The well-connected director of Melbourne's La Mirada Film Festival knows how to make her event stand out from the crowd.
22 Mar 2011 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Rocio Garcia has a simple piece of advice for budding film festival directors: don't panic.

“I would advise them to try and see things with perspective because everything can seem like the end of the world,” says the founder of Melbourne's La Mirada Film Festival. “In our first year we were printing the program and some promotional postcards and the colour was slightly different to what I had envisaged and I was very upset at the time.”

Running from Thursday 14 to Tuesday 26 April at Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image, this year's installment of La Mirada, a festival dedicated to Spanish cinema and some related offshoots, is the fifth annual undertaking. Each year, laughs the enthusiastic Garcia, it gets both easier and harder. The event has more settled sponsors and support staff, for example, but at the same time she's intent on trying to do more. In a domestic cinema calendar crowded with niche festivals (the national Spanish Film Festival runs in May, for example), the only way to keep in touch is to move forward.

“When I had the idea and initially put it together, the one thing we wanted was not to just be another festival,” Garcia explains. “As much as I respect what everyone does, there are just so many festivals out there. We wanted to do something else and create a different experience.”

For La Mirada that means not only a program of more than 30 titles, but a commitment to recreating the communal cinema-going experience from Garcia's student days, when food and conversation about the film was part and parcel of a screening. Some of her favourite moments have been the discussions after a session in the festival bar, when an excited audience streams out of an unknown film that has captured their attention.

One of the features of Garcia's tenure has been the use of renowned guest curators. The most frequent, and thoughtful, is Pedro Almodovar, who Garcia befriended when she was a production assistant on the set of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988. Each year Almodovar contributes a small selection of titles, mixed between foundation stones of the Spanish cinema and offbeat reappraisals.

Other contributors have included Woody Allen and Penelope Cruz, and this year Ang Lee and Ken Loach have selected a favourite Spanish film to continue the international perspective. Garcia, however, doesn't announce what the film is, just the session time. She wants film-going to be a leap of faith, devoid of preconceptions or online enquiries in advance.

This year she has made an exception, when both Almodovar and another guest curator, one of the filmmaker's favourite actors, Antonio Banderas, independently selected the revered 1953 satire, Welcome Mr. Marshall (pictured).

“I was annoyed, not surprised,” sighs Garcia. “It's happened before with Pedro and this year again he said he'd happily choose another one, but I said enough of that, this is one of the most important films in Spanish cinema. I'm surprised that no-one had chosen it, it's an iconic film. So we announced it.”

While her connections to Spain's moviemaking fraternity run deep, Garcia has been a resident of Australia for approximately 12 years now, having met the Australian band You Am I in Madrid, where she was teaching philosophy and promoting gigs on the side, and subsequently moved here to be with her now former husband, frontman Tim Rogers.

La Mirada is her way of introducing Spanish culture to Australia, and the festival's audience has been receptive, allowing a widening of the event's cultural reach. 2011's other guest curator, Guillermo Del Toro, has programmed a retrospective of cult Mexican cinema

“He's the perfect person to do it. He's recorded a video message for the audience that is so spot on,” Garcia declares. “It's an unknown side of Mexican cinema, but at the same time it's very representative of what Mexico is. You can tell from a very warped mind and it will be very interesting to see the whole series.”

Del Toro put together Mexico Bizarro for Garcia after his initial suggestion for 2010's season proved unobtainable because the Spanish sales agent set an unreasonably high screening fee on it. La Mirada has been able to overcome most obstacles along the way – even getting new 35mm prints struck and English subtitles added to a pair of vintage releases in 2010 – but there are rare times they are out-bid or simply can't find what they're looking for in an archive.

This year, for example, Garcia had her heart set on opening the festival with Gustavo Taretto's Medianeras (pictured), a feature length version of her favourite ever Spanish short, which she had screened at an earlier La Mirada. She pursued the director, the producer and the sales agent, but couldn't get a definitive answer. With the crucial deadline for printing the program looming, she made two versions – one with Medianeras on opening night, one without.

The night prior to printing she stayed up, waiting for a phone call from Spain. Finally the producer pledged Medianeras to La Mirada. And she hadn't panicked.