass and, if possible, the presentation of one of his films to complete the circle of the award “, abounds Ripoll.
This last thing that the director of Atlántida Film Fest comments is one of the reasons why the winners in the Honor category are less and less veteran. This year, Donostia gives it to Johnny Depp (58 years old) and the French actress Marion Cotillard (45 years old). “I am more interested in quality than quantity,” acknowledges Massagué. In Sitges, she will award the actress Belén Rueda (56 years old) and the Japanese animation director Mamoru Hosoda (53 years old) in just a few weeks. The oldest of the honorifices is Carlos Saura (89 years old).
“It is becoming more and more difficult for there to be veteran stars known to the general public”, reasons Crespo. In addition, “this has been added to the fact that younger actors have an easier time moving through events during the pandemic.” Parity is another aspect that is increasingly being taken into account. “Unfortunately before much less, but now it is naturally penetrating the decision,” says the director of the Peñíscola festival.
Has San Sebastián skated?
Taking into account all of the above, has the strategy of the San Sebastián festival failed to award Johnny Depp? “We had a similar controversy in 2018 in Sitges when we gave the Honorary Award to Nicolas Cage,” recalls Mònica García Massagué. Just before going to the festival, the American actor was accused of sexual abuse by an ex-girlfriend, something that set the tone for his visit. “Cage found himself in the midst of a constant siege, but we were in the same position as Donosti: as long as there is no firm conviction, we are not the ones to judge,” says the director.
The same thing happened to us in 2018 in Sitges when we gave the Honorary Award to Nicolas Cage just after he received a complaint for sexual abuse. But we have to work with proven facts.
Monica Garcia Massagué
– Director of the Sitges Festival
Massagué points out that both San Sebastián and Sitges have a policy of “zero tolerance for abuse and rape”, but that they have to “work with proven facts.” The difference between the Catalan and the Basque festival is that the former was caught unexpectedly. “In an honorific you also judge the personal and vital trajectory, and many people think that Johnny Depp’s does not deserve any honor”, reflects the leader of Sitges.
There is then doubt that San Sebastián has confused honor with fame and has been involved in the consequences of a past decision. “I do not think that San Sebastián avoids being political and I have empirical data on it. I co-directed the closing gala of 2019, in which the Argentine documentary in favor of abortion won, and it was a very political ceremony,” defends Borja Crespo. “The politics of the festivals are made by the public and the films,” he acknowledges.
Regarding Depp’s controversy, he believes that “these things have to happen so that they do not happen again. As an organizer you have to fail to learn and unlearn.” with something like that, “he concludes.