In 2010, I wrote an article about the Palestinian Film Festival. That festival showcased the works of a fragile film industry that receives no government funding – a national cinema without a nation state – from mainly diasporic Palestinian directors. Likewise, the festival itself had no major government sponsorship and this was mirrored in the lack of publicity it received: I’m pretty sure I was the only writer in Melbourne covering it.

Cut to 2012 and the launch of this year’s Spanish Film Festival: there’s me sipping from goblets of sangria and stuffing my face full of delicate little pinxtos, surrounded by film critics. This festival, unlike the Palestinian and many other niche market offerings, has a lot of financial backing – you can literally taste it. Its major sponsor is the Catalonian pilsener Estrella Damm, and it receives government support from the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs in Spain, the Spanish Consulate in Sydney and Melbourne, and the Spanish Embassy. (Not to mention SBS TV and Radio, World Movies and Singapore Airlines.) All this money is both sign and symptom of the historical strength and recent popular success of Spain’s national cinema.

It opened in Melbourne on 5 July with the Australian premiere screening of the (massively) internationally successful As Luck Would Have It (La chispa de la vida), starring Salma Hayek and directed by Alex de la Iglesia. The festival also includes the bizarre, deeply depressing animation Wrinkles (Arragus), based on a graphic novel about two men in a nursing home. In this, its  fifteenth year, though, the festival is especially keen to display Spanish-language co-productions, allowing it to cherry-pick an impressive range of the best works from Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Colombia.

A standout film in this group is Chinese Take-Away (Un Cuento Chino) – an odd-couple tale from Argentinian director Sebastián Borensztein, set in Buenos Aires. In it, the beautiful, sad-eyed Ricardo Darin plays Roberto, a reclusive hardware store owner who reluctantly takes in a young Chinese man, Jun, played by Ignacio Huang, who is searching for his family but doesn’t speak a word of Spanish. Though infused with the cutesy, quirky atmospherics synonymous with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and, to a lesser extent, Michel Gondry, Chinese Take-Away does not feel derivative: this is a familiar but wholly engaging film. And, judging from the yelping snorts of laughter that came from my friend, I can honestly say that it has one of the best opening scenes of any film in recent memory.

Far more anachronistic is the closing night film, Sleep Tight (Mientras Duermes), a purported ‘white-knuckle’ thriller from Spanish director Jaume Balagueró. Cesar, played by Luis Tosar, is a concierge in Barcelona, dedicated to making those around him as wretchedly unhappy as he is. Using various means of psychological, and some physical, torture, Cesar tries to systematically wreck the lives of those living in the apartment block, especially a beautiful, spritely young woman named Clara (Marta Etura). But the Jarlsberg-like holes in the plot make it impossible to believe, even temporarily, in the world of this film. Suspenseful? Scary? Not really. At best, this is entertaining silliness: as far ‘thrills’ go, I’ve been startled more by dogs barking behind fences than I was watching Sleep Tight.

But this diversity of film styles and genres, with degrees of individual successes and failures, is also, paradoxically, the backbone of a strong film festival: variety increases the breadth of a festival’s potential audience share. This year alone in Melbourne there are at least ten region-specific film festivals: the Indian Film Festival, Audi Festival of German Films, the Japanese Film Festival, Lavazza Italian Film Festival, Fantastic Asia Film Festival, AICE Israeli Film Festival, the Korean Film Festival, the Arab Film Festival, African Film Festival and the Hola Mexican Film Festival.

In Australia, but especially Melbourne, a festival’s ability to procure first screening rights and to mix these offerings with more genre-based films that are also hard to find can mark it out from the crowd. The Spanish Film Festival is a particularly savvy example of this in action – banking on Salma Hayek as the opening night drawcard, it’s dotted throughout with Australian premieres, genre works and quirky co-productions. Thankfully, all those sponsorship dollars weren’t blown on sangria and pinxtos alone.

The Spanish Film Festival runs in Melbourne 5–15; in Sydney on 4–15 July; Brisbane 11–22 July; Adelaide 12–22; and Perth on 19–26 July.    

‘Palestinian “Reel Time”‘ appeared in Arena Magazine No. 110, February–March 2011.

Kate Harper is a Killings Film and TV columnist. She studied cinema at the University of Melbourne and now works as a freelance writer.