Spanish Film Festival director Natalia Ortiz has snagged some big fish for this year's event. 
4 May 2010 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

If you have ever been fortunate enough to partake in a banquet of fine Spanish food, you will know that it is the hostess who plays the most important role in the boisterous festivities. Having sought and prepared a vast array of rich and varied delicacies, the hostess will ensure your glasses are full of Sangria and the spirited sense of community that is integral to Spanish culture is in abundance.

The hostess responsible for the cinematic smorgasbord that is the Spanish Film Festival is festival director Natalia Ortiz, and she is determined to ensure her guests – the thousands of filmgoers who visit her party in five capital cities throughout the month of May – have their fill of the best in Spanish and Latin American cinema.

“I sit through most of the films, when I can, just listening to people laughing or crying or just commenting 'What a great film', or hearing 'Wow, I did not know Spain made such great films'” says the vibrant Ortiz. She cites audience appreciation and engagement as the only true barometer of the success of her program. “We used to have a couple from Canberra who would take a week's holiday just so that they could come to Sydney and attend the festival. I invited them to the opening night of the first Canberra festival last year, after promising I would bring the festival to them!”

Ortiz says she loves the directness of Spanish cinema. “Culturally, [Spaniards] are very straightforward. There is no 'could you'/'would you'/'should we' about us. It is what I like about our writers and directors, on any topics, be it politics or sexuality or spirituality,” she says. “Especially when we show [the films] in another country, [where audiences] might be more delicate to such matters. Spanish cinema is very liberated on matters such as sexuality and spirituality.”

But Ortiz is also pragmatic about her homeland's cinematic weaknesses. She is not so parochial as to overlook the gratuitous use of sex and language in Spanish cinema (“I used to make the joke that if you walked in on any film and saw sex or heard bad language in the first five minutes, you knew it was a Spanish film”) and is the first to admit that male attitudes still dominate much of Spanish and Latin American film output (“Whether we like it or not, Spanish cinema is still a little bit macho.”)

It was her observations on the latter that led Ortiz to create a 2010 Festival sidebar called 'All By Women', to focus on the extraordinary talents of female film directors from the region. In programming the section, Ortiz and her team found a deep resonance in the films submitted. “There is a certain sensibility there, an emotional way of dealing with things that distinguish men from women, rightly or wrongly, that adds to the richness of [the selected] films,” she muses.

“We didn't choose a theme [for this focus], we just asked 'What are the women directors directing?' and we found films about immigration, death; films that were comedies, thrillers, documentaries.” The highlight of the 'All By Women' section will be the Australian premiere of Claudia Llosa's Oscar-nominated The Milk of Sorrow, a Spanish-Peruvian co-production that won the Golden Bear at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival.

Programming the main 'Contemporary Films' section is a complex endeavour, and Ortiz stresses that it's a team effort to pull off. She has worked on developing the Festival's status as a player on the international circuit: “This year, there have been so many films [from Spain and Latin America] that have been released internationally...well, if I could find the 'big fish' like the international festivals do and get four, five or six big-timers, that would be good.” Her face beams with pride as she grins and says, “We got 14.”

The picks of Ortiz's contemporary film program include Borja Corbeaga's romantic comedy Friends Zone, which will open the Festival; Javier Ruiz Caldera's broad send-up, Spanish Movie; Alberto Rodriguez's sultry exploration of adult relationships, After; and the closing night film, Alejandro Amenabar's multi-million dollar historical epic Agora, which stars Rachel Weisz as the philosopher Hypatia. Julio Medem's Room In Rome, a physically and emotionally graphic lesbian love story, is sure to be a media- and audience-favourite. For Ortiz, the film is powerful drama (“It is about more than a sexual connection; it is about a feminine connection, a unique vulnerability”), though its headline-grabbing frankness will guarantee the Festival mainstream media exposure.

Ortiz understands very clearly the demographic contradictions inherent in programming the festival. “The majority of our audience is Aussie, who we love; those who are interested in international cinema, the same audience that goes to the French or German or Italian festivals,” she smiles. Ironically, it is in programming for Australia's Spanish community that Ortiz finds to be the most challenging. “There is the younger demographic who still speak Spanish but who are very integrated into Australian culture, and who are very savvy and expect to see the very latest films from Spain. And we are programming for the kids this year too, though many of them don't even speak Spanish, but we want them to experience their language in films”. Catering to los niños pequeños will be the 3D adventure Magic Journey to Africa and the winner of the 2009 Best Animated Film Goya award, The Missing Link.

Ortiz feels the most responsibility for the Spaniards who embraced the immigrant experience many decades ago. “I go to the cinemas every day to stay in touch with this [older] audience. They complain that they don't understand [Spain's] cinema anymore. They don't understand the slang, or the political stories that they do not follow. There is a huge generation gap.” It is one of the main reasons that Ortiz goes to great lengths to program detailed retrospectives of Spanish industry greats, such as Luis Bunuel in 2009 and, this year, Fernando Trueba. His Oscar-winning 1994 romance Belle Epoque will enjoy a rare public screening, along with Calle 54 (2000), The Girl of your Dreams (1998) and the premiere of his latest film, The Dancer and the Thief (2009), Spain's official entrant in the 2009 Foreign Film Oscar race.

With 44 films in the 2010 Spanish Film Festival, including four from the little-seen filmmaking industry of Columbia (“It is an emerging industry, small but healthy, and our selection of Colombian films breaks the stereotypes that all films from the region are political”, say Ortiz), mounting the operation has been exhausting. When the festival responsibilities peter out sometime in mid-June, Natalia Ortiz knows what to expect. “I usually get sick!” she laughs. But she is clear of the importance of the Festival to both local audiences and the Spanish people of her homeland – in 2009, the Spanish government declared the Festival the most important Spanish cultural event on the Australian calendar, and awarded Natalia Ortiz the prestigious Orden de Isabel la Catolica, the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a civilian. It was a humbling experience for the Festival Director.

“After so many years, I was thinking 'How about a bunch of flowers or a gold pen'?” she says with a laugh. “Then...from nothing to the very top! [But] we were in the middle of the Festival so I just filed the letter under 'to be read later'. Then when I got a sense of the importance of the award I just went 'Oh my God...'”. It gave Natalia Ortiz a shot in the arm on the eve of the 13th edition of the Festival. “I figured I won't be rich but at least I will be dame!”