Vying for the top Gold Shell at the 70th San Sebastian Film Festival, Basque native Mikel Gurrea’s debut feature “Suro” stems from Gurrea’s experience working in the cork forests north of Catalonia. He had just finished his studies and was at a loss when his then girlfriend’s parents suggested he work in the forests where they stripped cork from the trees. “I discovered a fascinating world that stayed with me; the work is tough but you’re in the middle of nature,” he said. “It was also a good workout!” he added.
“Suro” revolves around a young couple, Helena and Ivan, who decide to leave Barcelona and start anew on the land that Helena has inherited. Ivan takes it upon himself to join the workers and learn how to strip the bark from the cork trees that now belong to them. But their contrasting viewpoints will jeopardize their future as a couple, the film broadening its sweep to examine modern-day capitalism and the rights to private property.
Before making the taut drama, Gurrea had made a number of shorts and in all of them, including “Suro,” he explores a recurring theme on identity, “in all its forms” and the ideas that shape one, in the end.
Set on pursuing a career in film, he pursued further studies at the London Film School. Fellow students included “Alcarràs” director Clara Simon.
“More than anything, I learned how to establish a sense of place at LFS,” Gurrea recalled, adding that he knew he wanted to direct ever since he was a boy. “My parents are film buffs and living in San Sebastian where the festival takes over the town year after year, was a huge influence on me growing up.”
He then delved deeper into the development of his feature at San Sebastián’s Ikusmira Berriak, where he partook in the six-week residency. It was here where he started workshops with his lead actor in “Suro,” Pol Lopez, an old friend. He emerged with a treatment, which he further developed with his producers and with the help of co-writer Francisco Kosterlitz who helped him polish the script and make it more cohesive.
Delayed a year by the pandemic, the shoot finally took place in the summer of 2021, where Gurrea worked with a mix of actors and non-pros, including the actual workers of the cork forest. The couple are played by Lopez (“The Replacement”) and Vicky Luengo (“Riot Police”). “We shot for 24 days on location in the height of summer, so the sweat is real,” he remarked. In order to prepare his cast, he worked on three levels, first with his actors who were given the script to work on. With his Moroccan non-pro, who plays a recent immigrant, Gurrea helped him create a memory, improvising without the script. “With the cork workers, we tapped the physicality of their work, improvising dialogue along the way,” Gurrea explained.
Gurrea is now developing several projects at once. “We’ll see which one takes off first,” he mused.
“Suro” has its world premiere on Sept. 19 at San Sebastian and will be released across Spain by A Contracorriente on Dec. 2. U.K.-based Reason8 Films handles international sales.
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