The year-to-year growth of the Spanish Film Festival has marked it as one of the most successful cultural events on the Australian film calendar. Since it debuted 14 years ago, the 11-day event has become a showpiece for the Spanish-speaking community; Spain's Ambassador to Australia, H.E. Carlos Sánchez de Boada y de la Válgoma, says the event offers “a realistic image of contemporary Spain as a country with a vibrant film industry.”
For festival director and founder Natalia Ortiz, the momentum of the festival gets more daunting every year. “I need to get more people working for me!” she says with a laugh, as the Opening Night festivities near. “Next year, I need get back some control. The festival is growing so dramatically, I need to sit down and figure out what components are working, what are not.” To date, most of the Festival's components seem to be working just fine – 36 films will be screened at the Sydney and Melbourne events, with 'Best Of...' programs touring Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth.
In addition to the Australian dates, Ortiz will launch the inaugural New Zealand leg of the Spanish Film Festival, running over eight days in Auckland. “I set out to screen in New Zealand the same time as Australia, thinking 'Oh, it's just next door',” she recalls. “But suddenly, in the midst of all the preparation, I realised it's not 'just next door' – it's another country! Also, it is just starting up, so the energy, the programming, the audiences are all very different to the established Australian festival.” But the long days spent preparing the New Zealand event seems to be paying off. “We haven't even opened yet and they are already asking us to take the festival to other cities.”
The 2011 Cine Contemporaneo strand is highlighted by some particularly challenging works. This year's Opening Night film is Alex de la Iglesia's macabre carnival-themed love story The Last Circus (aka The Sad Trumpet Ballad, pictured above), an indication that Ortiz is determined not to simply settle for the crowd-pleasing romantic comedies that have kicked off the Festival in past years (Borja Cobeaga's Friend Zone, akaPatafangas, last year; Nacho Velilla's Chef's Special in 2009). Other films certain to leave festival goers reeling include Catalan director Jo Sol's provocative documentary Fake Orgasm; Miguel Angel Vivas brutal home-invasion thriller Kidnapped; Gillem Morales' horror tale Julia's Eyes (in the Closing Night slot); and, Augusti Villaronga's Black Bread, the confronting coming-of-age story set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, which swept the 2010 Goya awards.
Director Anchero Manas will be on hand to field some probing questions that will likely stem from screenings of Anything You Want, his father-daughter weepie that seems destined to divide critics and audiences alike with its bold take on gender, parenthood and masculinity. Other festival guests include Tono Errando (co-director of Chico & Rita) and Australian writer/producer Rohan Jones (the soccer-themed Venezuelan film, Hermano), will participate in Q&A sessions with audiences.
“Passion and challenge are just part of our cinema and our storytelling, just as it is part of our lives,” says Ortiz.”So those sorts of films will always stand out.” She cites the animated Chico & Rita, (2010 festival guest) Fernando Trueba's Havana-set, jazz-infused love story, as the film she most hopes Australian audiences will warm to. “I am hoping for a very positive response to Chico & Rita, because it is an exceptional film. People don't expect good animation to come from Spain, although we are one of the world leaders.” Further proof of that is Antonio Zurera's hit The Adventures of Don Quixote, this year's sole programming choice for the Cine kids strand.
In a departure to recent years, Ortiz opted against programming a genre sidebar, or a country-specific spotlight in the program (such as 2010's focus on Colombian cinema). This year, Ortiz felt a shift in thinking was required. “About a year out from the Festival, I make a wish list and I usually end up with about 85 percent of what I want. It is true that this year I do not have any section, like Musica Viva or last year's All By Women, but I found that this year the program was so strong, I thought 'Natalia, just step back and let it be' .”
The result is one of the most wide-ranging Cine en Espanol strands yet, with films from Chile (Matias Bize's The Life of Fish; Patrizio Guzman's Nostalgia for the Light), Argentina (Anahi Berneri's It's Your Fault; Pablo Trapero's Carancho; Diego Lerman's The Invisible Eye), Bolivia (Juan Carlos Valdivia's Southern District), Peru (the Vidal brothers' October), Mexico (Australian Michael Rowe's sexually explicit drama Leap Year) and the stunning The Colours of the Mountain, a co-production between Panama and Colombia.
“Spain has always done a lot of co-productions, most often with the countries of Latin America, obviously,” states Ortiz. “This year, almost half our programming belongs to (Latin American) films in Spanish. I've tried to direct the audience in the past; that's why I've had a focus on a particular country.
“There are so many strong films from so many countries this year, it wouldn't have been fair to single one industry out. Cine en Espanol is a strand about quality. I will let the audience decide.”
After 14 years, Natalia Ortiz finds immense satisfaction in the new life she can afford the films of her homeland (she returns annually). “Spanish audiences tend to be quite critical of their cinema, just as it happens a lot with Australian audiences and their cinema and their industry, I think,” she opines. “We are a little bit more hard to please when we see films in Spain; I see [them] with my friends.” The opportunity to provide new exposure for Spanish filmmakers is one of the many factors that makes programming for Australian audiences so challenging and, when it works, so rewarding. “Spanish films can be very narrow in their focus and have cultural references that may not be all that clear in Australia or New Zealand. It is the most interesting part of programming a Festival; going to the sessions and seeing how audiences react to the films you've chosen.”
When asked about the 15th anniversary edition of the festival in 2012, Natalia Ortiz beams with enthusiasm for the party atmosphere she is already planning. With this month's launch duties in full-swing, her focus is still very much on the 2011 edition and she won't be drawn on her celebratory vision for next year, though she does promise “Something big...”. Given her ambitious drive and the scale of what she has achieved with the Spanish Film Festival to date, the possibilities are endless.
The Spanish Film Festival runs from 11-29 May. See the website for more details.